“The Crucible” by Brandon Mariano

“Everyone, rest on your packs and sip water; don’t chug it!” yelled Staff Sergeant Lathan, one of my drill instructors. “I know your asses are cold, but we can’t let you overheat during this movement,” he continued. “At this time, you’re gonna remove that cammie blouse and warming
layers. It’s just going to be that skivvy shirt and your Gor-Tex top, do you understand?”

We all looked at each other in disbelief. I looked at the person to the side of me, on the other side, in front of me, and then behind me. There was just a blank stare on everyone’s face. It was hailing, the winds were fierce, and our sweaty necks felt as if someone was pouring ice water onto them whenever the cold wind gusted. It was probably seven or eight degrees. We weren’t sure of the real temperature; all we knew was that we hadn’t slept; our bodies weren’t fully functioning; and we were unprepared for this last test. The one time in my life it had decided to snow in Southern California was the final day of my crucible. I felt that God was screwing with us and with me; man, does that guy have a sense of humor.

I’ve heard of the rigorousness of the Crucible events, but never in a million years would my platoon or I be prepared for a training course with such weather conditions, especially when constant movement wasn’t necessarily an option.

We embarked on the movement toward the reaper with practically no layers for warmth. The weather was doing this crazy transition from rain, to hail, to light snow. For many, it was their first time seeing snow. Why this was happening in sunny SoCal was just as mysterious to them as it was to those of us who were familiar with the weather. The ground was muddy, icy, and extremely slippery. I could see my fellow recruits slipping and falling on each downhill descent and every uphill climb we struggled through. They would slip to the ground and then pick themselves up, slowly, under the weight of their heavy packs. Everyone was clutching their rifles to prevent the mud from getting into the barrels.

I had never faced such extreme adversity. My body was undergoing waves of feeling extremely hot and extremely cold. It wanted to collapse with each step, but something told me to hang on and keep moving forward. Maybe it was my rational brain telling me that if I stopped moving, I would become increasingly susceptible to the overwhelming effects of the cold. “I have to persist,” I told myself. It was in that exact moment that I realized the power of the mind.

I could see the blankness on everyone’s faces as I passed by them. Many of them stared straight down, watching every step they took and grimacing from the pain they felt each time they lifted their boots off the icy, muddy ground. What was originally two equally aligned columns turned into a cluster of walking bodies with an everybody-for-yourself type of mentality as the cold, frustration, sleep deprivation, and hunger affected us all.

“We need a Doc!” I heard from a distance. I heard it once more and then again. I saw Navy Corpsmen rushing to recruits as they dropped like flies. “Not me,” I said. “Not fucking me,” I kept saying to myself as I painfully continued forward with my rifle barrel pulled to the side of my left thigh and my right hand gripping the trigger. I walked past each individual as if I were an observer of this event rather than a participant in it. We got close to the Reaper hill, and none of the safety trucks were capable of making it to the top without slipping back. I heard Doc screaming and the corpsman crying, “Breathe god dammit!” as he pounded on the chest of a passed out recruit. Each blow on the chest was met with no response. I could have sworn he was dead, but after five minutes, the kid came to, breathing heavily as he awoke from his near-death experience.

Ultimately our company commander turned us around to go around the hill and toward the barracks near the chow hall on the other side of the trail, where they had planned to complete the event and start the ceremony to mark our becoming Marines. Yet the harsh weather decided to test us further. Recruits began to “fall out,” and I witnessed many of the individuals who were ahead of me falling farther and farther back. Their steps became slower and slower. “Not me,” I repeated to myself. I lengthened my stride and treated the situation as if it were life or death. I saw more recruits falling out and getting into the safety truck, but I kept trekking.

At this point I began to lose my train of thought, and in a strange way, I could feel my face assuming a blank expression as well. I began to stare at the floor. I figured that if I just didn’t look at what was left ahead, perhaps the hike would go by faster. It didn’t really change much, in all honesty.

As I continued, I marched past my friend, Mendoza, who slept next to my rack in our squad bay. I looked over at him and asked, “How are we feeling buddy?” I was met with a blank stare. No answer whatsoever, just the sounds of agonizing pain. I decided to keep moving, past him and others, until completion, dreading each step of the way. I tried to look forward past my feet so I didn’t get lost in each step, but I needed to be careful of the hazards on the trail. Finally, I saw the parade deck and barracks building. I rushed toward the landmarks to finish strong, and I thought, “Wow. I really just did that.”

The mind is capable of taking itself and the body to unspeakable places, unspeakable in the sense that you don’t know what you will do in the moment until it arrives. The physical body will always tell you to stop. But the mind has other plans. When every cell feels the need to give up, the mind can push you to limits you never thought you were capable of reaching.

I carry the memory of this experience with me. Every time I am met with challenges, I draw upon it as I push past barriers and overcome setbacks, regardless of what others around me do. I have learned that external factors aren’t what prevent you from finishing what you started; it is ultimately what you draw from within yourself that makes the difference.

Brandon Mariano served in the Marine Corps from 2014-2018, where he worked as a inventory management specialist, an armory custodian, and a martial arts instructor. Brandon graduated from UC San Diego in 2022 with a degree in Political Science with a focus in International Relations. Brandon now works as a reporter/ journalist for the Coronado Times. He resides in San Diego, CA.