Being Set Back

I’ve seen it mentioned but not discussed in depth. That feared and unwelcome extension of one’s stay in boot camp… being set back. I hit Parris Island at about 9:30 PM on Sept 28, 1961, picked up by Platoon 376, Company Q, 3rd Training Battalion, but graduated on Dec 22, 1961, with Platoon 383, Company R, 3rd Training Battalion. So yes, I was set back.
There’s many paths to it, likely many for common reasons. But, how you ended up taking that detour, what went on taking that route, how you came out the other end and how it affected you, is likely a somewhat different story for each recruit. Here’s my story.
I guess I can say it’s the story about a blister. A crappy little blister on my left foot! Or, maybe it’s the story about just how important boots are to a Marine. Our DIs picked us up on the 29th and
about the first place they herded us to was supply. You got your gear, utilities and boots. I remember we had to walk along a wooded platform where some guy in supply measured your foot, or looked at your foot, and determined your boot size from his vast experience, after which he flung a couple your way. You put them on. I told him they were too big. He did the usual snarl, or some wise azs remark, which basically boiled down to… “Shut the F’up, this is your size, move on.”
In about two days a blister about the size of a quarter developed. I suffered through it about a week with it getting worse by the day. It hurt in the mornings, but the pain went away with use of the foot. The blister got really ugly. When we were in the shower a couple of guys would tell me I should tell the DI. But, I thought I could tough it out. Finally tossed it in and showed it to my Sr DI when red lines were starting up my left leg. He took one look and told me to get my shavinggear and sent, or took me to sick bay.
I hit sick bay at about 10 days after I hit PI. We were just beginning to have “fun”. From the reaction of the doctor, blisters weren’t rare. He propped my foot up and cleaned it (by scrubbing it hard with some kind of antiseptic soap). Probably gave me a pill or such, but primarily the treatment was to stick me in a bed, stay off my foot as much as possible, have me wash it four times a day with Phisohex soap, give me a little cooker that kept a little pot of water hot, and every 20 minutes I was to put a fresh piece of hot gauze over the wound. All day long until lights out.
Attached is a sketch of what the majority of my day looked like for a week.
Sick Bay wasn’t like the hospital. There’s NOTHING to do, to read, to see (e.g. TV). Relative to the new normal of boot camp training, it was limbo la la land. You were in PI, but you weren’t in PI. And God, time crawled. The only constructive thing I could do was write and read letter. I had way more time to write an actual letter than in the barracks, so I did do that.
What was really on my mind, was the fear of getting set back. Somewhere in the process, someone explained the rules of engagement. If you lost more than 72 hours of training you could be set back three days. But, weekends didn’t count as they weren’t considered training days. So it was my healing blister racing the clock. I started healing up right away, and by three days, so well if I was at home, Dr. Me would have slapped on a band-aid, gotten a pair of boots that fit, and dived back in. But it wasn’t up to me. It was maddening. If one Doc had a say, I might have made it out of there and stayed on track. But, there were two Docs. A general guy, and a foot guy.
The former was ready to let me pop back into circulation at the end of three days, but the foot guy kept vetoing him right past the deadline. Also on the table was a possible transfer to the hospital… for a blister! The other general rule of thumb is, if you didn’t get released in three days back into training, they’d transfer you to the hospital. A mixed blessing. As the hospital was “good duty”, you weren’t a recruit there, but a patient, and they wanted patients to be happy and comfortable… good food, reading material, TV, perhaps movies. I didn’t want to go there. You only have to be in PI for a day to learn you want to leave in good standing ASAP.
This side tour was like sensory deprivation. From hump busting 12-hour days to instant laying in bed most of the time doing squat. From screaming, hollering, noise, and hard azsing to mostly being left alone. I mean really! For a while, the sick bay population at times was just me and a Corpsman. I say mostly left alone as most of the Corpsmen were decent guys just doing their jobs. And they didn’t consider playing DI to be part of their job. But one guy did, pontificating on how little he gave a shit about the DIs, while trying to imitate them with ball busting or name calling. I remember one evening he got all excited. The optimum word in Parris Island is Island. And, as boots, we were often warned that no matter how well you thought you could swim, don’t try to “escape”. First you had to get through the swamp and quicksand to get to open water, and the open water had strong currents and tides… and even if you got through that… someone would pick you up on the other side. I supposed someone(s) making a break for freedom wasn’t uncommon. On this one evening, this Corpsman heard through the grapevine or an alert that two guys made a break for it. That guy was thrilled. Calling his friends etc. f-cking ghoul.
All good things came to an end. After 8 days, 6 training days, Doc 1 talked Doc 2 into releasing me. Doc 2 must have been a low risk guy. He appeared to want me to have skin like a baby before letting me go. But Doc 1 prevailed. He told me I was his “experiment”… that’s to see how I’d fare with some healing to go. Or would I return?
I don’t remember exactly how I got to sick bay in the first place. Walk or was driven? Or, how I got back. I just know they practically kicked me out when they finally decided to release me, before I had a chance to shave. I recall getting back to my old barracks and I think reporting to my Sr. DI. Just me and him. To us boots, he exuded fear. His voice would darken the sun. I braced myself for his undivided and worst attention. But, he didn’t hard azs me. He just calmly said that I’d missed too many days and he couldn’t take me back, and to get my stuff together. I think he would have kept me if I missed by a day over the limit. They never packed my gear, which is what they do when you aren’t returning. I assume they get some kind of status reports too. I
think I asked if I could shave before I moved on explaining why. He said OK, again with no hassle.
I also don’t recall how I got to my new platoon, if I was picked up or delivered. The two DIs and platoons blur in the baton pass. I remember getting a look behind the veil. That DIs were people. After he picked me up, the first order of business for my new Sr DI was getting me a new pair of boots, ones that fit. So he drove us to supply. But, his wife had some place she needed to go, so he picked her up and for part of the way it was them up front with me, a wart on a log, sitting in the back seat, silent and at attention. Weird. Surreal in recruit world. At supply I got re-fitted, except this time my DI personally saw to it, to his satisfaction (and mine) that the boots were the right size. They were. I never had a problem again.
The bad thing about being set back is the underlying fear, and one leveraged by the DIs, that you’re viewed as defective or worse, as a sh-tbird. And, be treated accordingly. That no matter what, you did not want to get set back. That’s one reason I wasn’t a happy camper about reporting back to duty unshaven. I could see how that wouldn’t help my cause, and to this day, I wonder if some b-stard of a Corpsman refused me my shave thinking it would cause me some grief. There’s all kinds of reasons why people get set back… and if attitude is one, yeah, perhaps you’ll catch some heat. But, in my case, neither DI burned up any energy or time to give me a hard time. Besides, screaming and hollering at someone in a vacuum (absent of other recruits is a waste of their time, as no other recruit is there to get the message.
My new Platoon-mates as far as I can recall were decent too. Business as usual. And the timing was such that I’d already done more training-wise than they had because I’d gone further into the cycle. So I wasn’t the source of some grief because I screwed something up. You just had to adjust to a new DI’s rules. Like in Platoon 373, proper approach to the DI’s hut was to slam your hand on the bulkhead HARD, TWICE and scream as load as you could to request to speak to the Drill Instructor, Preceding and Ending with the Sir. When I did that in Platoon 383 the other recruits looked at me like I fell into the barracks from Mars. They had a different ritual that didn’t include the opening slams and bellowing. So if the concept of being embarrassed exists in boot camp, you could be embarrassed by looking like some kind of idiot.
In sum, getting set back offered a slightly different boot camp experience, but one I’d rather have skipped. It does affect you. Think about it. First you start boot camp, yanking you into another world,
which turns your previous world upside down. Just when you begin adjusting to that, your chain gets yanked again, throwing you into some other world and you’re off balance again, then you’re spit out of that into another change. Bizarre as it sounds, I always related to my first platoon more than the second. And I don’t think I ever got completely back in balance until out of boot camp into ITR which hit the reset button for everyone.
There was one upside. Platoon 383 was on an accelerated schedule to get us out before Christmas. So I didn’t lose any calendar time. I left PI just about when I would have had I stayed put.
Don Harkness

13 thoughts on “Being Set Back”

  1. I remember being told by our DI that if your boots don’t feel right to say so…. And he would make sure you got the right size!! But…it’s a good hurry up and wait story…

  2. Thanks for story. My best bud was set back and when we caught up at ITR he had nothing good to say about his experience. I loved “set backs” because my DIs used them as examples and targets of discipline, easing up the pressure on the rest of us.

  3. SD, July 1969….gear issue…stated my shoe size as requested, then told “one size less” would be correct boot size. About halfway through the first month, up on the footlocker for foot inspection. Never had really paid much attention, other than looking for blisters and such. DI came by and looked at my feet and asked if they hurt…and of course, the correct answer was “Sir, No Sir”. He then had me look down and I had no ankles…just straight legged from calf to feet and my feet were completely flat on the footlocker. No arch. He asked again and I gave the same hearty reply. He moved on.
    So, as it turns out, I really did not look at my boots in any detail when issued…not until I got to NAS Memphis for “A” School. Boots were labeled size 9 and should have been 10. All the way through Boot camp and ITR. “Set Backs” primarily consisted of “Motivational Platoon” or to the “Hog Farm” if you were over weight. None of us were cut to either, but some of the Hogs really had a rough time the first couple of weeks surviving on no carbs…only protein and greens. All said and done, all of the Hogs in the beginning became “Lean, Mean, Marines” to their great satisfaction.

  4. I had a cousin who joined before I did. He caught Pneumonia while at Parris Island, and was set back for a couple of weeks. He recovered an joined a new platoon. He graduated and came home on the Very day that I left for Boot Camp. No chance to talk to him…but I got picked up by his old Drill Instructor! No bad vibes, but at least my DI could pronounce my name. Semper Fi, my BROTHERS !!!

  5. At Field Med School, Camp Pendleton, my boots were too big and gave me tendinitis. I suffered with it for a while and learned that a buddy’s were too little. We traded. What a relief for both of us.

  6. The year was 1971 – We had several get sent to “one day” Motivation. That would not get you set back. To us Motivation Plt. was punishment for those that would wise crack, had attitude or just could not get with the program. 1 day mot was punishment for something, 3 day mot was meant to get rid of you by setting you back and start that phase over again. One of guys got ‘1 day mot’ on 3 different occasions. Just as we were headed to the rifle range he was sent to ‘3 day Mot’ which got you set back. I remember as I was leaving the island, a friend pointed out the window and there he was – still in a first phase Plt.

  7. I’m one of the “lucky” one’s who got hit with a set back. When I went to boot, I didn’t know that there was a right way, and a wrong way, to run. Long story short….I developed the worst case of shin splints the doctor in boot had ever seen, and I got dropped from training. Spent 81 days in MRP. Got offered 3 chances to go home. Turned each one down. Watched my original platoon graduate, (painful experience). Spent the holiday season in boot, (Oh, boy, was that fun.). Took a voluntary 2 week drop in training to repeat 1st phase. Successfully finished boot with 1st class PFT, Rifle Expert, and almost perfect scores on prac. ap. tests. Got a pat on the back from meeting with other recruits who were in processing to go home, but changed their minds after talking with me and 2 other graduating recruits. Base commanding general, (Brig. Gen. Grinulds(?spelling?)), wanted to meet me at graduation. Marine Corps Gazette, and Marine Corps Times both did stories on me. 2nd company in Marine Corps history where everyone was wearing Blues. Total time in boot….6 months, (2nd Btn., San Diego). This really is the short version of the story.

  8. I too was set back. Started with platoon 324 MCRD San Diego, and finished with plt. 128. Caught pneumonia while on mess duty at the rifle range(camp Mathews). After a stint in the Naval hospital(Balboa) I got picked up by a plt. That was on mess duty. I was assigned to the weak squad. PT all day for a week. I think the hardest part is making new friends and being left out of the year book. The D I’s were just as mean, but had enough training to know how to skate. Semper Fi brothers. RVN 65/66/69.

  9. I got sent to motivation platoon due to a misidentification of 2 recruits that looked similar and had the same last name. The DI at motivation soon as me why I was there and I gave him the above info. Being a weekend, I was stuck there until Monday when I was sent to a new platoon as a “pick up” and was a second class citizen the entire time. But the worse was to come when I reported to my mos school a week late and the course had started. I got mess duty, day on stay on for 7 friggin weeks until the next class started. Yeah I was one salty private but things turned around at my first duty station thanks to Gunnery Sergeant Parent. I met him again a couple years later as I was now Sergeant and he asked if I was a Career Marine and I replied in the affirmative and he just smiled.
    I ran into the other same named Marine too, he was still a Private, 3 years later and soon to be discharged.
    USMC, one good deal after another.

  10. Got to MCRD San Diego on September 10, 1968. Immediately upon arrival, was assigned to platoon 1081. When I arrived, I couldn’t do a pullup and kept dropping out on runs. Failed the inital PFT in spectacular fashion. The Drill Instructors kept me with the platoon anyway. Put me on a strict meat and greens diet. After we got back from the rifle range (Week 6 of 8), we did a practice PFT, did better but still no pullups. Didn’t pass. Was dropped from 1081 and sent to PCP (Light Section). (Worst day of my life to that point). Got lucky with Light Section because I had lost 45 pounds during the first 6 week of training. Spent 4 weeks in PCP. 4 days of heavy exercise and 3 days of light exercise. Being there was like being in limbo. What was worse was that our Quonset Hut was across the street from the snack bar, so every Friday, got to see newly graduated Marines, knowing that I still had 2 weeks tot go when or if I got back to training. After 4 weeks of PCP, got picked up by platoon 1106. Passed the final PFT with flying colors (5 pullups). Graduated just be for Xmas. Spent Xmas and New Year’s on mess duty at San Onofre before our ITR company was formed.

    1ST MAW DANANG 1966 TO 1968. SEMPER FI.

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