View Full Version : SOI is hard on ya sometimes

03-10-03, 10:56 AM
Staff Writer
CAMP PENDLETON ---- Every month, several hundred Marines graduate from the School of Infantry-West and join their first combat unit. In recent months, most of those graduates have landed with battalions that are now in Kuwait awaiting a possible war with Iraq.

But some have had to wait.

Sidelined with injuries from the rigorous training, dozens of infantrymen have stayed back as more than 20,000 Marines left the base for Kuwait.

Pvt. Anthony Hofreiter is one of them.

Last year, at boot camp, considered the military's toughest, the rifleman from Paso Robles felt a recurring throbbing pain in his abdomen. "I started to feel it at the end of the first week," he said.

Hofreiter, 22, told no one and marched through daily calisthenics, three-mile runs, obstacle courses and combat hikes before he graduated Nov. 15.

But the pain caught up with him at infantry school. Diagnosed with an intestinal hernia, a tear in a muscle wall in his intestines, he was pulled from basic combat training, sent to the school's Rehabilitation Platoon and put on light duty.

It wasn't what the 22-year-old wanted to hear.

"I'm just hoping that it's not worse than what I think it is," he said several days before doctors at Camp Pendleton Naval Hospital operated on him in late December.

Today Hofreiter, who wants to be an intelligence specialist, continues to heal and await his fate.

He's not alone.

At any given time, several dozen Marines are recovering from injuries from boot camp or infantry training, their indoctrination into the life of a "grunt," or infantryman. They often carry heavy combat packs and weapons up bumpy hills and down ravines and canyons as they learn about weapons, infantry tactics, field operations and patrolling.

Training, though, takes a toll on their bodies.

The 'walking wounded'

Days before his Sept. 20 boot camp graduation, Pvt. Steven Dodd's feet began to hurt from what he described as "sharp, real sharp pain in your arches."

At the infantry school, Dodd was diagnosed with plantar fasciitis and nerve pain in his feet. Tylenol and ibuprofen became part of his daily routine.

It's not the routine the rifleman from Greenfield, Mo., expected after boot camp.

Just 20, he's a regular visitor to San Diego Naval Medical Center's pain clinic and is being treated at the school's Sports Medicine and Rehabilitative Therapy Clinic.

The clinic, one of four the Navy operates, is the battleground for pain.

Clinic workers see many broken bones, sprained ankles, separated shoulders, shin splints and bone fractures. Some students suffer sprains, broken bones or bruising from falls or stumbles, such as on the obstacle course or while patrolling. Shin splints and stress fractures are common from intense running and long hikes over the hills that surround the camp.

"Some people aren't used to that type of training," said Navy Petty Officer Christopher D. Diolata, a hospital corpsman who runs the physical therapy section. "If they're not, well, fit, then they get the problems when they carry 100 pounds on their backs."

Even the routine of pulling their heavy packs on and off can injure back and shoulder muscles, doctors say.

"Most of them suck it up," said Navy Lt. Jeff Dufault, a podiatrist at the clinic. "They're encouraged not to fall out and quit."

That message is echoed in a quote from famed football coach Vince Lombardi painted on a cinderblock wall above wooden benches where Marines, holding X-rays tucked into paper sleeves, wait to be called in for a consult. The quote reads: "If you can accept losing, you can't win. If you can walk, you can run. No one is ever hurt. Hurt is in your mind."

But the scent of Ben-Gay lotion, unmistakable in the clinic's hallways, attests to the pain the men feel.

One Marine complained of a sore shoulder, another busted his nose in a vehicle accident. A few deny their pain, though it's often obvious in their faces.

The clinic opened in 1997 to fix injured Marines and return them to training. In just the first two years, the school dropped one-third fewer students from musculoskeletal injuries, news that was so good service officials expanded the program to the recruit training.

Today, about 80 percent of injured Marines return to training, said Navy Lt. Michael Kelly, the clinic's division officer.

Pvt. Nicholas St. John isn't among them.

Two weeks into infantry training last fall, St. John felt a sharp pain in his left foot. "It's like real sharp needles going through," said the 19-year-old from Muncie, Ind.

He kept the pain to himself until it became unbearable, and X-rays revealed stress fractures in his shin.

His recovery, which included three weekly therapy sessions, wasn't enough, however. On Jan. 13, St. John was medically discharged, and he returned home to Muncie, Ind.

Driven to serve and fight

Battered and broken, the platoon's young men often find support from one another as they juggle humor among their physical therapy, doctor's appointments and medicine schedules.

Before he left, St. John said he kept reminding himself why they joined the Marines in the first place. Since he was 16, he knew he wanted to enlist to better his life. "I was kind of hoping to surprise myself and be part of something else," he said. He sought infantry because it's "the most important" job.

Dodd, sitting next to him, agreed. "I wanted to go fight for my country. I want to go overseas. I want to go into Iraq," he said. "Plus, we get to mess with all these weapons."

They maintain their combat skills by studying manuals. "I read a lot," Dodd said. "I mostly read about snipers and stuff."

They organize classes on weapons and tactics they will need to know once they return to training. "It makes you feel like you're doing something," St. John said. "It keeps us somewhat motivated."

Still, the broken Marines long to return to training. Every day and week that goes by puts them farther from rejoining the friends they met at boot camp. As they see their peers go overseas, they are eager to heal and rejoin their friends.

"I want to go back to training, bad," Dodd said.

The Motivator among them

On days when they're feeling down, the men turn to Lance Cpl. Mark Schaffer, a 21-year-old field radio operator who arrived at the platoon on Sept. 11, 2001.

In the 18 months since, he's seen at least nine doctors for bronchitis, Schaffer said, but "no one's really definite that I have it."

His longevity in the platoon is an anomaly. An injured Marine is either healed or discharged. For some reason he said he doesn't know, he's remained, and that's fine with the peers who consider him their mentor.

"He looks out for us," Hofreiter said of Schaffer.

Like a seasoned platoon sergeant, Schaffer walks the barracks and the clinic, talking with the Marines and checking on their progress. He knows who's recovering, and from what.

"They always want to know how long they're going to be here," he said. "If they go home, what's going to happen to me?"

"They motivate me," he added.

He tells the story of two Marines who made it through rehabilitation and are serving with operational units. "I can't give up because of those two," he said.

Already, he's planning to re-enlist and maybe join his friends who have gone overseas. "I hope I can still get out there," he said.

Contact staff writer Gidget Fuentes at (760) 901-4072 or gfuentes@nctimes.com.


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