MCRD San Diego -- On a recent American Airlines flight from Dallas-Fort Worth to San Diego, the pilot took to the public address system to salute the dozens of young recruits onboard for starting their rigorous journey to become U.S. Marines "as soon as tonight."
What the pilot didn't realize was that, although the recruits were indeed bound for boot camp, their start of training was still two weeks away. Since early in the COVID-19 pandemic, all enlistees have observed a 14-day restriction-of-movement period in quarters to prevent spread of the disease.
And while COVID restrictions likely won't last much longer, it's possible a permanent pre-training acclimation period for recruits may gain support among Marine Corps brass. Leaders say recruits are performing better and dropping out of training less often when they start fully rested and having shaken off any bugs picked up on the plane. And, they add, sound recruits can be pushed to train even harder.
Col. Matt Palma, commander of San Diego's Recruit Training Regiment, said he wholeheartedly supported such a proposal, and believed it wouldn't compromise the legendary rigor of Marine Corps boot camp.
"I'm an athlete. I've always been an athlete ... so I know what it takes to maximize human performance," he told Military.com in a late April interview at the recruit depot. "And I'm trying to give these recruits the best opportunity for success in a very challenging environment."
Palma acknowledged that the traditional start of boot camp, which typically includes a marathon in-processing protocol and 24 hours without sleep, was probably intended to "soften" recruits and make the boot camp environment that much more demanding and overwhelming.
"But when, in my opinion, it puts the overall mission of making the Marine in jeopardy, I have to question it," Palma said.
He described the famous "recruit crud" known to spread rapidly through boot camp, saying the COVID-19 restriction-of-movement period had also significantly reduced that phenomenon. Previously, he said, nine out of 10 of the "casualties" that sidelined recruits in training were related to upper respiratory infections or pneumonia.
"Why would we want them sick?" Palma said. "They're coming in to do something really, really hard. I can get more out of them if they're not sick. I can make their training more difficult if they're not sick."
Other Marine Corps leaders have also remarked on drops in attrition due to the mandatory confinement period at the start of boot camp. Gen. David Berger, commandant of the Marine Corps, suggested late last year that he was considering a permanent change to entry training -- at the officer level as well -- to preserve that benefit.
"Every officer candidate class, every recruit training class gets some kind of crud in the first two weeks, and it shuts them down," Berger told lawmakers in December. "Why would we not consider continuing that later on so ... everybody can train, instead of half the squad bay being sick? Some of these measures we need to keep in place afterward."
The head of Marine Corps Recruiting Command, Maj. Gen. Jason Bohm, has also spoken approvingly of the restriction period and its effect on recruits.
"[But] now they've actually had two weeks to rest from that travel from home before they commence training, and what that has done is given us recruits who are a little bit more focused on being able to understand what they're being told by the drill instructors," Bohm said. "Although it's just as challenging and just as chaotic, we're getting a little bit better of a response from them."
While the structure and traditions of Marine Corps boot camp are treasured by many who have been through it and earned the coveted eagle, globe and anchor, changes akin to adding a preliminary acclimation period are not unheard of.
In 2017, the service added a new "fourth phase" to the end of boot camp, giving recruits two weeks after formally becoming Marines to be mentored on a peer level by their drill instructors and better equip them to transfer to their first units in the fleet.
The Marine Corps hasn't released any formal data about the effects of adding this fourth phase, but Palma said, anecdotally, he'd observed improved critical thinking skills among new Marines and a dramatic reduction in "liberty incidents," or misconduct during the first period of time off after boot camp.
"This fourth-phase model that we have is helping young Marines adjust and think a little bit more like Marines," he said.
-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.