For six weeks this summer, three Bowdoin students got by on little sleep, endured pointed criticism and suffered many physical hardships. They were working through the challenges of Officer Candidates School in Quantico, Va., in their quest to become second lieutenants in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Mac Caputi ’15, Dimitria Spathakis ’16 and Brendan Lawler ’16 are enrolled in the Marine Corps’ competitive two-year summer program for college students. If the candidates make it through the first summer, they’ll return for a second, even more demanding regime the following summer. If that goes well, they will be commissioned as officers the same day they earn their Bowdoin diplomas.
Caputi completed his second six-week training program in July. Lawler and Spathakis began Officer Candidates School in May; both finished their first six-week increment and plan to return for round two next year. After graduating from Bowdoin, the three will attend The Basic School for six months, followed by specialized training. Then they will be ready for their three-to-five year term of active duty service.
Each stage in the training process is more arduous than the last. If you aren’t motivated, you won’t make it, according to Caputi. “In the first increment, the instructors are more forgiving,” he said. “In the second increment, you make a mistake, you’ll be sent home. The expectations are higher.”
Caputi, who plays quarterback for Bowdoin’s football team (his dad is head coach), is hoping that one day he’ll be assigned to infantry. “For me, the idea of doing something every day that will mentally and physically challenge me is what drew me to it,” he said. He got a taste of what is to come in Officer Candidates School. “Everyday at OCS it was extremely challenging. You feel like you accomplished something every day.”
At OCS, students rose at 4:30 each morning to prepare for a jam-packed day that kicked off at 5 a.m. and ended at 9 p.m. While theoretically they could go to bed at 9 p.m., the diligent ones stayed up to study for exams. Three to six hours of sleep a night was the norm, Lawler said, adding that coffee and other stimulants (even gum!) were forbidden. During the day, the students attended classes. When not in class, they ran, lifted weights, battered through obstacle courses (which are like mud runs, except carrying an M16 rifle and wearing military boots and a load bearing vest with 2 full canteens, according to Spathakis), hiked in full gear on hot summer days, and engaged in simulated missions.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Lawler said. A football linebacker from Milton, Mass., he said that between the hurried meals and the almost non-stop action, he lost 15 to 20 pounds. “It’s not easy for anyone, even if you’re in good shape. It wears your body down because you’re not sleeping much.”
To prepare for OCS, the three students got in shape by going on long-distance runs and lifting weights. They read about the OCS, watched videos about it, and spoke with people who had survived the experience. “But nothing can prepare you for getting yelled at by the instructors,” Caputi said, adding, though, that he understood the point of this treatment. “Although the instructors can be very hard on us and in our face, this teaches us the value of paying attention to little details and helps to create the high-stress environment,” he added. “They expect a lot from us and want us to remember the lessons they impart on us once we are in command.”
The OCS program tests the candidates’ mental and physical toughness — how they adjust to stress, exert leadership and make decisions under duress. About one-third drop out or flunk out. Throughout, instructors are evaluating students on their academic performance, physical fitness and leadership ability. “This is a 12-week interview to see whether you have what it takes to be an officer,” Lawler said.
“They want to make an environment of controlled chaos,” Spathakis said. “They want to create a high-stress environment, where leading your peers is difficult because everyone’s tired.” Candidates must keep emotions in check and show confidence rather than doubt, a particularly formidable task when frustrated and fatigued. “You have to keep a level head and never get too high or too low,” Lawler added. “Its all about keeping an even keel the whole way through.”
Spathakis, a biology major from Mendham, N.J. who also plays softball and leads outing club trips at Bowdoin, said she hopes one day to be involved in combat engineering or logistics. “Anything related to forces on the ground,” she said. “A lot of things are changing with what jobs women can do.” Although she doesn’t come from a long line of servicemen, Spathakis’s grandfather enlisted as a Marine shortly after the Korean War. “I was attracted to the challenge [of the Marines],” she said, particularly the emphasis at OCS on developing leadership skills. “It’s an invaluable experience.”
Lawler, whose father was a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps for over 30 years and a JAG reservist for 24, said he, like Caputi, would like to be an infantry officer, leading a platoon of marines. “When people ask me why I wanted to join the Marines, I give two different reasons,” he said. “The deep reason is I want to protect the country. The not-so-deep reason is want to do something different. I want to see the world in a different light and not sit at a desk.”