One man's journey from a job at Como Zoo to learning military life in San Diego

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ST. PAUL—Thomas Doyle's journey to the U.S. Marines began at St. Paul's Como Zoo.

It was a hot summer day, and Doyle was working as a ride operator when a Marine recruiter spotted him.

"He was working enthusiastically; that's what caught my attention," recruiter Gunnery Sgt. David Hernandez said. "People are usually going to be ­miserable with the heat and he was just smiling. He was working like this was the dream job for him. And I thought, 'This guy looks like he's got what it takes.'"

Six months later, Doyle headed off to boot camp in San Diego. He graduated Friday, March 2, the day before his 20th birthday.

The St. Paulite — who has marched in the Grand Old Day parade and worked at the Minnesota State Fair — is one of about 8,000 Marines who enlisted in the past 10 years from the Twin Cities Recruiting Station, which includes ­Minnesota, the Dakotas and part of ­Wisconsin.

'I just wanted to be a man'

Unlike many recruits, Doyle did not join the Marines straight out of high school. After graduating from Central High School in St. Paul, he completed a year at Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis before meeting Hernandez.

When he talked to Hernandez the first time, Doyle said he had considered following his grandfather's footsteps and joining the military but had some reservations. He was also considering joining the Peace Corps after Dunwoody.

But Doyle was quickly persuaded to join the Marines, attracted to the work ethic, pride and brotherhood and the opportunity to serve his country. Later, he realized he had another reason.

"I wanted to grow up," Pvt. Doyle told a reporter in San Diego during his 11th week of boot camp. "I just wanted to be a man ... to go out into the world and mature and find out who I really am."

Hernandez gave him a workout regimen and a handbook to prepare for boot camp.

"His motivation level just went through the roof," Hernandez said. "Whatever I asked him to do, he was all for it."

Doyle's interest in the Marines didn't surprise his mother.

"He loves that kind of structure," Renae Doyle said.

His quick decision to join before finishing Dunwoody did surprise her. She didn't know he had officially enlisted until two weeks before he left.

The yellow footprints

Doyle boarded a plane for San Diego shortly before Christmas. Boot camp began for him that same night, when he set foot on the yellow footprints at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot.

"The thing that makes these (footprints) so special isn't the paint; it's not the concrete; it's not the location. It's that every Marine that's ever mattered — the ones whose names we know and the ones whose names we don't — have all stood right here," said Lt. Col. Jesse Sjoberg, the commanding officer of the 2nd Recruit Training Battalion.

It was on those footprints that Doyle became a recruit. He and hundreds of others listened to the Uniform Code of Military Justice and Marine Corps policies. They yelled, "Yes, sir" and "Aye aye, sir" as drill instructors' barked commands.

It was a taste of what the next 12 weeks would look like for the recruits.

"They're scared, but they come here for a challenge, and we give them that challenge," said drill instructor Staff Sgt. Trevor Woodruff.

Minutes after getting off the bus, the recruits went inside and were instructed to put their civilian lives in a box. Their personal belongings, their knowledge of what would happen next, their ability to use personal pronouns were all taken away. They referred to themselves as "these recruits."

And then they were told to yell a scripted message in a phone call home:

"Hello, this is recruit (last name) ... I have arrived safely at MCRD San Diego. The next time I contact you will be by postal mail so expect a letter in two to three weeks ... I love you goodbye!!!!"

The message Doyle left went to his mother's voice mail.

"It was very hurried and you could tell the drill (instructors) were yelling at the kids in the background. He did this whole spiel he had to memorize. He sounded kind of frantic — like he was laughing, but he would do that when he was nervous and frantic," Renae Doyle said.

Despite the jittery tone, Doyle said, she could tell her son was OK.

'You find out who you really are'

Days at boot camp were long, but the weeks went by quickly. During the first phase, Thomas Doyle took his initial strength test. He learned about safety, fitness and well-being, uniform regulations, officer regulations, Marine history, and more. He developed new habits, like eating a salad with every meal.

In one of his first letters home, he told his mother, "It's not as bad as I thought it would be."

Swim week, the fourth week of camp, was Doyle's first real challenge. He wasn't used to swimming with heavy gear, and it was one of the first opportunities to be held back a week.

"If you've already planned out your life — because I already have a year of ­college planned out — it's just nerve-wracking," Doyle said.

But as the training got more difficult, the drill instructors became less demanding. They yelled less and questioned more. And the recruits learned that the yelling is for good reason.

"You get blasted by a drill instructor, but you know he's yelling at you because he cares. When a drill instructor doesn't care, he'll just ignore you and leave you to mess up," Doyle said. "In the Marine Corps, they always make sure they do it right."

The drill instructors' yelling paid off for Doyle's platoon when it won the final drill.

"We'd put in so much effort. We'd worked for that night and day, and when we heard that we'd won, we were screaming, we were slamming our boots in the ground — we were just so pumped," he said.

The most intense experience of boot camp was the Crucible, a 54-hour endurance event that tests recruits during their 10th week of training. Doyle and his platoon marched about 20 miles a day carrying heavy bags, had little to eat and hardly slept.

During the final night, they marched nearly 10 miles up a 700-foot mountain deemed "The Reaper." For Doyle, it was all worth it when he reached the top and earned the title "Marine."

"You see the sunrise and it's just like, 'I've made it so far. I never thought I'd make it this far,'" Doyle said. "You find out who you really are in those three days."

Plans to re-enlist

Two of Doyle's grandparents flew to San Diego to watch him graduate. It's often an emotional ceremony, complete when the drill instructors give their platoons their final instruction: dismissal.

Doyle will have 10 days at home before returning for additional training, but he'll be back in St. Paul soon.

He has signed on to be a member of the reserves. He'll spend the first six years as an active reserve, committing 12 weekends a year to serving in the Marine Corps communication department in St. Paul. Then he'll have two years of inactive service, available to the Marines in an emergency.

He said he hopes to re-enlist after his first contract ends.

In the meantime, he'll ­finish up at Dunwoody. His plans after graduation are uncertain, but he and Hernandez discussed training to become a Marine officer.

"He's a highly motivated individual, enthusiastic like no other, and he takes a lot of initiative. In my three years (as a Marine recruiter), he's one of the more mentally tough individuals that I ­actually had to recruit," Hernandez said. "He's a natural leader."