8. Officer Candidate School

LANDING IN PENSACOLA, FLORIDA, on January 20, 2001, I looked down at the papers in my hand, a printed list of the "General Orders of the Sentry." The Officer Candidate School website had recommended memorizing the orders before I arrived.

General Order no. 2: To walk my post in a military manner, keeping always on the alert and observing everything that takes place within sight or hearing.1

I was going to OCS to take up my new "post," but after signing my papers, I now had my doubts. A few things were certain: I knew that I wanted to serve my country. I knew that I wanted to be tested. The strong often need to protect the weak, and I believed that rather than talking about what should be done, I should do it. I should live my values by serving. At the same time, I was leaving a life of extraordinary freedom that I absolutely enjoyed, and I was reluctant to sacrifice that freedom.

At Oxford I had done pretty much as I pleased. Walking the ancient streets of the city one overcast day as mist hung in the air, my girlfriend and I talked about how nice it would be to go on a beach vacation. On the next street over we saw a poster hanging in the window of a travel company that advertised bargain vacations to Greece, and we booked the trip. At Oxford I'd spent whole days reading novels— The Grapes of Wrath, The Color Purple—in the University Parks. When I wanted to serve at one of Mother Teresa's homes for the destitute and dying, I left for India. I trained nine times a week with the boxing team, but every time I showed up I did so by choice. I had days, weeks, months, years at my disposal. At Oxford I learned and trained and lived and served on my own schedule.

My Oxford routine included an early-morning workout and a leisurely breakfast filled with reading for pleasure before I started my day. At OCS, I knew that I'd be lucky to steal two minutes to myself. I had read that entire classes were run through the showers and fought two at a sink to shave in just a few minutes a day. My material possessions had always been minimal—bed, books, boxing gear—but I had been living in comfortable places with time on my hands.

General Order no. 3: Report all violations of orders I am instructed to enforce.

I had never really had any rules to follow, beyond the dictates of my own self-imposed discipline. I was entering a world where every candidate was issued a thick rule book that he was instructed to study, memorize, and obey. The rule book was to be placed on the desk such that the right side of the book ran parallel to the right side of the desk exactly one half inch from the edge, and the bottom of the book ran parallel to the bottom of the desk exactly one half inch from the edge. In the Navy, there were rules about rules.

In my first few days at OCS, I wondered whether my decision to join the military had been a mistake. Once on base, I was greeted by candidate officers—officer candidates in the final two weeks of the thirteen-week program, who were put in charge of the incoming officer candidates. One of these guys—sweating, slightly pudgy, his head shaved—yelled at me to "Walk faster!" as his face broke out in red blotches. Is he kidding?

I lined up on a sidewalk with other recruits. I was wearing jeans, hiking boots, and the same faded safari shirt I'd worn to China eight years earlier. I dropped my red duffle bag at my feet. The candidate officers walked up and down the line doing their best imitation of General Patton. "Look straight ahead!"

One candidate officer was sweating and the cracked timbre of his voice gave away the fact that he was nervous. "You want to be a Navy officer?!" he yelled repeatedly. We were marched around the base in our civilian clothes. We were yelled at to stand straight and yelled at not to put our hands in our pockets. There was a tremendous amount of yelling, and it all seemed immature to me. Earl and Henry had demanded extraordinary performance, and I had never once heard them yell at or berate one of their fighters.

The candidate officers collected our orders and started our military service records.


Initial Date of Entry to Military Service: January 20, 2001.

The yelling continued. "Drink water! Drink more water! Every fountain you pass, you will stop and drink water!" I had boxed for years. I knew exactly how much water I needed to drink. "Drink more water! You will empty a full canteen!" A candidate officer shadowed us. "Do what you're told, and you'll have nothing to fear!"

I must not have looked sufficiently panicked, because a candidate officer put his face next to mine and yelled, "Just wait until your drill instructor shows up, you'll be doing pushups until your arms fall off!" I allowed myself the small rebellion of cocking an eyebrow at him and frowning slightly.

The candidate officers had been in the Navy exactly eleven weeks more than I. They were twenty-two years old. I was only twenty-six, but I felt two decades older than these just-graduated-from-college-and-joined-the-Navy kids who were now yelling at me to look straight ahead. Thanks to Hollywood, I had expected to be greeted by wizened drill sergeants, hard-driving veterans who would push exhausted recruits to their limits. That would have been a test. I looked forward to being pushed by people who had served and earned the right to train me. These guys, strutting around in their recently issued black Navy windbreakers, just seemed like jerks. As they walked up and down the rows of recruits, Napoleon complexes in full bloom, I wondered, Is this the kind of leadership the military produces? All yelling and ego?

As I stole glances at my fellow classmates, I became even more disappointed. Many of them were so intimidated, their hands shook when they bent to tie their shoes. Didn't they see that this was a joke?

We were issued a set of ill-fitting plain green fatigues—"poopy greens"—and wearing those fatigues, I sat down in the chow hall across from another candidate. The yelling had gotten to him, and after forcing down water all day, he promptly puked a full canteen's worth of bile across the table and soaked my fatigues.

From the chow hall, the candidate officers ran us into our barracks and lined us up in the hallway. Finally, someone from central casting arrived. Our drill instructor, Staff Sergeant Lewis, was a pure green comic-book-like figure of Marine Corps perfection striding down the hall, his face hidden beneath his Smokey Bear hat, his biceps emerging from his perfectly rolled sleeves, boots shining, baritone booming. "Get out of my passageway! Stand against the bulkhead!"

As he walked down the hallway, I remember watching with anthropologist-like fascination and thinking, This is interesting, watching these college kids get indoctrinated in the U.S. military; you can see that they're afraid. I wonder if the drill instructors practice this, the walking-down-the-hallway moment. I wonder what's going to happen next. Staff Sergeant Lewis grabbed me by the green collar of my fatigues, walked me back three steps, pressed me against the wall, and yelled, "Join the rest of this sorry group!"

I realized then that I was actually in the Navy.

Staff Sergeant Lewis was a squared-away, hard-core Marine and—I would later come to believe—a great drill instructor. But as I watched him march up and down the hall, yelling and shoving and barking commands, the whole thing struck me as comical. We were instructed to run around the barracks. One woman in her panic ran the wrong direction down the hallway. Staff Sergeant Lewis flew into a rage. "Get over here now!" He grabbed her by her lapels and threw her down the passageway.

We were instructed that after hearing a command, we would yell, "Kill!" and then execute the command. "Eyes right!"


"Forward, march!"


During one of these kill-yelling moments I looked across the hallway to see if any of the other candidates also thought that this was ridiculous. Only one of them rolled his eyes in a gesture of shared endurance.


I had very little confidence that my new class would have been able to kill anything. We had a few "priors"—men and women who had previously been enlisted in the Navy and were now here to become officers—but other than those few, it was largely a group of untested and almost uniformly out-of-shape college grads.

"Your name is on your room. Get there!"

I ran to find my room, which I shared with three roommates, and once we were finally clear of the candidate officers and the drill instructor for a moment, I sat down and started to laugh. I glanced at my new roommates, all of them wide-eyed with fear, and I could see them thinking, Oh no, the pressure's got to this guy, he's cracking already.

I went through the next several days unimpressed. We were issued workout clothes that were as dysfunctional—swim trunks with no drawstring—as they were unfashionable, and I began to learn some basic Navy lingo. A door was a "hatch," a wall was a "bulkhead," a bathroom was a "head." Women were not to be referred to as women, but as "females." To say something was to "put the word out." To be quiet was to "lock it up."

We sat down in the chow hall to meals of overcooked food. Teams of drill instructors swarmed as we ate. They walked on top of the tables and kicked silverware and glasses onto the floor with their boots. As candidates walked through the chow hall carrying trays, drill instructors who saw minor infractions of the rules knocked the trays out of their hands and sent spaghetti flying through the air.

A great deal of our time was focused on clothes. We spent hours folding our shirts and shorts and pants. We actually sprayed starch—a lot of it—on our underwear, and then ironed our underwear into perfect squares, and then set these flat squares in our lockers for inspection. We were issued two pairs of running shoes, but the word came down to avoid wearing one pair so that they would be clean for inspection. They were anti-running shoes, apparently. It all seemed absurd.

I had anticipated runs so fast my lungs would be on fire. Instead we ran in formation as a class. I was used to running six-minute miles in my training. Now I was jogging twelve-minute miles while singing silly songs.

Mission top secret, destination unknown

We don't know if we're ever coming home

Stand up, buckle up, and shuffle to the door...

And the cadence would ring out, "Left, left, leftee right, lay-eft." As we shuffled down the road I felt my physical conditioning actually slipping away— When were we going to train hard? Is this really my life? I'd joined the Navy for a challenge, but at night I held a bottle of fingernail polish in my hands. We were told to cut any loose strings—"Irish pennants"—from our uniforms, and then to dab the spot with fingernail polish so that the strays would not reemerge. This is my challenge? Fingernail polish?

Wong was a thin, short, Asian American member of my class who had recently graduated from college with a degree in engineering and whose ambition was to be a civil engineer in the United States Navy. One morning during physical training, we were doing pushups when a drill instructor began yelling at Wong. "What are you doing to my gym floor, candidate?" Wong had been instructed—as we all had—to keep a straight back during pushups, but Wong could not do a single correct pushup. With his arms fully extended, his back sagged so that his crotch pressed into the ground. The drill instructor continued, "What are you doing?! You are defiling my gym floor! Are you lonely here?!"

Wong swiveled his hips in an attempt to straighten his back, but this only incensed the drill instructor. "Oh my goodness! That is one of the most disgusting frickin' acts of violence against a piece of United States Navy property that I have ever seen!"

By this time, Staff Sergeant Lewis, United States Marine Corps, had walked over to Wong. "Wong, what is the matter with you!" And then he yelled out, "Where is that Gritchens!"

Did he mean me?

"Gritchens, get over here!"

I jumped up and ran over to Staff Sergeant Lewis.

"Yes, sir!"

"Gritchens, Wong here just became your personal project, do you understand me?"

"Yes, sir!"

"You are going to teach Wong how to do pushups! You are going to teach Wong PT! You are going to move rooms and you are going to live in the same room as Wong, wake at the same time as Wong, and you will teach Wong in every spare moment so that Wong will pass the final physical fitness test. I am going to hold you responsible for Wong's PT, do you understand?!"

"Yes, sir!"

I had to make my peace with OCS. I wanted to serve, and I couldn't change the school. I couldn't make us actually run, instead of jog while singing. I couldn't change the curriculum so that we ran the obstacle course instead of polishing belt buckles. I couldn't change the schedule so that we learned to use a shotgun instead of folding our underwear into starched squares. None of that was in my control.

OCS produced Navy officers, and those officers were supposed to be leaders. I had imagined that my leadership would be built at OCS through difficult physical tests—obstacle courses, runs, rescue swims—through hard classroom learning, and through precision military maneuvers—learning how to march, to drill with a rifle, to shoot a pistol. I was wrong on all counts—but I now realized there was an opportunity here. I had the chance to lead others, to be of genuine help to my classmates. OCS would be easy for me, but for some of the men and women in my class it was the test of their lives, and if I had joined the military to be of service, here was my chance.

I threw myself into the school. Wong and I began to take breaks every ten minutes while working on our uniforms to knock out fifteen pushups. I became the "PT Body," the person in charge of the physical training of the class. I grew to respect Wong in particular. OCS was hard on him. He must have known that it would be hard when he signed up, but still he signed up.

When we were issued rifles, I worked as hard as I could to master the drill. OCS offered a recognition—a white badge called a snowflake—to any man or woman who graduated with excellence in all three areas of endeavor—physical training, academic tests, and military proficiency. I decided that I might not like the course, but I would master it. We worked together as a class and we made it our goal to graduate with more snowflakes than any other class in our year. We started to cooperate in small ways. I was, for example, never very good at shining shoes, so I made deals with classmates: I washed their sneakers and they polished my shoes. Our class was given a "guide-on," a flag, and we marched with it everywhere we went.

The school remained disappointing. Our classes seemed irrelevant, and in one of the most ridiculous traditions in the Navy, the instructors would stomp their feet when they said things that would be tested. "Buoys are considered an aid to navigation"—and they would stomp their feet two times. Someone explained to me, "That means that'll be a question on the test."

"Why don't they just say, 'This is going to be on the test'?"

" 'Cause they're not allowed to tell us what's on the test."

We often stayed up late at night preparing our uniforms, and fell asleep in classes during the day. We continued to polish belt buckles, and almost everyone slept in a sleeping bag on their beds rather than in their beds because we didn't want to have to take twenty minutes in the morning to prepare our beds again for inspection.

Wong and I continued to take breaks during uniform-prep sessions to do pushups. One night we had a mishap. Guys used different strategies to remove the Irish pennants from their uniforms. Not everyone used the scissors-and-fingernail-polish method. Some guys—Wong being one—actually used a lighter to burn stray strings. The night before an inspection, Wong's technique failed, and he burned a three-finger-sized hole in one of his khaki uniform shirts.

On the morning of the inspection, the drill instructors pulled out Wong's shirt with the black burn ring in his official Navy uniform. They exploded. "Wong, drop down!" With Wong in pushup position, they proceeded to pull every item out of his locker—starched underwear, starched socks, laundry bag, knit cap, pants, belt buckles—and throw everything onto the floor. Three screaming drill instructors worked our room over.

"What is the matter with you people?" one of them yelled. "How are you going to let Wong over here burn holes in his uniform? What did you think was going to happen when we walked in here?!"

We had no response.

The drill instructor continued. "Oh, Wong, your uniform looks great except for this fist-sized hole that you burned straight through your shirt."

We were all standing at attention, and I bit the inside of my mouth harder than I'd ever bit it before in an attempt not to laugh.

He yelled at Wong: "How do you expect to stand in front of your sailors as an officer, a leader, when you do not have common sense enough to not burn holes in your uniform!"

When Staff Sergeant Lewis walked into the room, which now looked like it had been hit by a hurricane, and saw Wong in the pushup position sweating a puddle on the floor, he immediately looked at me. "Gritchens! What is going on here?"

Another drill instructor answered for me. "Wong here has got all creative, a one-hundred-percent individual, and I think that Gritchens enrolled him in a goddarn contemporary frickin' fashion class!" He held up the burned uniform. "That is some avant-garde frickin' runway model trash right here!"

Staff Sergeant Lewis boomed, "Gritchens, I told you to watch out for Wong! What is going on?!"

"No excuse, sir!" I said. "It's my responsibility, sir!"

Staff Sergeant Lewis ordered the other two men in the room to leave and join the class for chow, and told me to walk into the hallway with him.

The other drill instructors were still going crazy around Wong. "How do you expect me to trust you with a billion-dollar Navy ship if I can't trust you with a goddarn shirt?!" They had turned his bed completely over, and then they went around the room and turned over the three other beds and ripped the well-folded sheets off and threw the sheets in a pile in the middle of the room.

One of the drill instructors asked Wong, "Wong, have you ever played a goddarn sport in your life?!"

They weren't expecting an answer and were surprised when Wong yelled from the ground, "Yes, sir!"

"Really?" the drill instructor asked. "What sport did you play?"

"Football, sir!"

Looking through the door frame I saw two drill instructors look at each other in disbelief. "Really, Wong, you played football? What position did you play?"

Wong yelled, "It was John Madden Football, sir!"

I watched as one of the drill instructors walked out of the room trying to control a laugh. The other drill instructor bent down close to Wong's ear and yelled, "Computer games are not a sport! Do you understand me!"

"Yes, sir!"

I thought that Staff Sergeant Lewis was going to yell at me, but for the first time, he addressed me like a human being—albeit a gruff human being. "Gritchens, Wong is going to miss breakfast. I want you to run down to the McDonald's and buy him something to eat."

"Yes, sir!"

From where we stood in the passageway, Staff Sergeant Lewis could not see Wong, though I could. He yelled, "Wong, Gritchens is going to McDonald's to get you breakfast, what do you want?" And then I saw the drill instructor who was bent down near Wong's ear whisper to him. The drill instructor whispered, "You better tell him, 'Lewis, go get me a goddarn frickin' Egg McMuffin.' Say exactly that or I will beat you for days."

Wong yelled, "Lewis, go get me a goddamn fuckin' Egg McMuffin!"

Staff Sergeant Lewis exploded into the room and together with the other drill instructor they worked Wong through a series of pushups and squat thrusts until he'd laid a huge pool of sweat on the ground.

Staff Sergeant Lewis slowly whipped the class into shape. We marched as a class, trained as a class, studied as a class. We passed inspections and we passed exams and for a group that had never marched together before, soon the movements of our rifles were synchronized on the parade ground. We managed, eventually, to get in and out of the chow hall without trays being knocked out of our hands.

I also started to have a good time with my classmates. We earned the freedom of our Saturdays, and we'd all head out—dressed in our goofy candidate uniforms—and laugh for hours over plates of hot wings and burgers. We'd run for miles on the beach. I got to know my fellow candidates better, and I liked them even more. They'd all come to serve. We became one—same uniforms, same haircuts, same military language—but we all retained a rich diversity of thought and perspective and humor and philosophy. They were—almost to a person—kind and thoughtful, and it was through them that I began to rediscover America. One day while driving off base with my friends, I realized that if I counted the years from the time I became an adult at age eighteen to the time I'd joined the military at nearly twenty-seven, I'd spent more time outside the United States than I'd spent in it. My time away had afforded me an invaluable education about the world, but now, back at home, I was being reintroduced to my fellow Americans by some of our best people, people who had dedicated themselves to serving our country.

I often found myself playing the role of counselor. One man's mother became very sick and he broke down crying as he thought about leaving the Navy to return home. Another man who'd grown up hardscrabble fell apart seven weeks into OCS, thinking that he wanted to quit. He'd just never believed in himself before.

I still found the underwear folding and the keep-your-sneakers-clean-for-inspection stuff ridiculous, but I began to see some of the wisdom in what the drill instructors were doing. Some of the people in my class had never been screamed at before. Now they had two trained drill instructors screaming at them and putting them through what were—for some of them—demanding physical exercises while they were forced to recall answers to essential military questions. This did not necessarily approximate the stress of what they would experience as ship commanders, but it did begin to teach the candidates that they could, that they had to, manage their fear and perform while under stress.

Uncontrolled fear rots the mind and impairs the body. Navy officers have to perform in situations—an incoming missile, a sinking ship—that could cause people to become paralyzed by fear. I'd learned in boxing and in my work overseas that human beings can inoculate themselves against uncontrolled fear. When I first stepped into a boxing ring to spar, my heart rate was high, my adrenaline pumped, my muscles were tense—and I got beat up. After years of Earl's training I could get in a ring with an appreciation of how dangerous my opponent was, and I could keep my heart rate steady, my muscles loose, and I could fight well. The same thing happened as I became more comfortable working in dangerous situations overseas. I didn't dismiss the dangers—in fact I became even more finely attuned to the dangers around me—but I was able to operate in those fear-inducing environments without my fear interfering with me. OCS was—for many—their first taste of chaos and confusion.

Likewise, while I found the unrelenting inspections of our uniforms to be mind numbing, it did teach attention to detail. If one man had lint on the back of his coat, we'd all pay. We learned to look out for each other, quite literally.

As we progressed, Staff Sergeant Lewis started to show a human side. We weren't allowed junk food on base, and when it was mailed to us in care packages, candidates sometimes were forced to eat it. During one mail call, one of the candidates was shoving Ding Dongs in his mouth and doing jumping jacks. As the Ding Dong scarfer tried to shout, "Yes, sir!" shards of Ding Dong flew down the hallway. Staff Sergeant Lewis had his head bent forward underneath his big Smokey Bear hat, but the slightest vibration of the hat gave away the fact that he was trying not to laugh out loud.

My friend Matt DiMarco and I organized an extravagantly named "Deathwish PT," and in the evening we would take a group from our class outside for extra physical training. No one came close to death, but we did have a lot of fun. We'd knock out pull-ups and blow off steam by laughing about the day. We competed in an all-OCS tug of war, and our class flag was held high on the victory stand.

Even Staff Sergeant Lewis started to take a bit of pride in our class. He would call out, "One-Five" (we were class 15-01), and we would shout back, "Hell yeah!"

Wong—like all of us—was required to complete forty-seven pushups in two minutes on the final physical fitness test. In the end, he knocked out more than ninety, stood up, and said, "Guess that's how it's done." By graduation day—our class now dressed in choker whites, marching in formation, executing sword salutes—we had become Navy officers.

I walked off the parade field with orders to report to SEAL training in Coronado, California.

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