In Defense of Twentynine Palms

Well, I guess it had to happen sooner or later. In his infamous Terminal Lance comic strip (so named in honor of enlisted Marines who serve out their four-year contract without achieving the much-vaunted promotion to Corporal that’s expected of every Marine worth his salt), Maximilian Uriarte takes a swipe at the Marine Air-Ground Task Force Training Center (MAGTFTC) situated in the High Desert of Southern California:

Image by Maximilian Uriarte. Reposted with permission.

Max elaborates in his commentary:

Being stationed in Hawaii, I could never help myself from feeling sorry for those poor souls serving their sentence contract in the badlands of Southern California….Twentynine Palms is arguably the shittiest place to call home in the Marine Corps, though honestly Marines will bitch about just about anywhere.

…Not only is it as hot as the United States gets, it’s isolated as fuck. By “as fuck,” I mean it’s at least 2-3 hours from anywhere worth going. If you’re a boot and don’t have a car, Taco Bell and ‘The Zone” will likely be your only solace. There is the noteworthy mention of it being the closest base to Las Vegas however, which may provide some respite from the monotony with its plethora of hookers and air conditioning.

…and unless you’re a boot lieutenant you probably don’t get a hard-on every time someone mentions the spacious training areas or multiple ranges for all sorts of explosive weaponry.

Yup, it’s hot.  Having served in Seventh Marines–the only Marine infantry regiment at 29 Palms–I can see what Max is getting at.  And it’s true that most Marines I knew hated Two-Nine, as we called it (though as Uriarte notes, Two-Nine-specific bitching should be taken with a grain of salt). But personally, I loved the place.

Max served in Hawaii, which was probably pretty cool for a while.  There was probably lots of surfing and beautiful weather.  However, there was also probably a lot of being stuck on a really small island where the local population hates you.  Locals in the vicinity of a Marine camp tend to have a quite tenuous relationship with Marines on account of the latter’s overbearing and rigid attitude, tendency to get hammered drunk and make a scene at every occasion, and to clumsily hit on every local girl who is way out of their league.

We of Twentynine Palms tended to see the comparison as one between our base (which, as I conceded above, most Marines hated) and Camp Pendleton, which is located further south in the much more temperate clime between San Diego and Orange County.  I can pretty confidently rebut Max’s assertion about Two-Nine being isolated.  Two-Nine is in the middle of the desert but Hawaii is a rock in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, which I’m sure comes into sharp relief the first time one flies home for the holidays.  Two-Nine did suck as junior Marine with no money, but once you came back from Iraq with enough for a down payment on a car, you discovered that it was right in the middle of:

  • Southern California
  • Las Vegas (which, contrary to Max’s speculation, actually got old once you exhausted the expensive, narrow possibilities of The Strip)
  • Lake Havasu, and
  • Phoenix (home to Arizona State University, Playboy’s #1 Party School in the US for 2002).

That, gentle reader, is a lot of opportunity for hedonism.

Then there’s the training. This is where Two-Nine comes into the sharpest contrast with Camp Pendleton and Camp Lejeune (in North Carolina).  Here I think Max understates the case.  As Pendleton and Lejeune are located in areas of much higher population density, the use of even small arms is heavily restricted.  Small unit infantry training in both camps leans on the use of blank cartridges to avoid sending ricochets off into some civilian’s nearby house.

Can you imagine joining the Marine Corps infantry to find out that you were going to spend most of your time shooting blanks?!?  No, at Two-Nine there was none of that nonsense.  The use of blanks did not exist outside of training exercises in which we were shooting at each other.  Incidentally, one of my platoon sergeants who’d served at bases throughout the US military noted that its comfort with close live-fire gave Seventh Marines an enormous edge in combat where friendly fire was that much less of an additional stressor.

Further, in Pendleton and Lejeune, even where the use of live small arms is permitted, Marines are usually required to remove the illuminated “tracer” rounds from their machinegun belts on account of the fire hazard posed by the burning minerals that create the tracers’ signature red streak.  Spending an hour or two monotonously removing every fifth round from the ammunition belt and then recombining each four-round length of belt is a regular part of live-fire training for every light, medium, and heavy machinegunner at rain-starved Camp Pendleton.  It is unheard of at Twentynine Palms.

Once, when we were training way out in an open expanse of desert, my rifle company accidentally started a brush fire in some tumbleweed.  A helicopter passing in the distance noticed the smoke and radioed it in to Bearmat (the range safety office for 29 Palms).  When Bearmat called to inquire about the fire, my company commander replied “negative, we don’t see any fire here” and we just kept shooting.  It was a victimless crime because it was impossible for the fire to spread out of control or to threaten anyone amid the rocky terrain.  It was also easy to get away with because we were training miles from anyone (except for passing helicopters).  If he would have tried a stunt like that at Camp Pendleton, he would’ve been fried.

Which brings me to the next, least acknowledged advantage of Twentynine Palms: The absence of higher-ranking officers.  There’s only a single one-star general stationed in command of the MAGTFTC.  Contrast that with Pendleton and Lejeune, respectively home to First and Second Marine Division headquarters.  The latter bases are loaded with high-ranking officers, their usually annoying senior Staff Noncommissioned Officers, and all the obnoxiousness that comes with them.

Coming from Two-Nine to Pendleton, you can smell the stifling air the moment you set foot on base: The rigidity with which regulations (both real and faux- hands-in-your-pockets, hanging-a-bath-towel-over-your-shoulder variety) are enforced; the silliness of the extra-regulated haircuts; the deference paid to Staff NCOs serving in occupational specialties that are light-years removed from combat.  All Marine Corps bases enforce a Spartan culture to one or another degree.  That said, having made the fateful decision to enlist, if you want to minimize the amount of time spent obeying arbitrary regulations not found in any actual manual or otherwise looking and acting like a fool for no good reason, you want to find yourself in Two-Nine.


  1. Great rebuttal, I secretly (ok my secret is out) read Terminal Lance as I have two Marine sons. The oldest spent 10 weeks at 29 on pre-deployment training, after spending the previous year in Yuma as his PDS. Afghanistan is a piece of cake now. There is a purpose to the madness of the Marine Corp.

    How else are you going to get ready for the harshest conditions if you don’t live and experience the harshest conditions? Thank you for your service, I applaud you.

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