The Yellow Towel


I did my Marine Corps basic training at Parris Island, South Carolina. Three months of challenges greater than I had ever faced up to that point. Here we were trained in every way you can think. Mentally, physically, and emotionally. And though Marines have well-earned their reputation as very skilled warriors, it is not strength or physical prowess that is the hallmark of being a Marine. It is all about self-discipline.

For many, this venture into becoming self-disciplined was new. Growing up in homes where few if any expectations were set for them, they struggled to find this inner strength. But it is a must, and the Marine Drill Instructors are skilled at instilling this trait into young men and women. This boot camp experience has been honed to a fine art over our 126-year history.

There are many techniques employed to teach this all important tenet. One of the most obvious is watching a platoon of Marines when called to attention. Everything from the position of your hands to the angle formed by your feet is dictated by strict rules. And once at attention, no matter what occurs, you will not see one person move a muscle. As the sand fleas nibble your ears and sweat runs into your eyes, you remain motionless. No looking around, no talking, no scratching that annoying itch. It is as if they are cast in stone. But this type of self-discipline was expected in everything we do. It may well be the main reason why Marines run to the fight rather than away from it.

To help strengthen our discipline, one of the odd requirements was that once it was “lights out”, you could not get up from your rack to do anything, including going to the head (bathroom) for an hour. And the same rule applied for an hour before reveille (wake up time for the non-initiated). This was done to teach us that as urgent as something may feel, it can be overcome with great self-discipline. These rules were enforced by the Marine on “fire watch”. An hour-long detail that was passed from one Marine to the next in shifts. If you were lucky, the rotation gave you the first shift or the last. If you were unlucky, your shift was in the middle of the night where you would have to rise, get dressed, and walk around the squad bay till your hour was over and you rousted the next unfortunate soul. This translates directly to combat where there is always at least one person on watch while the others sleep.

Late in our training, one fateful morning found Private Meadows awaking with an urgent need to relieve himself. When he rose to make his way to the facilities, the fire watch would not allow it as it was only 50 minutes to reveille. Frustrated and panged with urgency, Private Meadows devised an alternative. There was an empty footlocker next to his rack. Likely that footlocker was filled at some point, but not everyone makes it to graduation, and we lost people continuously through our three months together. He placed a towel in the footlocker and while the fire watch was at the far end of the squad bay, he relieved himself onto the towel, closed the footlocker, and likely returned to get what more sleep he could before our day started before dawn.

This was not seen or known by anyone. But he also could not get rid of the evidence in the morning without divulging what he had done. I presume he intended to take care of this in our free time in the evening. We rose in the morning, put on our uniforms, and headed out to see how they would try and break us that day. I do not recall exactly what training we did that day, but it did not have us returning to the squad bay until late afternoon. Now the temperatures in June in South Carolina can be excessive, and that day was no different. We had temperatures in the high 90 degrees all day.

Needless to say, when we entered the squad bay the smell of urine was inescapable and did not go unnoticed by our four Drill Instructors. With a little investigation the offending footlocker was quickly revealed. Now the search was on for the culprit. The Drill Instructors asked the responsible party to step forward, but no one did. We all looked around at each other trying to determine the guilty party. When no one took responsibility, our Drill Instructors went into a different mode. One I had not seen before. While still in fatigues, they started a series of calisthenics. As the minutes passed and pools of sweat began to dot the deck under each of the recruits, they became even more angry.

Eventually, the run in with Private Meadows that was had by the fire watch that morning began to circulate through the ranks. In time, every recruit was staring at the guilty party with great malice as we continued to exercise our bodies now racked with fatigue and pain. Although we had a good idea as to who was responsible, we could not make an accusation against another Marine. Snitching is just not in our nature. Two hours after the fun had begun, Private Meadows finally confessed, probably knowing full well that his health was now in jeopardy from the Marines suffering on his behalf. When we finally crawled into our racks that night, you could still hear the boot falls of Private Meadows as he ran around the perimeter of the squad bay.

In the morning, there was another empty rack and footlocker added to the others. I know this may seem harsh, but he was not discharged. He was simply “dropped”, which is to be sent back to another platoon at the beginning of their training. To be honest, being discharged would have been easier. This was not because of his actions, but because he did not take responsibility for them. Yes, this lesson reinforced the need for discipline, but it also taught that owning and being responsible for your actions is also an important tenet to being a Marine.

Both of those lessons had served me well for the remainder of my time in service and well beyond. If you would like to test your own self-discipline, I offer one simple exercise. The next time you have an annoying itch, simply choose not to scratch it. See how long you can go before you succumb to the need. You may well find that, after a while, you begin to relish the discipline it takes.


21 Responses to “The Yellow Towel”
  1. beth says:

    I would probably be a horrible marine, as I clearly lack discipline when reading this, but I understand the need for this in the important role you have as a marine.

  2. This story confirms the rights to the Marine Corp to advertise “The few, the proud, the Marines”. I know I couldn’t hold back the urge to relieve myself for a full hour! But this is another example of why you are the strong man I know!

  3. kristianw84 says:

    Well, I thought I was self-disciplined until I read this. I itched 4 times while reading it. Ha!

  4. petespringerauthor says:

    It’s no wonder that so many don’t complete their basic training. I was familiar with many practices, but I had not heard of the “lights out” requirement.

  5. I don’t want the truth because deep down in places I don’t talk about at parties, I want you on that wall. I need you on that wall.

  6. Oh this brings me back memories of boot camp, which I did in Ft. Gordon, GA (USA)…many in my platoon lost their way as well due to lack of self discipline. It’s all in the mind…great post my friend, thanks for reminding me of those days so long ago…

  7. jonicaggiano says:

    Wow I really enjoyed this as I learned a couple of things I did not know but it was also a great story Brad. I actually think if I had been trained when young I would have made an excellent soldier. When I was young when my dad was not drunk I use to love to watch him spit and shine his shoes. He would get out that round black shoe polish in a can and light it on fire for just a few seconds. Then he would commence the very rigorous procedure of preparing his shoes. I found that so interesting. He was good to the men he was responsible for leading too, having them over for parties when they would be all alone. I am grateful for those loving memories of my dad. I knew he loved me he just didn’t know how to say the words. Thanks for these memories Brad of my dad. Love ❤️ Joneekins

    • Brad Osborne says:

      I used to set the wax on fire for a short while also. It makes the polish more malleable to fill in the pore of the leather. It sounds like your father was an amazing man, even with his shortcomings.

      • jonicaggiano says:

        Yes and thank you for saying that Brad. He was barely 16 when he was in the Korean War. Of course he lied about his age and they were happy to get him. I am sure you can imagine the damage done to him by being there. He taught me to stand up for your beliefs no matter the cost. He also taught me that I was only as good as my word. I have an extreme sense of both. I have put myself in extreme danger while defending people I barely knew a couple of times. I admired that about my father and I loved him and still do. Sending love and gratitude to you Brad. ❤️Jonikins

  8. Harley Reborn says:


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