MARINE CORPS AIR STATION YUMA, Ariz. -- Drill is life.
That’s your mantra if you think you have what it takes for the Silent Drill Platoon, an elite marching unit that performs elaborate drill sequences without the aid of verbal commands for hundreds of thousands of people a year.
For the past four months, you’ve marched, spun rifles and exercised from Reveille to Taps. Along the way, you’ve watched most of your buddies pack their bags, unable to hack it. With the Marine Corps’ highest occupational school drop rate - 70 percent - Silent Drill School gives new meaning to your identity as one of “The Few.” You’re lean, you’re hard, and you own the thousand-yard stare.
You might be ready for Challenge Day, the culminating event of SDS in which the remaining elite travel here to face off in spectacular, audition-style displays of precision drilling. If they can impress the drill master enough with their appearance, intensity, precision and confidence, they are chosen for SDP’s “Marching 24” - the most prestigious unit in the Marine Corps.
“Ah, Challenge Day.” Meet Cpl. Tim Maurer, the hulking 22-year-old SDP drill master. “It was a huge relief when I finally made it the first time. Everything I had gone through the past four months suddenly made sense. I was finally a member of not only the most premier military unit in America, but in the world.”
Fortunately points aren’t deducted for modesty. In fact, these leathernecks need confidence to match their bicep size. From NFL half-time shows to high school appearances, they’re pulling off scores of unforgettable, intensity-driven performances a year, and intensity is definitely a grade on Challenge Day.
“It’s a critical event,” said Maurer. “We need to know if these guys have what it takes. They have to be loud. They have to be confident. They have to be perfect. We’ve been around since 1948. We have a legacy to uphold that no one can compete with.”
No pressure though. During their shows, the Marines execute a series of calculated drill movements and precise handling of their hand-polished, 10 and one-half pound M-1 Garand rifles with fixed bayonets. The routine concludes with an inspection so elaborate the audiences’ heads are spinning right along with the rifles.
“The point is to represent the pride and discipline that Marines are all about,” said Maurer. “We put a face on the Marine Corps for a lot of people.”
And where do these poster boys come from?
“They’re all grunts. They’re individually selected from the School of Infantry based on their size and marching proficiency,” said Maurer. “They come here to be marchers at the regular evening parades at Marine Barracks Washington, but they can try out for SDS when it begins in November.”
Try and fail, most likely. Ask Lance Cpl. Brian M. Henexson. He’s out here again after being cut early in the previous school.
“I want this,” said Henexson. “I just have to keep the drill slow and be ready to give it 100 percent at all times.” Henexson said he was nervous when his turn came up again, but no one observing his stone-faced performance would have noticed. The 20-year-old won this year’s “New Dog” award – a title given to Challenge Day’s best new driller.
“His level of dedication to perfection went beyond everyone else’s,” said Maurer. “And that’s exactly what’s going to be demanded of him and all the others from now on – perfection.”
Maurer said once Challenge Day is over, things aren’t going to get any easier. The bar is set higher, and everything becomes about fine tuning.
“I’m definitely relieved I did so well,” said Henexson. “But now’s the time I have to try even harder.”
These silent devil-dogs know all about trying hard. The pride reflected in their eyes was earned through tireless sweat and dedication - hallmarks of the corps of warriors they represent.
“You all should be beaming with pride,” said Capt. Kyle Aldrich, SDP commander, at the end of the competition. “Anywhere you go in the country, you will be recognized as the best of the best.”
Maurer allows a slight smile to escape his lips as he gathers the platoon around in a huddle. “Drill is…”
The steely-eyed Marines of the Silent Drill Platoon are suddenly not so silent as they finish the sentence in thunderous unison. “Life!”