That Drill Instructor Voice

Boot camp is a surreal environment. It’s three months of intense, life-altering training under the constant, watchful eyes of drill instructors. It’s hard to push a caricature of a drill instructor too far. The personalities of drill instructors brim with over-the-top intensity, that no matter how tough and mean I make them in my drawings, I seem to come up short.

Drill instructors have a certain kind of voice that can only come from yelling at recruits day-in and day-out. It’s low, gravelly, and forceful. The mere sound of it will straighten your spine in an instant.

For those who have ever been recruits or candidates, it doesn’t matter how much time passes; when a drill instructor tells you to do something, you do it.

Case in point: For a living I create logos for unit t-shirts. One of the units I’ve done work for has been Officer Candidates School for the Marine Corps. When I was first contacted and asked to come speak with the officer candidates, I wanted to make a good impression. I was told I was going to be meeting with the candidates on their square-away time after liberty formation. Knowing that the candidates would probably be in PT gear, I thought a tie would be too formal. I decided to go business casual–khakis, a polo shirt, and nice shoes. Also out of habit, I like to keep my hair short. Being that I would be in the presence of Marines and officer candidates, I thought a fresh haircut was in order.

I was enlisted when I was on active duty, so I wasn’t familiar with exactly how Officer Candidates School worked. For instance, officer candidates get liberty on the weekends whereas enlisted recruits do not. I didn’t know that when officer candidates go on liberty, they are supposed to look professional–you know–to make a good impression. On liberty the candidates all wear khakis, a polo shirt, and nice shoes.

I walked into the building where the meeting was, 15 minutes ahead of schedule. Punctuality means something different to Marines than it does to civilians. To civilians, being a little late isn’t a huge deal most of the time. To Marines, it’s literally criminal. Here my training served me well. The candidates were still in their accountability formation, but there was a small group of sergeant instructors (which is what they call drill instructors at OCS) gathered near the door. I strolled in thinking I was projecting a professional appearance, and even though I had been out of the Marines for years, I thought I was presenting myself in keeping with the high standards of the Marine Corps. To the sergeant instructors, however, I looked like an officer candidate casually strolling in from liberty…late.

The eyes of the first sergeant instructor to see me bulged out of his head. The chests of all of them puffed out as they started to circle. The closest one’s mouth fell agape and with that drill instructor voice he bellowed, “JUST WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE??!!!”

Now this was an honest mistake. I had inadvertently camouflaged myself as an officer candidate in the middle of a committing a grave error sure to invoke the wrath of a swarm of drill instructors. It could happen to anybody. The matter could be easily cleared up if I just politely mentioned that I was there to meet with the candidates about their t-shirt designs.

Here is where my training failed me. At the sound of that voice, my body didn’t want to respond politely. My body wanted to move to the position of attention. Immediately, briskly and involuntarily, I felt my heels clicking together as my thumbs moved along my trouser seams.

Then I caught myself. I wasn’t a recruit or a candidate, and assuming the position of attention would escalate rather than deescalate the situation as it would all but give the sergeant instructors permission to rip me a new one. That was the last thing (believe me the last thing) I wanted–not just that night, but probably since I left Parris Island. I managed to mutter something about being the t-shirt guy and the sergeant instructors disarmed their aggressive posture, apologized and were courteous and professional afterward.

But that voice. That drill instructor voice. It stays with you, lurking in your subconscious, like a ghost always telling you to push a little harder than you think you can–to be better than you think you can be. It’s with you for life. Although many years had passed, the night I heard it aloud once again, it was still excellent at correcting my behavior: After that night, I learned to dress down–jeans and a t-shirt with the company logo–when talking to candidates. One last bit of training from the master trainers.