MARINE CORPS AIR STATION MIRAMAR, Calif. – In the early morning mist, a small group of Marines is limbered up, weighted down with flak jackets and ready for a fight. The rest of their squadron is preparing for another work day.
The instructor, a hulking figure packed with 30 to 40 more pounds of muscle than the next-largest Marine, surveys a rubberized gravel pit enclosed by slashed tires. The small group of students from Marine Tactical Air Command Squadron 38 thrashes about in the pit, causing a spray of rubber pellets with each technique executed. The supervisor looks on as steam escapes from the bodies of each weary, but ever fierce, Marine as they push through pain and fatigue. And this is only their warmup.
The Marine Corps Martial Arts Program, or MCMAP, isn’t for everyone, and some find it especially difficult to be motivated to practice during those early hours.
“To want to do MCMAP takes a good instructor, not just an instructor that knows the techniques or an instructor who just knows what he’s talking about, but an instructor that really makes you want to come out here every morning and keep doing these techniques,” said Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Bryan Polonia, a gray belt class participant and a Stamford, Conn., native.
“[Marine Corps 1st Lt. Mark Cowett] is definitely one of those people,” he added. “He cares about his students, he cares about the techniques he’s teaching, and coming out here every day just makes you feel good about yourself.”
No session with Cowett is complete without sweat-stained undershirts and boots full of gravel. Daily reiteration of the Marine Corps core values alongside physical training allows for growth and development of the students of the squadron’s martial arts course.
“MCMAP is really a synergy of three disciplines: physical, mental, and character,” said Cowett, a Chicago native. “The physical is accentuated every day when we teach the techniques.”
The extremely physical nature of the martial arts program is balanced by the mental conditioning that Cowett emphasizes.
“When I teach the technique, it’s more than just how to knock someone over. You have to be mentally sharp and know exactly what you’re doing in any situation,” he said. “That way, they really understand how MCMAP is more than just a test to be taken for a belt. It’s actually a real life scenario and response to any kind of situation.”
As for the character discipline, Cowett incorporates “tie-ins,” ideas related to various aspects of the warrior ethos, with the teaching of each technique.
“There are always different ones about hazing, about commitment and about a lot of other things that we can definitely use,” Polonia said. “It really teaches you how to be a better person, how to be a better man and a better Marine.”
By employing these three disciplines, Cowett said, he has noticed a definite change in the skill level of his students.
“I used to just go through them like a knife through butter, but now, it’s much more difficult,” he said. “I’m looking forward to the day where they can all beat me, because it means that I’ve finally taught them all that I know.”
Even though he has reached his end of active service and will be assigned to the Individual Ready Reserve this summer, Cowett carries on teaching the course to make sure that his students maintain some continuity in the mornings.
“It says a lot about his character,” Polonia said. “It says a lot about the Marine he is and the Marine he will always be.”
While covered in sweat, debris and maybe even a bit of blood, each student leaves the class looking like a battle-hardened warrior. Still, the adrenaline rush of the morning gives way to the soreness and fatigue of the afternoon for the Marines who participate in this training. Nevertheless, it is quite clear that they are excited for the next period of instruction.