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long time ago, in a training area far, far away . . .

Well, ok, it was in Camp Lejeune. Marine Combat Training - the Corps' way of extending boot camp without actually calling it boot camp. A place where, like boot camp, the old Corps bestows the secrets of waging war onto the new Corps. A place where fresh young souls study combat in awe of the old salts who teach it. This is a story about one such unforgettable old salt we called Gunny Darkhelmet.

We called him Gunny Darkhelmet because he looked like Rick Moranis in Space Balls. He had a relatively small body, glasses and quite possibly the most enormous helmet I've ever seen on a Marine. It was HUUUUUGE! At first glance I dubbed him Gunny Darkhelmet thinking myself very clever. The resemblance to his on-screen counterpart was so striking, however, that everyone else in my platoon, and in fact, my whole company came to the same conclusion simultaneously. Believe it or not, I later talked to Marines who were instructed by Gunny Darkhelmet before and after me, and they all came up with the same nickname for him.

Don't let the looks fool you though because Gunny Darkhelmet was a difficult task master. He demanded perfection. He was in charge of instructing us on the proper method of setting up a defense, including the digging of the fighting hole. As if digging a fighting hole on an unseasonably hot spring afternoon wasn't challenging enough, we had to do it in full M.O.P.P. gear (that's the gas mask and overgarments in civilianese). I guess Gunny Darkhelmet wanted us to look like little green storm troopers to complete the Star Wars motif he was going for. We dug furiously, but it never seemed to be fast enough. As we dug, Gunny Darkhelmet would walk up and down the line bellowing, "DEVILDOGS... THE PARA-PIT MUST BE LEVEL!" The funny thing is, he sounded a little like Mel Brooks. As we dug in the sweltering heat we wanted to laugh and cry at the same time.

"HOW THICK DOES THE PARA-PIT NEED TO BE TO STOP A BULLET, DEVILDOG?... THREE FEET THICK," he chanted as he walked by. I could tell that the Gunny's pet peeve was the para-pit... that and the grenade sump which he reminded us over and over needed to be exactly 18 inches deep. I made sure I got it right.

Even though his voice was kind of funny it was commanding at the same time. He wielded his authority like a light saber. He was one of the most distinct personalities I ever met in the Corps. Because Gunny Darkhelmet was so distinct, we all gave our own impressions of him to pass the time, where we would rant and rave about the importance of the para-pit well into the night. Everything he said got repeated at least fifty times.

Of all the lessons and classes I received in the Corps, I don't think anything was fused directly onto my brain deeper than the knowledge of how to build a fighting hole correctly. I could do it now as if I just learned yesterday. I think that's true for countless other Marines as well.

Semper Fi!

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