When I Stood Up to My Marine Drill Instructor About Using the R-Word

I’m not here to criticize the United States Marine Corps on how they train new recruits. They’ve been doing it for more than 200 years so they must know what they’re doing. My intention is to give an account of how  standing up for people with intellectual disabilities is possible even to arguably the scariest individuals you can imagine.

Here’s what happened: During a period of instruction on Marine Corps values, I answered a question that, while technically correct, wasn’t the answer my heavy (a Marine term for the drill instructor tasked with making life extremely difficult) was looking for. “You must be a [R-word], Mitchell.” 

The look on my face must have revealed the disgust and disapproval I had for his choice of words. In boot camp, this is a big no-no. The drill instructor told me to stand back up and explain my inappropriate reaction. I yelled in my best recruit sound-off voice, “Sir, this recruit is offended by that word, sir.”

I think there was about three seconds of stunned collective silence in our squad bay. It felt more like five minutes, though. My drill instructor kicked over a footlocker, ran right up to my face wearing his signature Smokey the Bear hat and began to use everything in the book to get at me.

When you’re in boot camp, the only thing you have is the fellow recruits in your platoon and your family who writes to you. My brother, Chess, has Down syndrome, and throughout my life, I avoided taking a stand against people who made fun of those with intellectual disabilities.

But on this particular day, I couldn’t take it and had to say something. I got chewed out as a result. A couple of days later, the senior drill instructor asked me about the incident, but no recourse was really taken. I do remember during my last days of training introducing my drill instructor to my brother at family day.

brother with Down syndrome hugging marine

Again, it’s not my intention to vilify the Marine Corps drill instructors. Those men and  women are a vital part of our nation, and it’s their job to prepare our next generation of Marines. Drill instructors are consummate professionals at all times. They’re trained not to discriminate against any recruits based on religion, ethnicity, country of origin or race. In my explanation to my senior drill instructor, I explained that no drill instructor would call a recruit the N-word, which is just as offensive to me. 

The reason I’m putting my experience out there is to show that even though standing up against someone who uses the R-word can be frightening, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that this moment will be etched into that person’s memory. 

I don’t know if my instructor ever used that word again. He probably has. My platoon saw me stand up for my brother. They might laugh thinking about it, but the story sticks and they’re reminded that the R-word is offensive and wrong. 

When you’re hurt or offended by someone using the R-word, don’t be afraid to let them know. If they defend their use of it, there’s not a lot you can do to help them. But maybe if enough people keep letting them know why it’s wrong, they might change over time.

Spread the Word to End the Word! You can head here to pledge to stop using the R-word. It’s a step toward creating more accepting attitudes and communities for all people.

Have you seen the first film with a national release to star a person with Down syndrome? Check out the film “Where Hope Grows” today!

Available for purchase on Amazon and iTunes.

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