Don't fear the 'Reaper'
Lydia Eitel of Athol recently graduated with the Marines’ first gender-integrated company to be trained on the West Coast.
Lydia Eitel in action at the Marines boot camp on the West Coast.
Lydia Eitel of Athol recently graduated from the Marine Corps' boot camp as part of the first gender-integrated company to be trained in San Diego.
Staff Writer | May 21, 2021 1:06 AM
HAYDEN — To become a Marine, you have to meet, and defeat, the "Reaper."
Lydia Eitel did. But it almost got her first.
“I didn’t think I was going to make it,” said the 18-year-old from Athol.
The Reaper is a hill, a brutal, 700-foot one. And we should mention that in the Marines when you climb it in your final test before boot camp graduation, you’ll be wearing gear weighing in the range of 60 pounds.
Some fail here.
“All Marines remember this,” said Staff Sgt. Joshua D. Bucko, who has conquered the Reaper.
It’s part of what is known as the Crucible, a 54-hour training test of hikes and obstacles, endurance and team building that pushes recruits to their breaking points — mentally and physically.
Eitel endured and is now a private first class, graduating in a historic group on May 7.
Before the Reaper, though there was shouting. And screaming. And yelling. Lots of yelling.
“The drill sergeant did a lot of yelling. You look off in the wrong direction, they just start yelling,” Eitel said, almost smiling.
“I was picked on quite a bit,” she said when asked if she was the subject of a screaming sergeant. “If you weren’t loud enough, they would yell at you more. If you weren’t walking fast enough they’d yell at you. Literally everything you did, even if you did it right, you got yelled at. But that’s first phase for you, right? You’re just getting there, you’re a new recruit. They’re training you, they’re preparing you.”
The daughter of Neil and Camille Eitel was among a select group of recruits who recently graduated from boot camp as part of the first gender-integrated company to be trained at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego.
Previously, women who enlisted in the Marines trained at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, S.C., at the all-female 4th Recruit Training Battalion.
That’s where Eitel was headed until she was selected as among the best to break barriers at Camp Pendleton.
She started the 13-week boot camp in February and graduated with her platoon May 7.
On a routine boot camp day, Eitel and her platoon were up by 5 a.m. Days consisted of chow, drills, repeat. Some free time in the evening allowed them to prep for the next day's grind.
Recruits were usually sleep deprived and hungry.
“A lot of us girls were butting heads because we were all under a lot of pressure,” she said.
But they came together over time.
“We all kind of figured out if we helped each other, things were easier,” she said.
Boot camp is physically demanding — running, crawling, scaling walls, pushups, crunches, hikes with 70-pound packs.
“It got pretty difficult. I’m only 5-2. Those packs are as big as I am,” said the 130-pound Eitel.
The toughest part?
“Waking up in the morning,” she said. “A lot of times I was like dead asleep when lights hit, so I was completely disoriented.”
It was nothing the hockey player, horse trainer and 4-H member who handled 1,000-pound steer couldn’t manage.
“I didn’t know what I expected. I knew it was going to be difficult so I trained myself physically for it,” she said as she sat in the Marine Corps recruiting office in Hayden.
The mental side was a different story.
“You can train mentally, but because I didn’t know what to expect, mentally I went into it blind,” Eitel said. “So you have to take everything in stride — you have to kind of sit back and observe,” she continued. “Once you know what’s expected of you, then you can push yourself and you can do what you need to do.”
What about being in a boot camp where women hadn’t been before?
“It was definitely an experience just because there was a lot of pressure put on us,” she said.
“I feel like we have to push a little bit harder to make sure everybody knows that we’re not slacking off, we can do the same things men can do,” she said. “I felt that pressure. And a lot of other girls with me felt that pressure, too.”
Bucko, United States Marine Corps Recruiting, Permanent Contact Station Hayden, recalled that Eitel was “super quiet” the day they met at his office.
She is described as the strong, silent type.
“I don’t even think she said a word to start off,” Bucko said.
She warmed up quickly, though, and he had no doubts she would do well in San Diego. She was smart, physically fit, and had a good work ethic.
“She’s always been a solid performer. That’s why she got selected,” he said. “We were definitely looking for top, proven performers.”
Of 60 girls in her boot camp on day one, 53 graduated at the MCRD in San Diego. With her parents in the crowd, her thoughts drifted back to the Reaper, reaching the top and receiving the Eagle Globe and Anchor.
It was stressful and hard, she recalled.
“I wasn’t going to stop. But my body was so exhausted," Eitel said. "My will to walk was the only thing keeping me walking.”
Here’s how Tim Kirkpatrick, at wearethemighty.com, described what recruits endured:
“Toward the end of their days-long test, each recruit must negotiate one of the toughest hikes up one of the steepest hills in Camp Pendleton, best known as the “Reaper.” This is the final test before earning the title of U.S. Marine.
As darkness still blankets the recruits outside their berthing area, drill instructors blare their high-decibel horns to awaken those who are about to experience the Reaper. The young troops quickly pack up their heavy gear and begin the last 9.7-mile hike of basic training as they approach the 700-foot-tall hill.
As each recruit ascends the hill, the fatigue of spending days on minimal rations and little sleep sets in. Each of the recruits must now motivate one another to overcome the struggle and make it up the tall hill. This final hike pays homage to the brave Marines who willed themselves to the top of Mount Suribachi, securing the area from their Japanese enemy.
This final test of fortitude is just the beginning of a long career for these soon-to-be Marines, as life in the Corps is just as tough as the last 13-weeks they’ve endured. Pushed by an overwhelming amount of motivation, recruits surpass obstacles they didn’t know even existed before boot camp.
Recruits approach this final challenge, charging as hard as they can, screaming out war cries, and pushing their bodies beyond limits. Before they know it, they’ve reached their ultimate goal: becoming a United States Marine.
Overcome with emotion, the young Marines open their palms to receive their Eagle, Globe, and Anchor from a once-demanding drill instructor, who now calls them a brother.”
Eitel was a standout high school student with multiple college scholarship offers. She instead opted for the military, committing to five years, with plans to make it a career.
Her father served in the Army National Guard.
Eitel has been home several weeks, visiting with friends and family and relaxing, while working out and staying sharp.
“I’m honestly still recovering from boot camp,” she said. “It was pretty stressful on my body.”
She leaves Monday for Camp Pendleton and starts with Alpha Company on June 1.
Until then, she is sleeping in, right?
Eitel, for the first time in a 30-minute interview, laughs.
“I still get up at 5 o'clock in the morning,” she said.