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Stories Of The U.S. Marines In San Diego

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Aired 11/2/10

Tony Perry of the LA Times talks about his recent reporting on the Marine Corps in San Diego, including the boot camp experience at MCRD downtown, the closing of a public shotgun shooting range at MCAS Miramar, and an increase in suicides among Marines..

Marines at Camp Pendleton
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Above: Marines at Camp Pendleton

Tony Perry of the LA Times talks about his recent reporting on the Marine Corps in San Diego, including the boot camp experience at MCRD downtown, the closing of a public shotgun shooting range at MCAS Miramar for environmental reasons, and what the Marine Corps is doing about an increase in suicides among Marines, even those who have not been in combat.

Guest: Tony Perry, San Diego bureau chief for the Los Angeles times

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, you're listening to These Days on KPBS. We often talk to LA times reporter, Tony Perry, when he's halfway across the world, covering marines from Camp Pendleton who've been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. Today we're lucky enough to have him in our studios to talk about several recent reports he's filed about --

TONY PERRY: -- talk to them and the questions to ask, it's doable.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We're gonna talk a little bit later about a report you did about following some recruits in -- hitting San Diego, the marine corps recruit depot, and heading towards a boot camp here. And I'm wondering how long does it take to put a story like that together? You call up and you say, you know, I want to see some recruits in boot camp. Does that happen fast or do you have to wait weeks.

TONY PERRY: That happened relatively quickly. I had been in Afghanistan and heard the major Carlton kent say over and over again that there was a 6 to 9-month waiting period to get into boot camp. That's a waiting list, he would say to the young marines there. And so when I got back, it was just a matter of confirming those numbers, making an appointment to go over and watch this process, watch these young men from various points in the western United States arrive in San Diego, many of them for the first time, then begin that transformational process of letting men yell in their ear and give them orders. This is a process they have signed up for, something they have waited for. And I was there when hundreds of them came in one night to begin that process.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to talk a lot more about that, but first I want to talk about your most recent story. It's about the closing of the shotgun range at MCAS Mira Mar. I don't think many people even know there was a shotgun range there. Who ran it and why was it closed.

TONY PERRY: For half a century, shotgun enthusiasts,.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Civilians.

TONY PERRY: Civilians or people who are retired active duty, people want to to do it as a hobby, have been able to go on range at Mira Mar and shoot skeet and shoot targets and have themselves a high old time doing that. Then two years ago, the marine corps was moving some stuff away in a gully just outside the shotgun area and they found all of these, hundreds thousands, maybe millions of these little led pellets from the shotgun shells and realized that they had an environmental situation on their hands. So they closed down temporarily. They thought the shotgun range which was run by the shotgun association, a civilian group, had 750 members at one time. 85000 rounds were shot in 2008, a lot of folks out there pulling the trigger. It was therefore hobby, but the marine corps closed it down so that they could do a larger study, then that study came through two weeks ago and said, that's it. We're gonna clean this thing up. And we don't have anymore room for your shotgun association. Much to the dismay of Congress man Duncan D. Hunter.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right.

DEFENDANT: Who had gone to the range as a youth and enjoyed it. And thinks the marine corps has made the wrong decision, and he's gonna fight it, and indeed, while it may not range as one of the larger issues in today's ballot. He believes that if a lot of Republicans get elected today to the you said Congress, his ability to overturn the marine corps, the Navy's ruling about the shotgun range may be enhanced.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Do you get the feeling that the marine corps is kind of in the middle of this? They want to abide by environmental laws, and if indeed this gets turned around in Congress, they'll have to did on go that way too, is this any feeling about what the marine corps would like to see done with this shooting range 92 well, they'd like it cleaned up. Whether that's done by the federal taxpayer or by this local group, that's a good question. The local group says that the feds in their exaggeration have exaggerated the cost of it all, as federal government tends to do when they bring in all of their picky regulations, and that they could do it much more cheaply. If they could please then reopen their shooting range. The marine corps has not accepted that as an alternative. That's where the Congress man comes in. He hopes to convince the marine corps or force the marine corps into changing their mind.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And he wants to attach this to an appropriations bill of some kind.

TONY PERRY: Sure, he wants to play the system and throw a writer in to a bill or maybe the jaw with the secretary of defense and get it done. But he does believe that he could do it through legislation if the persuasion doesn't work.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: But for now, that shooting range is closed.

TONY PERRY: Closed. There are other places in southern California where you can go, and enjoy shotgun shooting if that's your kind of hobby. But Mira Mar isn't one of them.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me move on on to this story that you did about the boot camp experience at MCRD. You were telling us that there is this waiting list to become a marine. When did that start to happen?

TONY PERRY: It's almost counterintuitive, two wars going on, casualties almost every day in Afghanistan. Yet men and women are flocking to join the marine corps. About two years ago there was a waiting list of about 3 months. It's about 6 to 9 months now. The economy's part of it. A bad economy leads to military enlistments. All the military are meeting their enlistment goals. But it doesn't explain why the marine corps, that batch most likely to send you into combat is doing so well. The view is that these young men are being lured by the tradition and history of the marine corps. And when you talk to these people, 18, 19 years old, they say they want to be part of the best. And the marine corps has branded itself as the best, and to a certain number of young men and women in this country, it's I very strong lure.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You know, it just occurs to me issue Tony, as we talk about this, if there are any recruits out there or people who have recently become marines here in San Diego, give us a call and tell us why. Our number here is 1-888-895-5727. One of the things that I got from your article is that even though there is this 6 to 9-month wait to actually arrive at the recruit depot in San Diego, the marines don't necessarily leave you, lone for that whole time.

TONY PERRY: Oh, no.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Once you've signed your name --

TONY PERRY: No, they don't want second thoughts setting in. They don't want mom, and mom tends to be a large hurdle that recruiters have to get over to sign up the young men. They don't want her to have second thoughts and convince her son not to go through. So they hold monthly sessions called pool sessions, we're not talking swimming pool here. We're talking about session where is they do sit ups and pull ups and they run, and they skit around and are lectured about marine corps heroes and history and terminology. They get them ready. And so that when they arrive at night, always the night, when they arrive either by bus or by plan here in San Diego, and they wait to catch yet another bus over to the recruit center San Diego, they are somewhat verse indeed knowing what to expect. Now knowing what to expect, and there's some requested YouTube videos out there, knowing what to expect, then being able to with stand it without that kind of shock and awe setting in are two different things and you can watch that as I did. They arrive, they take the bus, then they put their feet on those famous yellow footprints at MCRD, and many of them, their eyes get big as saucers. Even though they expected it, it's pretty intense.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I am speaking with Tony Perry, he is the San Diego bureau chief for the Los Angeles times. We talked to him a number of times when he was actually in Iraq or Afghanistan, reporting about maroons from Camp Pendleton. He's back home right now, and he's done a series of reports concerning marines here in San Diego. And we are taking your calls if you'd like to join the conversation at 1-888-895-5727. Now, to be here, there are also female recruits but they don't come here.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH:

TONY PERRY: No, the marine corps is alone among the military services. It trains its female recruits separately.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Male and female.

TONY PERRY: Absolutely. Of and the male recruits west of the Mississippi all come here to San Diego. The female recruits from around the concern all go to Paris island and are trained separately from the men who have gone there from east of the Mississippi. So women do not arrive in San Diego and put their feet on those yellow footprints.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Tell us whens when the -- recruits arrive here in San Diego. Where do they come from? Was it a cross section of small towns? The United States?

TONY PERRY: Absolutely, Washington, Nevada, Oregon, midwest, Minneapolis, a lot of folks from the southwest, a lot of Latinos from the southwest, a lot of white boys from the midwest and the northwest, black guys from some of the larger cities, Los Angeles, Chicago, they are -- they are if not necessarily a demographic cross succession, they are pretty close to it. And they also are pretty spread out although as you suggest, they do tend to lean towards small towns and the suburbs. And there they are. And they all arrive, and they're all waiting for that bus to come get them. And they confront their first true drill instructor. And it's a chastening experience, he uses a very intimidating voice to rile them up, get rid of all that trash in your pocket, say yes sir the minute I say anything, he's getting them ready for the bus. Then they take the with us bus ride over, by this time, it's late at night. And the drill instructors, they meet at NCRD, these folks make the initial drill instructors seem hayed back. It's you and I as full-grown adults there, we see the theatricality of it. Although I must say, watching it, it's a little intimidating. But these young men, they get a little flustered. They make them fully phone home and say I'm here, mom and cad. And they have a script that they read. And one young man got so flustered, he didn't notice that the phone from the cord was not connected. This is the way they are. Then they lineup for haircuts. And there was one young man from Arizona, who with his mop of black hair, and owlish glasses, I swear looked like harry potter. It took the barber 20 seconds to shave him bald, while the young man sat there absolutely stone quiet as he's required to do, absolutely emotionless, once it was over, he was up and hustling off, power walking as they call it, over to a hall named after a marine hero from Vietnam, and he had to work out some paperwork there. My plan, long-term plan here is to go back, I want to see what harry potter -- that's not his name, his name is Shawn young. I want to see what he looks like after 12 weeks when he is on the vernal ready to go into infill tree. I want to see what harry potter looks like.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That would be fascinating. Now, the recruits are brought in at night because it's more disorienting, and they are basically sort of yelled at and humiliated, I mean, by drill instructors from the time they kind of set foot in this environment. I'm wondering what -- remind us what is the reason for that.

TONY PERRY: Two reasons, one, to begin to transform the individual into something different. So he is leaving everything he knew before mind for those 12 weeks. There will be no music. There will be no movies, there will be no television, there will be no Internet. There will be no space book. There will be no girlfriends, there will be no homecooking, there will be none of that. He is becoming something that he has not been perfect. Then second early, the psychology is that nothing bonds people together, in this case young men, nothing bonds them together faster and more conclusively than shared misery and challenge. When they go up to Camp Pendleton for that 54-hour gut check called the crucible, this is late in the 12-week process. One of the things that the marines are looking for is how well they've bonded together. And so there will be various challenges, individual challenges, but then also group challenges, and they are looking to see if now they are bonded as a group that can over come -- over come those challenges they'll be graded on both. By the time they get up to camp Pendleton for that 54 hours, they want to become marines. If they didn't want it before, they want it awfully badly then. I've been there which they come marching down from the hill and are recognized for the first time asthma reins. Tears in these tough young men's eyes.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with LA times reporter Tony Perry. We do have a call right now. Ira is calling us from San Diego. Good morning, Ira and welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning. Yeah, I was just -- I was listening to your show, and I wanted to call in and make the comment, I'm a former marine gunnery charger like my father before me, and I went in the marine out of tradition. And about 12 years ago, I started -- ceremony with the marines that worked here and my father always told me, marines stick together. And the sergeant major of the marine corps is coming to our tape cutting ceremony this Friday. We made it for Friday the fifth. So he could come. And he'll be here this Friday at NASCO, cutting the tape with us.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, thanks for calling in, and letting us know. Thank you very much, Ira.

TONY PERRY: What Ira is talking about is the annual birthday celebration. This year 235 years since the marine corps was formed in furtherance of the order from the continental Congress to find a few good men for a marine corps to go on Navy ships. And it's a big deal. I've seen these ceremonies here. I've seen them in Afghanistan a year ago where they stopped all combat, safely, but they stop everything they're doing, and celebrate the birth of the corps with discussions and speeches and music and cutting of the cake as Ira suggests. First and second pieces as I remember it. Go to the oldest and youngest marine this. Last year when I was in Afghanistan, the youngest was 18, and the oldest was 38, making me feel very old since I have considerable years on 38. It is one of the things that sets the marine corps separate from the other services. I didn't say better. Ir said separate. Is their adherence to their history, and their culture. The other services don't have the same kind of observances in their culture about, you know, when they were formed, etc. They're trying to now. But the marine corps, it's a tradition that means a lot to them. And it says a lot about them.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I have to move on, Tony, to a very disturbing story that you've also written about the marines and that is about -- they have the highest rate of suicide now of any of the military services, not by much but by some. And how many marine suicides were there last year.

TONY PERRY: Last year there were 52. And that works out to something like 22, I believe per hundred thousand. That's in excess of the army's rate, and in excess of the civilian rate of a similar demographic. It is a very large problem, concern in the marine corps, because it impacts not just an individual marine and his family, although it devastates them. It also impacts the whole fighting unit. I was in a tent a year ago where a young marine said -- who had had obvious problems with his family back home, got a disturbing letter, and he just announced he was gonna go out, write a nasty letter to his mother and kill himself. And just the hair on the back of my neck stood up, and I turned to the guys and said, aren't you supposed to do something now? And they said no, no, he's always talking like that. Well that's exactly what the marine corps doesn't want. They want young men to take care of each other. When they hear talk like that, report it to an officer, report it to somebody. This group didn't want to do that. So I took it upon myself to go tell the gunnery sergeant, and I don't believe, in facts I know that the young man did not act upon that impulse. But other young men are doing that. And I was in that same area just recently and there was a young man, I was told about who had received the classic dear John letter, a couple of days later. He killed himself. I talked to his family some time later and they were of course devastated.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Isn't there an inherent conflict between the idea of being a marine, being tough, being able to take it, not complain, not whining, and recognizing when you are in deep emotional distress and being able to tell people about it?

TONY PERRY: Precisely. It's seen as unmanly or wimpy or something. And the thought is that it could impact your career and keep you from getting promoted to sergeant or staff sergeant or whatever. And all of that, of course, is bushwa. It is not all of those things, it is not unman he, it is realistic. And that's what they're trying to get across both to the young marines when you're feeling like you're ready to do something, when you're feeling hopeless, when she has sent you that letter or something else is eating at you. Don't go for a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Reach out. There's help. Go to the chaplain, go to the corps man. Go to somebody, ask for help, you're gonna get help. Don't take it upon yourself to end your life.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What is the marine corps doing to try to get that message out to more marines?

TONY PERRY: They talk -- the officers and the senior enlisted like the sergeant major who's arriving here for the birthday party later in the week, they talk to them till they're blue in the face. They give them pamphlets, they have videos, they have all sorts of things that they emphasize, starting in boot camp. Because you occasionally do have a problem in boot camp that leads to suicide. Not a lot, but you do. So they start talking to them right away. They talk to them then, they talk to them predeployment, before they go to -- well, Iraq when we were going to Iraq, now Afghanistan. They talk to them when they're over there to get the ma'am out. Yet, nothing seems to be working like they would like as you suggest. More killed last year by their own hand than any other year. This year, the numbers are down slightly. But the numbers aren't all coerated yet. So we'll see.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You mentioned that you wrote about I suicide in Helmand Province. How does it affect the other marines at that outpost.

TONY PERRY: Oh, it leaves them devastated. What could we have done? Why department we see it? And these are young men who live with the idea of violence. They know what violence is. But they have a tight bond, then there's a sense of failure that they should have done something. When we were in Helmand, when we were in Nawa, where this young man had killed himself, I remember hearing the summer major's lecture to them. And then all of them just sitting there shaking their heads, and saying to themselves and then some out loud, why didn't we see it? Why cooperate we have helped him? Well, they didn't see it, or if they did, they department do anything. So it impacts morality, if impacts combat readiness, it leaves lasting regrets not just in a small way but in a large way.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you very much for speaking with us and for writing about this. It's such an important topic for San Diego. Thank you for covering it the way you do.

TONY PERRY: Thank you very much for saying that.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with Tony per, he is San Diego bureau chief for the Los Angeles times. If you would like to comment, please go on-line, KPBS.org/These Days. You've been listening to These Days on KPBS.

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