The Inside Story of “Pizzagate”, the OCS Scandal of 2017

Thank you so much to our friend Michelle, one of the former candidates involved in Pizzagate, for sharing her story. If you have not heard of this scandal from last year, read on! We hope this story and advice helps you understand and prepare for the reality of the high standards of OCS.

As a naive, 18 year old girl in college, I viewed the opportunity to become a Marine officer with my utmost veneration and enthusiasm. With no history of ROTC or prior enlisted service, and the physical challenge of being 5’3′ and 101 lbs (at the time), I meticulously approached the OCS selection process as attentive as possible. Of course, that also meant worrying about the OCS selection and drop process. There were a number of possibilities where I could go wrong: injuries, disqualifying PT performances, failing academic tests, poor command presence. Within a span of five months of rigorous mental, physical, and medical preparation leading up to my OCS ship date, I can tell you with absolute certainty that I never, ever, ever, thought that I would ever get sent home because of Papa John’s pizza.

Before I get into what was possibly the “biggest scandal” of OCS first increment 2017, I encourage you to do the following. The first request is that I ask you to actually read the article from start to finish. I understand this blog is dedicated to help prepare candidates, but it’s imperative to gain context of all the efforts that were made prior to OCS and at OCS itself. This will help you understand the gravity of my mistakes, and how, in a span of a couple of hours, I threw away months of preparation due to my poor judgment.

Secondly, I am not writing this article to gain sympathy or convince you that I am of no wrongdoing. My story is a personal and professional embarrassment and I am extremely remorseful for my actions and their consequences. That being said, I am 100% responsible for my integrity violation, and it is an experience that I have embraced and grown from. I feel I have an obligation to share my experience. Though I’m still learning from it, my story can be instrumental in teaching a valuable lesson in the power of integrity and character, especially in the most tumultuous of times.

OSO San Diego

In January 2017, I walked into the U.S. Marine Corps Officer Selection Office anticipating the first encounter with my soon-to-be OSO. After a successful interview, I was ignited with a surge of motivation to do whatever it was I needed to do to be in the best condition possible prior to OCS.

It wasn’t easy. I ran about a 28 minute 3 mile run, could do around 65 crunches, and 1 pull-up. This was about a 175 PFT, which was far from the minimum qualifying PFT score of 235. In addition to PTing with my OSO three days a week from 0600-0800, I did my own set of strength training and cardio at least 5 times a week, while trying to gain six pounds. I was balancing 18 units that semester, working a part-time job as a programming specialist, and volunteering as a youth leader and teacher with my church on weekends.

OSO San Diego couldn’t have prepared me any better. The candidates at my OSO were all individually outstanding and exponentially more physically fit than I was. Their own successes and support were sources of inspiration I had the privilege working alongside of. Somehow, in late April, I got a call from my OSO telling me that I had been selected for OCS PLC Juniors

first increment. I was in total disbelief of actually getting selected to go to OCS, but I was excited and ready for my summer in Quantico, Virginia.

Weeks 1-5 of OCS

By no means was I the smartest, strongest, or fastest candidate. My positive mentality is what “got me through”, but if I’m going to be honest, I really enjoyed my time at OCS. This doesn’t mean that OCS was easy, but it means that OCS was tolerable. I spent my first two weeks at OCS memorizing the candidate regs, staying up late in my rack to reorganize my assault pack, mark gear, and learn some knowledge in advance (which I don’t advise). That, however, quickly changed.

There was an instance in the second week of OCS that had marked my identity throughout the entire company for the next several weeks. Our platoon was in a movement towards SULE 1. Our platoon sergeant instructed our candidate platoon sergeant to spit some knowledge in the middle of our movement. While struggling to figure something out, our platoon sergeant barked, “Does anybody else have any knowledge they can spit?” With a hint of reluctance, I shyly managed to make out the words, “this candidate.”

I got out of formation for the very first time and on the top of my head spit out ditties of the General Orders. What I didn’t expect was the complete joy I experienced from spitting ditties at high volume. So I tested it.

The louder I sounded off, the louder our platoon sounded off. The louder they sounded off, the more motivation I felt to sound off even louder. I was ignited with so much energy that I didn’t even realize it caught the attention of other platoons, or that I was walking twice as fast, or that I was forgetting to hydrate.

My passion for spitting ditties bled into the entirety of India Company. Before I knew it, I was spitting knowledge in every chow line, in front of the company before PT, in front of the company before our instruction period, even though for one of those instances I was on light duty. I spent my time in class wide awake, converting my notes into ditties I could use for later. From then on out I was the non-official knowledge candidate of India Company.

By the time it was a week before graduation, we had all completed our graduation requirements for PLC Juniors and found out our ranking. For my last PFT, my 3 mile run time was something along the lines of 22:30 minutes, 116 crunches, and 5 pull-ups. When we got our graduation papers, I read that I was ranked 8 in my platoon. I went from being a relatively quiet, afterthought of a candidate to gaining a significant amount of confidence, strength, and friendships from my experience at OCS.

And Then Came Papa John’s

The day that I received my graduation papers from my platoon commander was one of the most exciting experiences that I had at OCS. I was so overwhelmed with the anticipation of calling home, enjoying my liberty, and eating a hefty amount of food. Firewatch became complicated in our very small platoon, and each candidate in first platoon was faced with having two firewatch shifts, each for two hours, over our liberty weekend.

Female candidates get motivated by an SI

My liberty buddy and I spent our first hour on liberty contacting our families and loved ones before we decided to go to the PX and buy our dinner. We decided to go the Papa John’s on base and bring our chow back to the squad bay to eat outside before we began our firewatch shift.

It was pouring. By the time my liberty buddy and I got back to the squad bays we were soaked. We decided to bring all of our belongings into the head, including our chow, as we were changing into our firewatch uniforms. This is where I made my first mistake. I became so consumed with beginning my shift on time that I was ignoring the fact that I was openly breaking candidate regulations in front of my platoon. All of the candidates in the head could be held accountable for my actions right then and there. I was inattentive to my surroundings. My sole focus was to change, get the firewatch shift over with, and go back to my food, clothes, and phone after my shift, which were all waiting for me in the head.

While I was on fire watch, my sergeant instructor had assigned a task for me to put some posters up along the stalls in the head. As I finished taping up the posters, I used the head, and then looked at the reflection in the mirror of the belongings behind me as I was washing my hands. All the benches in the head were trashed with personal belongings of candidates. I decided to check my belongings and rummaged through them until my sergeant instructor bursted the door open and screamed for my name.

This is where I make my second and most stupid mistake. Instinctively, I found a pair of trousers to cover up my chow. My sergeant instructor then asks if I completed the task she assigned for me and I go through all the stalls in the head with her to show her I taped up the posters. Then she asked me a question that sent chills down my spine.

“What were you hiding there, Tran?”

I unveiled what was underneath the trousers and showed her the chow. Everything happened so quickly after this moment. My sergeant instructor went off on me as I was trying to explain myself. This was my third and most permanent mistake. Though I wasn’t blatantly lying, I was trying to rationalize my logic, which made me out to be dishonest. In that instance, I wouldn’t be surprised if my sergeant instructor lost all trust in me.

OCS became an absolute, total nightmare after this incident. The next two days were me rewriting all of my chits and essays, having very difficult conversations in my platoon commander’s office, and waiting in anxiety to see what my fate would bring me. I wasn’t allowed to communicate with my liberty buddy for the rest of the weekend and three other candidates also got in trouble for eating chow in the head. I tried to work with the candidate platoon staff and candidate company staff to see if there was anything I could do or they could do to help me and the rest of the “pizza” candidates in trouble. Deep inside, however, I knew I was going home.

While the rest of the platoon were getting their woodlands ready for graduation and preparing their civilian attire to go the Marine Corps Museum, I was idly standing by in total remorse and unease. “If only” scenarios kept popping up in my head. If only my sergeant instructor never went in the head. If only it wasn’t raining. If only I didn’t buy any Papa John’s. If only I had spent five minutes of my time seeking permission from the staff to put my uneaten chow somewhere visible in the squad bay. If I could had just gone back in time by two hours and thought twice about my actions, I wouldn’t be in this heaping, permanent mess.

I also had a tremendous amount of guilt to deal with as well. If it weren’t for me, four other candidates would have graduated from India Company, First Platoon. The attrition rate for female candidates at OCS was low enough already, so it was incredibly disappointing to have five, qualified candidates get sent home because of an integrity violation that was entirely my fault.

short and skinny candidates
Female Candidates at OCS India Co, 2017

Advice

Many Candidates are preoccupied with concerns in relation to physical fitness, leadership billets, and knowledge, so it’s easy to dismiss the importance of holding yourself accountable in relation to integrity, both before and during your experience at OCS. Just like in any other organization, there are rules and regulations. Most people follow the rules because it’s the right thing to do and it makes it easier for cooperation. Rules at OCS, however, are significantly more restrictive than your average work environment. Moreover, a lot of these regulations also have no moral attachment assigned to them, so naturally there are Candidates who do bend the regulations for personal convenience, and many of them get away with it. Because it’s not at anyone else’s expense, why not write a letter to your family while you’re in class? Because it doesn’t feel morally wrong to study during your firewatch shift, why not do it? Just don’t get caught.

When you spend weeks with the same company and same staff, it makes it easier to develop a predicament for what you can and can’t get away with. When you rationalize to yourself that you have no malicious intent, you’re not breaking any laws, and you’re not stepping on people’s toes, the likelihood of breaking a simple set of rules can almost become second nature. Recognizing this tendency and breaking this habit is exactly why OCS is structured the way that it is.

While you continuously bark the general orders, JJDIDTIEBUCKLE, and the importance of accountability as a Candidate at OCS, the actual test of these values is much less straightforward. It’s paramount for you, both before and during OCS, to condition yourself in the practice of recognizing when you are the most lenient with yourself and others. You’re not “being a snitch,” when you report violations to a higher authority. Likewise, you’re not “being a bro,” when you act as a bystander while someone in your proximity is violating rules. If anything, the responsibility to inform them of their violation lies on you.

After OCS

It’s been almost a year since I last got selected for OCS, and today I am no longer a Candidate. That isn’t to say that I don’t plan on pursuing a career in the Marine Corps, I absolutely do. However, this entire incident has allowed me to take a step back and reassess my personal and professional goals. While the Marine Corps is the zenith of honor, courage, commitment, these values can be applied to virtually anything and everything I set my mind to. My unique experience has given me the opportunity to speak up about my mistakes, and help others in preparation for OCS.

I also sought endeavors outside of the Marine Corps to step up as a leader. This year, I became a student representative for the 6,000 students in the College of Humanities, Arts, Behavioral and Social Sciences at my university. Last month, I won the student election and will be the Vice President of Student and University Affairs, which makes me the official delegate and voting representative of the 17,000 students of California State University San Marcos to the California State Student Association. Living near three Marine Corps bases means that there is a large military population both in San Diego and my university. So, one of my student missions is to increase the representation of the Marine Corps and military community within the North San Diego County region in order to improve student, active military and veteran success.

There are a plethora of opportunities to seek self improvement and take initiative as a leader for communities you feel passionate about. My pursuits in national security, foreign policy, and international relations are not completely closed off due to an integrity violation at OCS. If anything, this heartbreaking, horrible, embarrassing experience has allowed me to explore more creative ways to rebuild myself as a student, leader, and more importantly, as a person.

It’s time to rethink your approach to OCS unselfishly. Think about the people you represent. Your family, university, city, and country are all going to rely on you as a leader when you go to OCS, TBS, and eventually serve as a Marine Corps Officer. Take pride of this, and use this as motivation to hold yourself to a higher standard in your performance as a candidate. The second you view this as a dramatic form of thinking is the second you underestimate your potential role in the Marine Corps.

If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to me at michelletran.sd at gmail or follow me on instagram and direct message me.

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