JEFFERSON — Ryan Nelson had been slogging for days in the same clothes, with almost no sleep, carrying a 45-pound pack on his back. His blisters had blisters and he struggled to stay upwind of himself.
Ahead was the peak he had been striving to reach as he went through the “Crucible,” the final stage of training for U.S. Marine Corps recruits.
The Crucible is a test every recruit must endure to become a Marine. Taking place over 54 hours, it tests recruits physically, mentally and morally, involving sleep deprivation, some 48 miles of marching and numerous physical challenges.
“All that stands between me and becoming a Marine is the next few hours,” Nelson thought, spotting what he felt was the peak through the heavy fog.
Then another peak loomed beyond that one and he realized he had farther to go than he had expected.
The mountain plateaued out again and again, only to head upward again to a yet more distant peak. The physical climb became emblematic of the mental and emotional struggle that Nelson and other recruits had to get through to become full Marines.
Yet at last he reached the summit, greeted by kind words from his drill instructor rather than the verbal abuse the recruits had been subjected to during the past several weeks.
At the conclusion of his training, Nelson had the honor of leading the procession of recruits as they were accepted as full Marines.
When he tells the story, Nelson doesn’t even mention the detail that makes family members most proud: Out of a class of some 600 recruits, Nelson won the “Ironman” award, certifying him as the most physically fit member of the class.
While home for a brief period this week before being shipped off to duty as a full-fledged Marine, Nelson had the opportunity to share his experience with family, friends and members of the Jefferson Rotary Club.
Fittingly, he addressed the Jefferson service club Sept. 11, a day that has become a solemn occasion of remembrance following the terrorist attacks on the East Coast 18 years ago.
Nelson was alive at the time of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but was too young to remember the event. Still, his life and the life of every military service member who has followed has been impacted by that fateful day.
While speaking mainly of his own experience, Nelson gave a nod to the occasion, expressing his gratitude to those who had responded to the attacks in the immediate aftermath and in worldwide military actions in the years thereafter.
“I am very proud to represent my country, and to do what I can do so that people can live their lives here in freedom,” Nelson said.
Nelson, a 2019 graduate of Jefferson High School, actually left for his Marine recruit training the very evening of graduation. His 13-week training concluded earlier this month.
At the Rotary meeting Wednesday, Nelson was joined by his parents, Ken and Jill Nelson, and four of his five siblings: Emilie, 21; Hunter, 15; Addy, 11, and Brandin, who turns 9 this week.
His sister Brianna, 23, is in Tennessee.
Ryan’s mom said that when her son told her of his desire to become a Marine, she hoped it was another phase he would grow out of. She worried about the intensive training and the possibility of dangerous deployments and long periods away from family.
Still, she said she couldn’t be prouder of what her son has achieved.
The young man said he studied videos on Marine recruit training extensively as he prepared to leave home. However, he said no amount of studying ahead of time could have prepared him for the life-changing experience.
After arriving for training, the recruits marked “Black Friday” when they met their drill instructors for the first time.
“There was lots of yelling,” Nelson said. “They take everything you own and throw it around.”
The exercise serves to strip recruits of their identity as individuals so they could be rebuilt as members of a team.
Reinforcing that lesson, recruits were not allowed to refer to themselves as “I” or “me.” Instead, they had to say “this recruit.”
“They put you down 24/7,” Nelson said. “The idea was to physically and mentally break you in the first month of boot camp.”
Any deviation from requirements resulted in immediate physical punishment, (situps, pushups and so forth) that went on until the drill instructors said to stop — which essentially meant “never,” Nelson joked.
A simple mistake such as touching your face would be punished. That’s not as arbitrary as it seems, he explained, noting that if service members are hiding in a bush and merely brush away a fly, they can give away their position to the enemy.
The recruits learned to obey orders instantly, which becomes crucial in a combat situation so that everyone is on the same page.
In the second month of training, the recruits learned to work together as a team, helping out around the base, as well as going through intensive training.
During this time, the recruits went through numerous fitness tests, on which Nelson performed very well, thanks in part to his experience in high school athletics.
Then came the “actual” Marine training in shooting, hiking and moving as a team, Nelson said.
There was a week of classes in which recruits learned the proper way to stand and sit in position for shooting.
The recruits were tested on their shooting accuracy at 200, 300 and 500 yards. From a hunting background, Nelson was used to shooting guns, but he had to learn a completely new technique for the military.
“That was one of my favorite things during my training,” he said.
Nelson’s prowess earned him the designation of “sharpshooter.”
The recruits also did fieldwork, studying land navigation, night navigation and the use of a compass.
One challenge involved using a compass to find four specific points in a very large area. It took four hours to walk between the points, but Nelson said he found this very enjoyable.
The culminating event in the Marine Corps recruit training was the Crucible.
“It was a big challenge,” he said. “We had no sleep, no food and were constantly on the move.”
At points in the almost-nonstop hike, the recruits had to complete various challenges that required not only physical effort, but also mental agility and teamwork. That was “super-hard,” Nelson said, as the recruits by this time were all tired and inclined to be cranky.
“On top of that, we have 45-pound packs on our back plus our rifles, and we were footsore and hungry,” the Marine said.
When he says “footsore,” Nelson means it quite literally.
The recruits could not shower in the field, so their clothes got skanky and gross, but it was even harder on their feet, which sweated, blistered and broke open.
On the final day of the challenge, a dense fog hovered over the area, so Nelson could not see even five feet in front of him.
As they progressed up the mountain, the drill instructor would say, “Just a little bit higher,” but it turned out to be a lot higher.
“The ground leveled out seven or eight times, only to head up again,” Nelson said.
Gritting his teeth, he continued up the hill, the goal of becoming a Marine a physical reality in front of him.
When he finally topped the mountain, his instructor reached out a hand of congratulations, saying, “You did this. You are America’s front lines. You are a U.S. Marine.”
“It was weird to get this kind of welcome after being spit on, screamed at and pushed up mountains for weeks,” Nelson said.
Wrapping up his training experience, Nelson and the other new Marines went through days of ceremonies, wearing dress uniforms, receiving awards for their achievements and celebrating in the presence of family members.
Along with any individual honors they might have accomplished, the new Marines all received a National Defense Ribbon.
“Some people make fun of it, because you get it right out of boot camp, but it’s really meaningful,” Nelson said.
He explained that these ribbons first started to be handed out after the 9/11 terrorist attacks to signify that every Marine has a role in the defense of the country.
“The graduation ceremony was surreal,” mom Jill Nelson said. “To watch our son walk in front of a company of 600 men, having earned the right to lead that company.”
The mom said she is so proud of her son’s achievement as company “Ironman.”
And she is looking forward to his service as a Marine with equal parts pride and trepidation.
Even though his service will mean long absences and untold sacrifices, she has to keep in mind that “he is not ours; he never was,” she said.
“God gave him to us on loan for a while.”