U.S. Marine Corps officer candidate Andrew Perlik stands at attention in front of his peers. It’s 7 a.m. The early morning fog is breaking and his breath is heavy from all the running they’ve done thus far. Reaching deep inside himself to draw all the air his lungs can muster, he bellows out at the candidates, “What makes the grass grow?”
“Blood, blood, blood!” the other candidates return, their voices echoing across the empty East Field.
Joggers pause at the roaring, startled that the quiet tranquility of the morning has been shattered. They stare in a daze, a mix of confusion and disbelief at the scene unfolding before them.
At a nod from their candidate platoon sergeant, Colin Campbell, Perlik bellows once more, “UC Santa Cruz, ready to fight, ready to kill!”
A hearty, guttural “Oorah!” is returned, a common call phrase among Marines, and the candidates are dismissed from the morning’s physical training.
It’s easy to see how the Marine Corps culture, centered around its combat infantry and substituting common words like “yes” for “kill,” would have difficulty meshing with the free-spirited, counter-cultural UCSC campus. The tension, having flared up times before in clashes between military recruiters and the student body, was left to fester without proper closure.
They have no official club, organization or group recognized by UC Santa Cruz. Brought together by their common interest and a desire to serve their country, Campbell and Perlik are members of a hard-lined few on campus that are working for more than just a degree at the end of their four years.
“I had considered grad school, but I stopped and asked myself, ‘What are the experiences I want in life?’” Perlik said. “The Marine Corps culture, being the smallest [of the branches of the U.S. military], combat specialization attracted me.”
Yet, as made evident by the display at OPERS, candidates at UCSC find themselves awash in the anti-military sentiment that has been present on the campus since student activism in recent years.
In 2005, the student-led organization Students Against War held a protest that reached a fevered pitch among the hundreds of students. This ultimately drove military officer recruiters off campus. In 2006 and again in 2007, the protest was repeated, with recruiters retreating from the campus or never showing up at all.
The on-campus activism spurred discussion and further action nationally on both sides.
David Zlutnick, a former member of SAW, said similar groups and organizations formed in colleges and universities nationwide to push for a ban on school recruiting.
As a result of the pressure, legal battles over the application of the Solomon Amendment flared up in the Supreme Court in March of 2006. The amendment allows the government to deny schools and their students federal funding if military recruiters are barred from their campuses. Allegations that the Pentagon was spying on SAW while collecting documentation on its members arose. UC Santa Cruz was even labeled as “a cesspool of liberalism” by one commentator.
College students aiming to become Marine officers must pass through the arduous trials of Officer Candidates School, the summer “boot camp” for becoming officers. Students involved in every level of the program are referred to as “candidate.”
OCS candidates at UCSC face stress from three fronts, not only from being in college and the Marine Corps, but also by the misunderstanding their peers have of the military and of the program, said Eitan Sheer, a third-year Cowell student and OCS candidate.
“[Unlike other universities,] the military is not as appreciated here because students don’t know what we feel,” Sheer said. “They can’t relate to what we’re going through. How could they? Nothing they do is comparable to what [OCS candidates] must overcome.”
Candidates condition themselves physically and mentally for summers away at OCS. Long hours, hard runs, weight training and classroom time with their more knowledgeable peers and the occasional officer define the candidates’ relationship to the Corps.
USMC Capt. Leo Tabilin, the officer selection officer responsible for the oversight of the candidates at UCSC, finds that there is no certain type of person who applies for their program.
“Officer Candidate School offers our nation’s premier leadership training opportunity,” Tabilin said in an e-mail. “Whave candidates who have a long legacy of family with military service, and we have candidates who don’t know anyone who has served in the military. We have male and female candidates of all ethnic diversities.”
Over up to two summers at OCS, candidates are graded on numerous academic tests including general military subjects, land navigation and weapons and tactics. They are also graded on numerous physical activities including the physical fitness test — a combination of timed three-mile run, sit-up and pull-up tests — combat fitness test, obstacle course and endurance course.
Unlike participants in similar officer programs, such as the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) found at other colleges and universities nationwide, candidates like Perlik are not obligated contractually to serve. Rather, the commission into the Marine Corps is only extended to those who not only pass OCS but graduate from college as well. Candidates may walk away at any time up until their commission, leaving only the most dedicated, motivated candidates committed to leading Marines.
Colin Campbell, a UCSC alumnus awaiting his commission, reflected upon the grueling experiences he had at OCS with a smile.
“You can expect three to four hours of sleep daily the entire time you are there, at most,” Campbell said. “[The drill instructors] dog you everywhere, all the time. They are, hands-down, the scariest fucking guys you’ll ever meet in your life. It’s the most fun you’ll never want to have again.”
Ultimately, successfully passing OCS is but one hurtle in a long line of hurtles to follow after graduating college. Months of follow-up training combined with the experiences at OCS mold the fledgling college student into a professional leader of Marines.
Capt. Tabilin also underscored the importance of displaying admirable leadership above all else at OCS.
“[The candidate’s] ability to make solid decisions under duress and the most stressful conditions are an important part of the evaluation process,” Tabilin said. “A candidate may be physically fit and mentally prepared, but if he or she cannot lead, they will not be a Marine officer.”
The Mountain View Officer Selection Office, which oversees a wide variety of schools in addition to UCSC, including Stanford, Santa Clara University, Cal Poly and all of the junior colleges in its area, only sends 25 to 30 candidates to OCS each year. Tabilin said the selection process is extremely competitive.
Last year, there was only one UC Santa Cruz candidate selected: Several were medically disqualified before their applications could be submitted while others were rolled over to be considered for the following OCS availability.
OCS attrition rate can fluctuate from year to year based on weather, staff and candidates. Typically, however, over 30 percent of the candidates who go will not complete OCS for a variety of reasons.
OCS candidate Sheer Yet said words cannot fully describe the hardships felt and faced by those going to OCS.
“It’s impossible to grasp precisely how hard OCS is for someone who hasn’t gone,” Sheer said. “For those that have, they know precisely what I mean. It’s all hard.”
Although Students Against War (SAW) has dissolved over time, the effects from the active years’ protests and demonstrations are still felt by the OCS candidates today.
“We wanted to propagate a local level of change to show the nation that if what we were trying to do could be done here, we could apply pressure to affect the system at large,” said David Zlutnick, a 2006 UCSC alumnus and former member of SAW. “The university was meant to discuss issues, not support an institution with a proven track record of taking people’s freedoms, sovereignty, self-determination and, in many cases, their lives.”
OCS candidate Campbell has a different account of the protests.
“You couldn’t believe what was happening,” he said. “There were guys out there with signs and hoods chanting — it was awful. It wasn’t good by any means.”
Even now, OCS candidates Andrew Perlik and Tiffany Dang express frustration in having to defend their stance against many of their peers. Dang said that while other issues, such as the economy, have distracted some, attitudes towards the military have hardly changed.
“It’s hard to defend sometimes. It’s like talking to a brick wall,” she said. “I keep hearing things like ‘You’ll be a pawn of the government’ and that my choice is a ‘mistake.’ It’s just one of those things I just have to sit back and let the stigma run its course. To me, my choice is admirable, and it’s frustrating to hear people just trash those who work so hard to defend this country.”
Perlik said he looks to his family for support.
“I find myself constantly defending my choice, at UCSC or anywhere else,” Perlik said. “It’s a pretty contentious matter. I don’t really bring it up in conversations. I’m not ashamed of my decision, just tired of doing the same dance.”
For candidates who must already overcome the enormous physical and mental hurdles imposed by virtue of training to become Marine Corps officers, dealing with the UCSC community is just another burden.
“There is no relationship between the Marine Corps and UCSC,” said OCS candidate Sheer. “But I don’t believe the campus should be viewed as anti-military as a whole. If there were a way for us to facilitate knowledge to the student community — doing things not connected to recruiting — they’d see we’re not all about stealing kids to the ‘dark side.’”
Visible change in attitudes, such as the establishment in 2008 of both the Veterans Educations Team Support (VETS) and the UCSC chapter of Student Veterans of America, may yet indicate a shift in how the campus community considers the military’s presence.
Politics professor Daniel Wirls, a former member of Faculty Against War, speculates that there are a number of reasons why the campus has calmed. He said the election of President Barack Obama in 2008, the official conclusion to the Iraq War and the mounting pressure nationwide to repeal the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy may be partially responsible.
“I think there are still plenty of people here at UC Santa Cruz who might still be concerned or distrust the military,” Wirls said. “But now the suspicions about the military — its extended tours, psychological and physical damage to our soldiers, all the carnage — now it’s more directed as concern for someone who they know is in or joining the military.”
Wirls notes that in his classes, some of which revolve around the military and its post-Cold War era policies, several students are members of the armed forces or in the process of joining.
“The class doesn’t become hostile or focused on them,” Wirls said. “To the contrary, I observe the students respecting their point of view, which is not always positive precisely because they themselves were in the military.”
With the dissolution of both Students Agaisnt War and Faculty Against War, it may be that, at least for now, both parties are extending an olive branch to one another.
Capt. Tabilin describes his experience with UCSC as being “nothing but professional.”
“Volunteering to join the military, especially during a time when the nation is at war, is a tough decision,” Tabilin said. “The candidates we have at UCSC and all of our campuses have my respect for them and for their decision to serve our country and to honor our legacy as Marines.”
OCS candidate Sheer, looking forward to completing his training this summer, sees potential hope in establishing stronger ties between future candidates and UCSC.
“While I don’t expect the student body to completely understand what it is we do, people can come to recognize that our association with the Marine Corps is just as professional and reasonable as any other career choice,” Sheer said. “The university is meant to champion knowledge and understanding, and that is still key to improving what the case is now.”