My only religious dalliances during Marine Corps boot camp were a few church services in second phase when Drill Instructor Krumpton wouldn’t stop hazing us, no matter who cried to our senior DI. A slim black man with whipcord muscled arms, Krumpton intimidated without towering over us. Instead of religion or Nihilism, what he peddled was fact—take it or leave it.
According to Krumpton, if our sisters were killed by a terrorist’s RPG, no one would care; he hoped it happened so we would see no one would care when we died, not even our mothers. Our second DI in command’s thoughts were just that he’d fuck our girlfriends when they came to see us graduate, which would never happen because our fathers didn’t want us and we were all going to die. Our head DI insisted no one would miss us when we died except our mothers: not our fathers or brothers, who would fuck our women while we were gone.
I may have been smarter than the average Devil Dog, but I didn’t know what a death cult was. I never considered what it meant to be infatuated with death, the way recruits screamed KILL, KILL’EM ALL, and proclaimed their readiness to die in verse and song—those were just quirks. When our second in command DI described his men dying on their backs, blood bubbling while they screamed for their mothers, it was preparation. Krumpton didn’t care to pretend in higher powers, or even their acolytes, so he sneered at much others held sacred.
“Catholic priest is coming. Wants there to be a sky father meeting,” Krumpton said. “Which is fitting, considering you’ll all die because we fucked around instead of training.”
Instead of talking about how great God is, the Chaplin encouraged us by talking about the import of what we were doing, and how there was no higher calling than defense of family and country.
“Does anyone have any questions,” the Chaplin asked circa five hundred recruits. “Not just about God, but about the outside world. Don’t worry. Your Drill Instructors won’t punish you.”
No one raised a hand or voice.
Monolithic, the old man with strange chevrons on his shoulders—not of us, but like us—gleamed dully. I raised my hand.
“You,” he said, pointing.
There had been a rumor going around, likely started by Drill Instructors to degrade our sense of reality. Recruits, the vast majority of which never wrote letters home, had started to accept the rumor as fact. The only way to pull the rug out from under the DIs was through humor. And I was sure I’d make everyone roar with laughter.
I looked around and feigned a “who, me?”
“Don’t be shy, son,” the old Chaplin said.
I fought to keep a smile from my lips.
“Are Dr. Dre and Eminem really dead?”
The shuffle filled silence burst with the same sound found in Quails’ wings when a cubby breaks from cover. The Catholics, the majority of which were Latino, were furious. They muttered in English and Spanish, cursing me, faces red as clay. The old clergyman moved on without missing a beat, and Drill Instructors pulled the brims of their Smokey Bear covers down to hide their laughter and moved away from the group.
When we arrived back at the squad bay, DI Krumpton revealed a bit of himself for the first time. I figured we’d all get hazed for my smartass question, and then maybe I’d have to fight someone for being disrespectful to God. But that wasn’t the case at all.
“Platoon 3111,” he said it thirty-one eleven. “We have our very own Private Joker.”
I felt my heart drop. Joker is a smart-mouthed recruit in the movie Full Metal Jacket. Joker is sucker-punched by his head DI shortly after cracking his first joke, at the film’s start.
“The Chaplin wants to answer questions at a sky father pow-wow,” Krumpton said. “We aren’t hippies, you understand me?”
“Sir, yes sir!”
3111 sounded off like they meant it, well aware how Krumpton’s humor often dovetailed with anger.
“You do what you want on your own time, you understand me?”
“Sir, yes sir!”
“We got words for Jesus freaks where I’m from,” Krumpton went on. “But here, now, none of that shit matters, you understand me?”
“Sir, yes sir!”
“Some of you will graduate and go to Iraq.”
“You understand me?”
“Sir, yes sir!”
“And when you get there, guess what. No God will save you. Do you believe me?”
We sounded off with grim certainty. Krumpton was a lot of things, but he often told us he didn’t have time to lie to recruits. Recruits didn’t matter—sub-human. He told us when we died there would be nothing. I still believe him.
Jason Arment served in Operation Iraqi Freedom as a Machine Gunner in the USMC. He’s earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in The Iowa Review, The Rumpus, ESPN, the 2017 Best American Essays, and The New York Times, among other publications. His memoir about the war in Iraq, Musalaheen, stands in stark contrast to other narratives about Iraq in both content and quality. Jason lives in Denver, where he coordinates the Denver Veterans Writing Workshop with Lighthouse. Much of his work can be found at jasonarment.com