Reporting for duty at Camp Pendleton was straight forward. At the headquarters building my orders were date stamped, and I was directed to a transient barracks. I had been there before and knew it as a holding pen until our company was completely checked in. We were divided into four platoons of 30 Marines, and I was designated as the 2nd Platoon’s Papa Sierra (military jargon for platoon sergeant).
At 1600 we were called to formation and given a brief itinerary. The plan was to be staged and transferred to the Las Pulgas training area before noon the next day where we would be issued all necessary gear before starting our training.
Meanwhile, we were to march in formation to the mess hall. I had trained in close order drill during NCO Leadership School and was familiar with all the commands. The platoon responded well to my cadence, and we were looking good on our way to chow.
There was one individual who stood out; his name was Private Gaskins. His appearance was almost identical to the Beetle Bailey comic strip character. His hat came down over his ears and was obviously too big for his head. While waiting in line at the mess hall, I asked him about the hat and he showed me it was a Size X-small. It had been a problem for him in boot camp and was never resolved (his head needed a size XXX-small hat which didn’t exist).
After dinner I offered to adjust Gaskins’ hat with a drawstring. He said OK, and we managed to run a boot lace around the inside base of the hat. After drawing the string tight around his head, tying it off and trimming the lace, it worked. He looked in the mirror beaming and said, “Thank Ya’ Sarge.” His nickname in boot camp had been Gomer.
Gaskins was from eastern Kentucky and raised pigs on a small family farm. Joining the Marines was the natural thing for him to do. His family had served in the armed forces for generations, and he was continuing the tradition. Although not highly educated, I could tell he was smart in an instinctive way. He sensed things others didn’t and had an enhanced awareness of his surroundings. He understood what he was getting into (Vietnam) and was ready for the adventure.
After spending some time outside talking and smoking, Gaskins and I headed into the barracks before lights out at 2200. The four platoon sergeants shared a room between the squad bays, and we took turns as the duty watch. My watch was 0001 to 0200 and basically we would patrol each squad bay every half hour.
I was relieved by Sergeant Garnett. He was from North Carolina and had two young children. As we talked I could tell he was homesick and missed them. It was gut wrenching to listen to him agonize over having to leave his kids during Christmas. We all had these issues, but some situations were worse than others.
Next Edition: The Helmet Liner