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Thread: Pushed to the limit
03-24-08, 09:09 AM #1
Pushed to the limit
Pushed to the limit
The Providence Journal -
Officer Candidate School (OCS) recently returned to Naval Station Newport. Those who complete the rigorous 12-week program become commissioned
officers in the U.S. Navy. But not all are successful. Reporter Richard Salit and photographer Frieda Squires followed five candidates — Adam Cole, Sarah Engemann, Matthew Gottschalk, Nicole Lobecker and Jason Moehlmann — who joined Class 05-08 last fall.
It’s the moment of truth for Class 05-08: the physical fitness assessment.
Roused from their rooms well before dawn, the students have been led outside into the darkness on a lawn overlooking the lights of the Claiborne Pell Bridge.
If the students fail, they are automatically pulled from their class and placed in Holding Company until they can pass. Their dreams of becoming officers will be in jeopardy.
Nicole Lobecker is wearing a baggy Navy-issue sweat suit that hides some of the extra weight she could lose. She sits on the ground, ready to do sit-ups, while a partner grips her ankles. She’s been in the Navy for nearly three years and has been working out regularly — running up to 2 miles and doing sets of 25 pushups and 50 sit-ups to get ready for the test. Academics, particularly science, are her strength. Not fitness.
“I’m nervous about the physical aspects of it,” she said on the day she arrived at OCS. “I hear it’s tough.”
Lobecker’s fate will come down to about 18 minutes of pushing herself to her limits.
A whistle blows. She begins.
SINCE LOBECKER and her classmates arrived on Sunday, they have begun to look and sound alike. OCS immediately focuses on uniformity — in mind and body, spirit and appearance. It begins with haircuts and uniforms and continues through medical exams and rote memorization of Navy facts and OCS rules.
The first uniform the students receive is an ill-fitting, unisex, one-piece green coverall. It’s so disliked that everyone at OCS calls it a “poopy suit.” The name tags on their chests are equally unflattering — pieces of masking tape with their last names scrawled in permanent marker. Instead of a sharp-looking cap with a visor, they are given a klunky silver battle helmet dubbed a “chrome dome.”
To complete the look, those who wear eyeglasses turn in their fashionable frames in exchange for Navy issue eyewear. The frames are so large and chunky, they look cartoonish. They’re nicknamed “birth control goggles” because no one could be attracted to someone wearing them. Lobecker gets a pair, as do classmates Jason Moehlmann and Adam Cole.
On Monday morning, they went for medical checkups. Even beforehand, Sarah Engemann was feeling bad. She had been suffering from sharp abdominal pains almost immediately after arriving on Sunday. The doctors told her she would have to return for an ultrasound, making it likely that she wouldn’t be able to take the physical fitness assessment.
By the time she got out of the medical wing, where she had a more exhaustive aviator’s examination, she was late for the barbershop. Her classmates were standing in a line in a hallway, wearing poopy suits and holding chrome domes exactly as instructed — right-side up in the palm of the left hand, with fingers curled around the front edge. Just as they will one day hold a real Navy cap, known as a “cover.”
They stood quietly. They did not talk to one another. They studied basic information about the Navy — rank, insignia, chain of command — by reading their “gouge books,” pocket-size manuals they keep stuffed in their socks.
When Engemann reached the barbershop doorway, she handed over a haircut voucher that cost her $8. Meals and haircuts at OCS aren’t free, but the students get paid while they’re there.
Inside the shop, virtually the only sound was the buzzing of the electric hair trimmers. The students in the barber chairs looked straight ahead, blankly.
Engemann looked glum, upset. Only days before arriving, she had paid $90 to have her hair styled and highlighted, not knowing it would have to be cut at OCS. Her hair was short, but not short enough. Women’s hair must be no longer than two inches on top.
“It’s a page boy,” said Tami Braase, the lead barber. “They all have to get the same [hairstyle]. For what they have to do here, it’s very appropriate.”
When the buzzers run over the men’s scalps, they leave behind only stubble. The look is more like 5-o’clock shadow than hairstyle.
The students now have the same clothing, eyeglasses and haircuts. When they speak, it’s when spoken to. They have so lost their individuality that they can’t even say “I.” They must instead say “this indoctrination candidate” — their title for the first week, before they become “officer candidates.”
For the next nine weeks, where they go is dictated by OCS. They can’t leave the base or wander around it. They can’t use cell phones or watch TV. They may call loved ones only once a week. They can’t sit on their beds or sleep on them between reveille and taps.
Even how they move is regulated. When they walk down hallways, they must remain on the “starboard” side four inches from walls (called bulkheads) and make sharp turns at corners. If overheard speaking to one another in the bathrooms, they are ordered to sing “Anchors Aweigh.” Silence is required while eating in the chow hall, and they must follow eight specific steps before each bite of food.
Whenever a superior counts down, “3, 2, 1, zero,” they must stand still and attentive and shout, “Freeze, candidate, freeze!”
These strict rules will remain in effect until they become candidate officers in their final two weeks.
In their gouge books, a word printed larger than any other jumps out on page B-7. It’s DISCIPLINE, and it’s defined as “the instant willing obedience to orders, respect for authority, and self reliance.”
ON TUESDAY MORNING, the day of the physical fitness test, reveille is at 4:30. The students fall out of their rooms and are quickly escorted outside by upperclassmen and Marine drill instructors waving flashlights. The light makes their reflective safety belts glow in the dark.
The sun won’t rise for at least an hour, but for a November morning, it’s a relatively warm 55 degrees. The students are directed to hoist a platform and move it to one end of a spacious lawn. A candidate officer climbs atop it and leads the students, who stand in orderly rows, in warm-up exercises.
Now the test is about to begin.
The candidate officer gives detailed directions on how they must do sit-ups.
“You will repeat this as many times as possible in two minutes,” he says.
“Aye, sir!” they answer.
He blows a whistle to begin the test. Half of the students do sit-ups while their partners count aloud, OCS style, how many they’ve done: “zero-one, zero-two, zero-three.” The Marine drill instructors prowl the rows, correcting form.
During pushups, the candidates may rest only in the up position — increasingly harder to do as they fatigue.
Gunnery Sgt. Sandra Center sees Brittany Hotmer with more than her hands and feet on the ground.
“You are done,” she barks, telling Hotmer. Since her body touched the ground she can’t continue. “How many did she do?”
She did 21, four more than required. Master Gunnery Sgt. Robert Foshee, who saw Hotmer having trouble on the first day, overhears the conversation as he’s walking by.
“She’ll end up rolling out,” he says loud enough for Hotmer to hear his prediction that she won’t make it at OCS. “She ain’t got the mind to do it.”
His prediction comes true. Before the week is over, she drops out and heads home, the first in her class to quit.
A 1½-mile run along the roads of the Navy base is the final part of the test. The winds have picked up since the morning, blowing 20 to 30 mph. It doesn’t bode well for candidates who are weak runners. They take off their sweat bottoms, leaving on their shorts, and go for a warm-up jog in formation.
When they return, they step up to the starting line. The whistle blows and the runners take off into a strong headwind. The men must finish in 13 minutes, 15 seconds, which equates to an 8:50-mile pace. Women must do it in 15:15, a 10:10-mile pace.
When they come down the homestretch, they can’t read their times on a digital clock because it’s deliberately positioned to face the other way. They’re just expected to go as fast as they can.
“It has to come from the heart,” says Navy Senior Chief Jonathan Calloway, who serves on the team in charge of Class 05-08.
The first runner crosses the finish line in 8:30. Wiry Adam Cole is close behind, finishing third in 9:12. He did the maximum number of sit-ups scored, 105, and 79 pushups, giving him the second-highest overall score of his class. He’s second only to Jason Baker, who is the sole candidate in the class who aspires to be an elite Navy SEAL.
Jason Moehlmann, with his broad shoulders and stocky build, is cutting it close as he approaches the finish. When he crosses the line, the clock reads 12:38. He had just 37 seconds to spare. Lobecker, an admittedly weak runner, had no problem finishing in 13:15, with a two-minute cushion. Gottschalk also passes easily.
Engemann, however, is a no-show for the test. Her ultrasound kept her from showing up. And since she missed it, she will be yanked from the class and put in Holding Company.
A COUPLE OF HOURS after every new class has its physical fitness test, the students are led into a barracks hallway and seated on the floor close to one another. That’s when the short but muscular Foshee introduces himself as the chief drill instructor and gives his high-octane, take-no-prisoners welcome speech.
“My drill instructor’s role is, number one, to see if you have leadership potential. If you have leadership potential, we are going to build on that potential. If we don’t see that potential, we’re going to eradicate you from the program,” he says. “My Marines are going to take you to the breaking point. A lot of you are going to snap. But when you are getting ready to snap, don’t give them the satisfaction of breaking you. Find something within you, something strong….
“As an officer you are going to be judged by your sailors not by what you can do when your tank is full but what you can do when your tank is empty. … You have to do more with less sleep, no water, no food. You have to be a shining example to your sailors when the times are the toughest.”
Then he calls the names of those who failed the physical fitness assessment, and says, “All right, all of you are losers, pathetic, overweight, out of shape. Get out of here.”
As they hurry out to join Holding Company, he leads those who stay behind in a chant: “Pays to be a winner. Sucks to be a loser.”
“They are all losers. You are all winners,” he says. Then he abruptly turns on them, yelling, “But I will tell you right now, not every one of you is going to graduate with this class. You won’t. It won’t ever happen. It never has, it never will. Now am I trying to scare you? I’m just trying to impress upon you, this is not a joke.
“Good luck to all of you. My drill instructors are going to look for weakness. They are going to look for the candidate without any self-esteem, self-confidence, and once they find that, they are going to gang up on you, seven or eight of them are going to get around you and they are going to feed on it like blood in water, like sharks.”
For Class 05-08, it has been a successful morning. Only 4 candidates of 40 failed the physical fitness test.
After rising early and pushing themselves to their physical limits today, the candidates will have to do it all over again tomorrow. It’s a day called Wake-Up Wednesday.
“Tomorrow, the drill instructors will get them up,” says Marine Maj. Joshua Kissoon, adding in jest, “which I guess will be fun.”
03-25-08, 09:49 AM #2
Gunnery Sgt. Center
Eleven years ago, Sandra Center felt burned out. She had it with junior college and the sports scholarship that landed her on the basketball and fast-pitch softball teams.
“I needed a break,” she says. “I needed a challenge.”
One day, while exploring her options at a Marine recruiting office in Arizona, she noticed a corkboard with pictures of all the locals who had gone to boot camp and graduated.
“It was all male,” she recalls. “There were very few females on that board. To me, that was the challenge that was ahead of me — to come back and put my picture on that board and say, ‘I did it.’ And maybe be a good example for someone else that was thinking of it.”
Not only did she survive the Marine drill instructors at Parris Island, in South Carolina, she eventually became one herself. Today, she’s a gunnery sergeant and only the second female drill instructor in the history of Navy Officer Candidate School.
Away from her students, Center flashes a warm, almost shy, smile, framed by smooth skin and high cheekbones. But when she’s leading her class, she’s all business. Beneath her olive, wide-brimmed drill instructor hat, her eyes narrow when she doesn’t like what she sees, and they seemingly bulge when she’s reprimanding. When barking out commands, she puts her whole athletic body into it, tensing her arms and shoulders, opening her mouth impossibly wide and appearing ready to bite. When she talks about getting the candidates in her control, she describes it as “game on, come to mama.”
It’s easy to picture her driving the lane as a point guard for Mesa Community College (not far from her native Scottsdale, Ariz.) or teaching martial arts to male and female Marines as a black-belt instructor at Parris Island.
Center doesn’t think being a drill instructor is any different for a woman than a man. She’s already had one tour at Marine boot camp, the only branch of the armed services that segregates training for men and women. Her tour in Newport is the first time she’s serving as a drill instructor for men.
“I’ve never had any problem with being a female drill instructor,” she says. “They don’t look at your gender. They look at how you conduct yourself, how you speak to them.”
Questions about her being a female drill instructor “don’t get asked very often,” she says. But she does get noticed. At one ceremony for families of OCS students, a young woman came up to her to applaud her accomplishment.
Center, soon after taking charge of her class, promised that “they are going to be pushed to their physical limits,” adding, “A lot of them have probably never been yelled at.” Single and 32, she said in jest, “They’re going to be really thrilled that I have no kids and nothing but time.”
In just 10 years after joining the Marines, she has become a gunnery sergeant. There are only two ranks above her among enlisted personnel. She’s not interested in becoming an officer.
“I’m happy to be a gunny,” she says. “I really enjoy the enlisted side. There is a lot more interaction and mentoring than supervising, managing and making policy.”
During the remainder of her three years here, she plans to study criminal justice at Roger Williams University and get the bachelor’s degree she never finished.
Master Gunnery Sgt. Robert Foshee selected the “cream of the crop” in assembling his team of drill instructors. But he says it took him more than a year to fill the last slot.
“I was trying to find the right female drill instructor with the right qualifications. There’s not many of them,” he says. Center, he says, “was an angel sent by the drill instructors’ god. Her personal appearance, her physical appearance, her entire military record — she was just the perfect person for the job.”
She has only impressed him more since arriving.
“Hard and demanding” is how he describes her, “but fair and compassionate.”
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