What 88 Days on Parris Island Taught Me About Discipline

A no-nonsense approach to building no-nonsense discipline.

“Marine human material was not one whit better than that of the human society from which it came. But it had been hammered into form in a different forge, hardened with a different fire.” T.R. Fehrenbach

Entering the Heart of Darkness

With our foreheads pressed against the seat in front of us, eyes pinched shut, you could hear a pin drop. Ignorance and adrenaline formed a frightening pair. We entered the Marine Corps Recruit Depot intentionally mislaid in the darkness of Parris Island, ready to embark on the most grueling journey we’d ever stood before. We basked in what few moments of comfort we had left. It would be the last of it for twelve weeks.

The bus squealed to stop, and the door whisked open. Three bulls with crisp drill hats barrelled through the middle aisle, screaming a relentless torrent of demands and wresting us from our seats faster than a weed from its roots.

Freshly alighted from comfort and disoriented by chaos, we sprinted to random light posts chosen at a bull’s whim, back, forth, to here, there. Bodies billowed like rubber, pivoting to and fro, asserting “Aye, sir” in pitiful unison.

Drill instructors (DIs) weaved between our civilian delicacy, pushing, obstructing, and barking into eardrums at point-blank range as we tried to align our feet on worn, yellow footprints — just as millions of other Marine-wannabees prior.

A DI sucker-blasts an adjacent recruit:

“Say ‘Aye, sir’ before I punch you in the throat!”

Beds weren’t available that night, nor would they be the following. There was too much to learn about what it took to deserve one.

Everyone Get’s Slayed

Our platoon count dropped from sixty-seven to sixty-five just two weeks later. Illness and injury sidelined another eighteen. Some settled into the physical routine. Others struggled with psychological adjustment and the divisive nature of mental stress.

If there were recruits among us who didn’t belong, it would only be a matter of time before they emerged. And when they did, DIs would swarm like sharks on blood, dogging recruits into submission with mental subversion and physical hostility. But they wouldn’t let you quit. It wasn’t that easy. You had to want to quit every day until they thought you turned for sure.

DIs pressure-tested our mettle by assessing our ability to remain resilient through the fray. It didn’t matter what we did yesterday or how motivated we were to confront tomorrow. The only obstacle that mattered was the DI with whom you were now standing nose-to-nose, annihilating you with every ounce of his ability to plant the fertile seed of quit.

You couldn’t avoid them. You couldn’t procrastinate. There were zero opportunities to do anything but confront them. Obstacles are ubiquitous on Parris Island. We had to learn to embrace them.

If you couldn’t make that relationship one-sided and learn to conquer it, you’d suffer for it. The obstacle would bury you. You’d get slayed.

“You owe me, b — . Blouse off. Front quarter deck right now.”
Sgt. Almonte, Parris Island 2011

With Pain Comes Volume

Marines past and present are known to advise against volunteering for anything. That’s because Parris Island is mainly about survival.

Don’t bring unnecessary attention to yourself. If you have a job, do it swiftly and competently. Keep your eyes forward, your hands off your face, and speak loudly and crisply.

Despite all your best efforts, you will crack. And it will happen in the form of volume.

The moment comes when you’ve finally fallen beneath the weight of enough stress; there’s an unmistakable rise in your decibel level. It’s a sign of physical or psychological pain to sound off louder than you would under less stressful conditions. You cracked — plain and simple — soon for DIs to pry and prey upon like a stubbornly tight clam.

To survive your shucking, you had to resist succumbing to any further defeat. You had to maintain your bearing even when you thought no one was looking. To condition yourself to do that, you had to espouse every moment as a show of discipline — including those that beat you down enough to scream volumes. For each is an opportunity to turn consistency into habit.

Habit is a matter of character, not a matter of choice.

“No person was ever honored for what he received. Honor has been the reward for what he gave.” Calvin Coolidge

A Man Accepts His Fate

Most people aren’t interested in building military discipline. The idea conjures up images of high stress, pain, cold, wet, mud, and by God, the yelling. Military discipline also tends to strike people as somewhat robotic. Most people don’t want to be a measure of how tightly they can stick to a schedule. Some people function better on a super tight regiment; others don’t. For those that don’t, here’s the good news: You don’t need military discipline to conquer the obstacles in your life.

Admittedly, the tumult of chaos that is Parris Island blunted my acumen. I was too stressed and ignorant to see the Marine Corps’ deeper lesson. DIs were teaching us how to stand up by kicking us down. There is a simple truth about discipline behind this methodology that you don’t have to shave your head to understand:

For every opportunity at which you are down, you must stand up.

Parris Island relentlessly beat me down to build my habit of standing up. My ability to do it was not measured by how many times I succeeded or failed yesterday nor how many times I would succeed or fail in the future. It wasn’t measured by what I thought about my own ability nor what everyone else thought about my ability. None of that mattered.

Only in the moment of opportunity to stand was I measured in my ability to do it. Discipline must be a moment-to-moment observation before it becomes consistent. And when consistency is no longer a matter of choice, it becomes habit.

The next time you hear an early alarm clock, walk by the bakery, choose what to eat for lunch, have time to exercise, or the next time there’s work to be done —

Just stand up.

Or be slain.

Copywriter by trade. Medium contributor by pleasure. Motivated by our collective improvement.

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