At different times throughout every year, groups of hopeful men and women are sent to Quantico Virginia in order to pass the USMC Officer Candidates School and become new 2nd Lieutenants. OCS is both a challenging mental and physical experience, but it can be passed. Here are a few of my experiences.
The official mission statement of Officer Candidate School (OCS) reads,
"The mission of Officer Candidates School is to educate and train officer candidates in Marine Corps knowledge and skills within a controlled and challenging environment in order to evaluate and screen individuals for the leadership, moral, mental and physical qualities required for commissioning as a Marine Corps officer."
For those of you who may not be aware, I recently graduated from OCS, accepted my commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps and have now begun my next phase of training at The Basic School (TBS) near Washington D.C. I have been hesitant to write this blog post as it can be difficult to explain exactly what candidates experience at OCS, but I decided that it would be worth the attempt.
Whether you are serving in the military, have served in the military, or have no military affiliation at all, I hope that this post can prove to benefit you and your life. If anything, I know that this post will provide an opportunity for me to reflect on my own time at OCS and hopefully better remember the experiences I had in the future.
For the purpose of easy navigation, I will break down this post into two halves: the first being about the basic structure of OCS such as how it works and what happens on a typical day, the second being about some of my key takeaways from my time there. If you are limited on time, you might want to consider skipping directly the second half as this post is quite long.
Officer Candidates School Class 227, Winter Cycle:
Arrival at USMC OCS
I arrived at the Ronald Reagan National Airport on January 6th of this year. I sat with a few other candidates at the USO (United Service Organizations) in the airport and ate some food until it was time to board the white bus to Quantico.
I remember talking with the candidate sitting next to me on the bus ride (who is now a good friend of mine) about what we were about to experience at OCS. Not particularly helping my nerves, he began to talk about the military knowledge that he had been studying to prepare and how he had already memorized crucial pieces of information. I on the other hand, had graduated college only a few weeks prior and didn't know much about the curriculum. I had, however, prepared physically and even though I maybe shouldn't have been, I was confident in my abilities. My friend said that the first week of the cycle was going to be pretty 'low key', that it was only in-processing and the real training wouldn't start until we had been medically qualified. I naively told him that I wanted the intensity to start right away because that was what I came for.
The first few days USMC OCS
Turns out my friend was right, the first week was pretty 'low key', at least in comparison to when we got officially picked up in training platoons. Still though, it wasn't exactly comfortable and we got a pretty good shock that initial evening when we pulled into the training camp. A large man got on the bus and yelled at us to "Get out!" and "Stand on the yellow footprints!". We were tested for strep throat by Navy corpsmen there on the spot and were issued our Camelbaks, which we had to immediately fill up from a outdoor water tank. If I remember correctly, it was 7 degrees that first night and I was so cold that I could hardly tighten the lid to my Camelbak. We didn't go to bed until around 1:00 am that evening because we had to wait until all other candidates had arrived. My transition to military life had begun.
Medical In-processing USMC OCS
Medically in-processing resulted in quite a few candidates that Uncle Sam didn't see worth taking a risk on dropping. After that was completed, we ran a Physical Fitness Test (PFT) to make sure that we met the physical standards, the maximum of which are 23 pull-ups, 115 crunches in two minutes and a sub 18 minute three mile.
That Friday evening, those of us fit enough to begin training sat in an auditorium, were given a speech from the Commanding Officer (CO) of OCS and were introduced to our training staff. I will never forget that night.
As intimidating as ever, the training staff marched out onto the stage for each platoon across the company and then marched to the isles in between the seats of the candidates. The CO gave a few final words before turning us over to the staff to commence training.
Then, literally just like an explosion, all hell broke loose.
Pickup Day USMC OCS
I'm not going to share the intimate details of what we experienced the next few days, or even weeks of that matter, but a few words that come to mind are: exhausted, desperate, chaotic, broken, slayed, and challenged (just to name a few). The Marine Corps calls it I.T. or intensive training, something that isn't supposed to happen anymore, but that still does to a certain level. Basically, we had to do a lot of menial tasks that were sometimes physically demanding over and over and over for hours on end. It was a challenging time to say the least.
During the 10 week program of OCS, candidates are put through a curriculum that challenges them both mentally and physically. This curriculum includes, but is not limited to: academics and academic exams, hikes under load, nights spent in the field, military basics, tactics, the obstacle course, the endurance course, challenging physical training, and drill. Candidates get an average of 5 hours of sleep throughout the cycle (that may be generous), with that number sometimes decreasing to as low as 3 hours an evening. When eating chow we were told to "Eat it today and taste it tomorrow!" and to "Stuff your face!", so that's exactly what we did typically finishing a meal in a manner of minutes. Just to make getting good sleep more difficult, every other evening each candidate is assigned to firewatch duty (basically security) for an hour or two at some time during the evening where they and a buddy are woken up by the watch prior to theirs, get dressed in full uniform, and stand watch at a indoor or outdoor post. The curriculum is built to weed out those not qualified to be Marine Corps Officers and it does so effectively.
Surviving through USMC OCS
Something I really appreciated at OCS was the diversity. Each platoon consisted of candidates of a wide variety of ages and from many different backgrounds. About one third of my platoon had prior military experience, the youngest candidate was 22, and the oldest was 32. Some of the candidates had failed to pass OCS before and were back for another attempt, some like myself were coming straight from college and some had left their civilian jobs to serve their country. White, Black, Latino, Christian, Jewish, Atheist it didn't matter. We were all different shades of green now, training to join the greatest gun club in the world.
One of the most challenging mental elements of OCS for myself personally was the possibility that I could fail either by being injured or not meeting the academic, leadership or physical standards. I had already put in so much effort to be at OCS in the first place, dropping simply wasn't an option. Throughout the 10 weeks about one third of our class got dropped for some reason and were sent back to their civilian lives. Some of those who dropped will have the option to reapply, but it isn't very common that they actually do.
Even though I hated some of the things that we had to do at OCS, in the end I am grateful for the majority of what we experienced. If the Marine Corps is going to continue to be one of the most elite fighting forces in the world, than it needs to sufficiently screen its leaders. I'm happy to know that all of the officers around me went through a similar experience to earn their bars. I feel that this fact unites us.
As far as the enlisted side of the Marine Corps, I obviously haven't experienced it first hand, but have heard that it is even more challenging in some aspects than OCS. It serves a different purpose, but is equally effective in it's own right. I'm very impressed by individuals who choose to take that route. It is true that non-commissioned officers (NCO) are the backbone of the Marine Corps.
Now Onto a Few Lessons Learned:
1) The Marine Corps is an inspired and elite war fighting organization.
You would think that I would have already known a lot about the Marine Corps before signing on the dotted line and submitting my application, but honestly that wasn't exactly the case. From what I had learned, I felt that the USMC was the best fit for me personally, but I didn't know much about its history or core values. OCS was so challenging that there were one or two moments early on where I asked myself, "What am I doing here?" and "Why did I have to chose arguably the most difficult officer route?". Over time, however, my love and appreciation for the Corps begun to grow.
The Marine Corps was founded on November 10th, 1775 in Tun Tavern of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania as a branch of troops capable of fighting both on land and on sea. The Corps adheres to three core values: honor, courage, and commitment. These three values should be written on every Marine's heart and at the forefront of his or her mind. They should guide a Marine's actions and how they treat other people. Marines may be ferocious fighters, but they should also be professional and giving citizens.
Obviously the Marine Corps isn't perfect, but it does a pretty damn good job overall. It's the core values that have helped me to truly fall in love with the organization. I am grateful for a group that strives to be good to America as a whole and have noticed how it has greatly improved my own life. I am inspired daily by Marines that I meet who are willing to give anything for the freedoms that we have. I am also grateful for the challenging mental and physical requirements of being a Marine Corps officer. Although it may be more difficult than some other military routes, I wouldn't have it any other way.
2) Some of our Nation's best men and women serve in the military.
The Marine Corps recently started a program that focuses on improving the individual Marine by setting goals around "the six Fs" of leadership development. These six Fs being fidelity, fighter, fitness, family, finance, and future. During OCS, one of my sergeant instructors shared with us his short term and long term goals in each of the six categories as an example of what types of goals we could write down ourselves. While listening to his goals of continuing to increase in rank, spending more quality time with his family, perfecting his physical fitness score, and saving a certain amount of money every month, it hit me how incredible of a man he was as well as how incredible the vast majority of people that I had met in the service were as well. Here was a man who had already dedicated decades of his life in the service of his country and his fellow Marines, at his peak of physical and mental condition, and one of the toughest people I have ever met, setting goals on how to improve himself to be of even better service to his country and family. The average person simply doesn't think that way.
I'm not writing this point because I'm now in the military and feel that I am part of 'the best' of our country, but rather to just point out how amazed I have been with the type of people who are here in the Marine Corps. Never have a met a group of more driven and dedicated individuals than those whom I am now amongst every day.
3) I can do hard things and hard things make me stronger.
OCS is a challenge and anyone who says differently is lying. There were times that tested who I was and what I really believed. Times that would bring me mentally right to the edge of capacity and keep me there for days on end. It was tough, but I wouldn't have it any other way.
Because OCS was such a continuation of tough physical events, graded tests, and evaluated leadership courses, it didn't provide much time to sit back and think about the challenges that were around the corner. The only option was just to lower my head and run forward full steam. During the cycle I noticed that I stopped being nervous before large events, but trusted myself to perform. There were many times when I wasn't sure if I would be able to do something and then I did resulting in increased confidence.
A good example of the above was SULE 2 (Small Unit Leadership Evaluation 2). During this event we spent just over two days in the field performing squad patrols and missions with very minimal sleep. The last evening we went to bed around 2130 (9:30 pm) and woke up at 0030 (12:30 am) to go on a 9 mile hike before immediately afterwards going through our final graded leadership events. I had prepared extensively for the final leadership event, where I would lead my squad of 12 candidates in a mission, but was quite nervous for it because it had such a large impact on my grade. Despite my nerves, I ended up moving forward putting my best effort into preparation and execution and ended up performing very well. This definitely made me stronger.
Not all of my challenges resulted in a success as mentioned above and in some of them I really did fail, however, regardless of the outcome I was made mentally and physically tougher as a result. Sometimes the easy way isn't always the best way.
4) A positive mental attitude goes a long way.
When you're operating on four hours of sleep, hungry, and surrounded by 40 confident and at times slightly aggressive males, it's easy to get a negative attitude. Although I definitely didn't excel at this category all the time, I did when it came to physical events and field exercises. When others were complaining about "the suck" as we call it, I would try to embrace it. Rather than giving a half effort at a training exercise, I would always try to give my full effort. I don't think that this effort was noticed right away, but at the end of the cycle when my squad all shared their opinions about me, the common element was that they could tell that I really cared and put out my best effort. These were some of the greatest compliments I have ever received and concreted the importance of having a positive mental attitude.
Both positive and negative attitudes are contagious. It's crucial to try to have a positive one.
5) People can be jerks, don't be that person.
Not everyone in my platoon at OCS was easy to work with. There were definitely a handful of candidates that for some reason (maybe it was prior military experience or something else) thought they were better than everyone else. These candidates were toxic to unit cohesion and acted very negatively towards a few of the more struggling candidates. Although they may have been talented leaders, no one wanted to follow them because of how they treated others. They would try to lead out of intimidation, not by caring.
From everything I saw, this type of candidate was relatively ineffective. Other candidates would be afraid to confront them in public, but they would be torn apart in their peer evaluations.
You can be a tough as nails leader and be effective, but you cannot treat those under you or your peers like trash. Equally, you don't necessarily need to be best friends with those you lead, but you do need to treat them with respect. Being an overall good person pays off in the end.
6) We truly do live in the greatest country on earth and we cannot forget that.
I'll end this post here on this point. This obviously isn't something that I learned for the first time while at OCS, but it is certainly something that was solidified in my mind. We are very lucky to be Americans. We are given great privileges and there are many men and women who are willing to sacrifice for our benefit. This is something that we should never forget. Furthermore, we should always seek for more ways to give back where we can.
If you want to follow along with more of my training and military experience, see my Instagram.
Ductus Exemplo (Lead by example) and God bless,
Note - Most of the above photos were provided by the OCS Facebook page, which does a great job of documenting each cycle.