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Making the ranks

Four Bowdoin students push their limits at the Marines’ Officer Candidate School

"No one in their right mind would want to go through OCS again," says Jack Dingess '09, who has spent 12 weeks training to become an officer in the United States Marine Corps.


October 17, 2008
By Adam Kommel
Orient Staff

But the rewards of being a Marine officer are worth it to four Bowdoin students.

"It's awful right now, but it's so worth the price you're paying," says Mike Dooley '10.

In a typical day at the Marines' Officer Candidate School (OCS), candidates wake up at 4:30 a.m., in time to get ready for lights-on at 5. Physical training commences at 5:30, and four hours of classes on subjects ranging from history to land navigation follow. Field work and drills come in the afternoon. The lights go out at 9 p.m., but candidates usually use the next few hours to clean gear, write essays, or study by head-lamp, finally falling asleep before midnight.

Dingess and Pack Janes '09 spent the summers after their first and junior years at OCS. Dooley and Luke Flinn '10 attended the school the summer after their sophomore year and plan on returning for their second sessions next summer.

Graduating from OCS, located in Quantico, Virginia, is the most conventional way to become an officer in the Marines. Candidates can take two six-week courses, one after their first or sophomore years and one after junior year, or one 10-week course.

Dingess and Janes say that even before coming to Bowdoin, they knew they wanted to join the military. So it was only coincidence, they say, that as first years they were roommates on the third floor of Maine Hall.

Dingess, a quad-captain and defensive end for the football team, says he first heard about OCS from teammates David Donahue '07 and Brendan Murphy '07.

Janes, who plays short-stick midfield on the lacrosse team, heard about the program through Dingess, and lacrosse teammates Donahue and Alex Gluck '08.

"Pack and Jack are great guys—they're going to do great things," says Murphy, who is now a commissioned officer stationed in Virginia.

OCS recruiter Captain James Colvin visits Bowdoin a few times a year to recruit Bowdoin students, but he says that because Bowdoin is "very close-knit," students tend to learn about the program from other students.

Indeed, Dooley heard about OCS after being introduced to Dingess by a friend who knew he was interested in joining the military, and Flinn discovered OCS after his brother, John Flinn '05, directed him to Donahue and Murphy.

Murphy attended The Basic School (TBS) after graduating from Bowdoin. TBS, a 26-week course designed to train new officers, operates on the tenet that every Marine is a rifleman, and thus teaches officers basic infantry tactics while directing the new Marines to their specialties.

"I'm basically in charge of 50 drivers," says Murphy, a second leutenant specializing in logistics. "What we do is run convoys in support of an infantry battalion."

Officially the mission of OCS is to train, screen, and evaluate potential officers, but the four candidates say that the emphasis of the program is on the latter two aspects.

"The whole process is to see you don't freak out under pressure," Janes says.

"It's like if you had the championship during exams, and everyone is screaming at you," Flinn says, who plays baseball for the Polar Bears.

When asked what the hardest part of OCS was, both Dingess and Janes independently give the exact same answer: "Staying awake," especially in class.

Still, they consider the impossibly busy schedule of candidate life a positive.

"I definitely learned to push my body harder than I thought I could," Janes says. "You can push yourself, mentally and physically, a lot harder than you think you can."

Dingess says that his time at OCS has let him put Bowdoin's workload into perspective.

"The most stressful day at Bowdoin is not comparable to an average day at OCS," he says.

Candidates must eat their thrice-daily meals, called "chow time," as efficiently and quickly as possible.

"You basically have about five minutes to engulf as much food as possible," Dingess says. "If you take any more time than that, you will draw the Sergeant Instructor's attention, which is never a good thing."

The four students say that every candidate gets into at least minor trouble at some point during the session, considering the strict standards of discipline the sergeants enforce.

"I think everyone has that perception that they give out push-ups," Dooley says. "And they do, but a big part of OCS was essays—they give you essays if you mess up—they're pretty much designed to make you nuts."

The 300-word—and they have to be exactly 300-words—essays can be assigned on any subject, such as discipline or accountability, and include a host of other format requirements, mainly to "get under your skin," according to Janes.

Though OCS is intended to attract leaders, the candidates said that the best way to excel is to not stand out.

"You want to fly under the radar there," Flinn says.

"In order to be a good leader, you have to be a follower first," Dooley explains, paraphrasing a lesson he learned this summer. "You'll never understand how to get people motivated if you can't get motivated yourself."

The candidates speak highly of the benefits of military life. Dooley says that he has tried the normal office internship path, but does not find it as satisfying as military life.

"Doing those internships in the summer hasn't been half as rewarding," Dooley says.

Janes says that he wants to be a Marine because he loves the outdoors and a good challenge.

"It's the adventure aspect," he says. "There's a thrill, you wake up every day, and what you do is important for survival."

Colvin explains that the four candidates' commitments are rooted in pride in their country, too.

"There's a strong sense of patriotism in all of them," Colvin says.

Dingess recommends that students interested in OCS should show up in shape. Janes and Dooley focus on the candidates' mental approach.

"Attitude is most important," Janes says.

"You can be the smartest guy in the world, the most fit guy in the world," Dooley says, "but if you get down there with a bad attitude, then you're not going to do well at all."

When Janes and Dingess graduate from Bowdoin, they will officially receive their commission. Both say they will definitely accept their commissions, though candidates are allowed to reject them and pursue other careers. In the fall, the new Marines will train at TBS.

Dooley and Flinn plan to return for their second six-week OCS session next summer.

"I can't wait to finish up and get out there," Dooley says. "The chance to be a part of something that is so much larger than myself is astounding. I'm just so psyched about it."