Illustration by Joseph McDermott
Fresh out of School of Infantry training circa 2005, I arrived at Camp Pendleton’s Camp Horno, where I was assigned to my first unit in the Marine Corps.
Horno had a reputation as the home of the mythical Horno Cloud. Legend has it that when Marines leave Camp Horno to train in the field, the Horno Cloud follows, bringing rain, misery, hate, and discontent with it. You can be on the other side of the planet, but the Horno Cloud is to blame when it rains on grunts from 1st Marines. No matter how hard you try, there’s no escaping Horno.
Back then, Horno also had one of the highest operational tempos in the Marine Corps. Units would deploy to combat for six months, then come back for six months to train for the upcoming deployment. Rinse, repeat. With that kind of op tempo, Horno was full of battle-hardened lance corporals covered in tattoos, nicotine addictions, and faded service uniforms. They’d sweat in their uniforms so much that salt would stain and fade their cammies to just outside what was acceptable in regulations. That’s where the term “salty” comes from, and being salty was a rite of passage.
On my first day on Horno, the only Marines on base had just been sent home from deployment early after being wounded in combat. In fact, the first Marine I met was a salty private with a limp and a cane. Though I was one rank higher than him, he would make me do pushups for anything I did wrong. My new unit returned home four days later after fierce fighting during Operation Phantom Fury, the most infamous — and bloody — battle of the Iraq War. They lost 33 men on that deployment.
I vividly remember standing in formation with my new platoon as they rehearsed a 21-rifle salute for an award ceremony for the fallen Marines. When the shots went off, almost everyone in my platoon ran for cover. The only Marines still standing in formation were confused guys like me.
“You boots don’t know shit about combat!” the salty, combat-tested Marines yelled. Those who hadn’t been to combat — no matter how long they’d served in the Marine Corps — were known as boots. A boot is the opposite of a salty Marine; it is the worst and most degrading insult you could call an infantry Marine and often causes a fistfight when said to the wrong individual.
Being a boot and living on Camp Horno was possibly the most depressing combination on earth. We lived in a World War II-style squad bay, like the barracks we had in boot camp. The side of the building had DEMO spray-painted on it, as the building had been scheduled for demolition several years prior. But about 50 of us lived inside. When the toilets were flushed, the backwash would flood sinks. One time a Marine was cleaning a window and his hand shattered the glass, sending him to the hospital.
I remember waking up some mornings, walking outside, yelling, “I hate my life,” and from the other side of the camp, a Marine would yell back, “I hate your life, too!” Therapeutic moments like that were much-needed comic relief. Obviously, Camp Horno is not where any boot wanted to spend their free time. None of us could afford a car, so five Marines and I took a bus to Oceanside, California, where we could hate our lives less.
Illustration by Joseph McDermott.
After a standard weekend of questionable decisions, we were walking back to the bus station when two women walked past us. I delivered a simple “hello.” They turned around and began following us. One thing led to another, and before you knew it, we were all hanging out together in a Motel 8 off the freeway. It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to figure out what happened next, but suffice to say, it was disgusting.
We made it back to base at 6 a.m., just in time for our morning platoon run.
“Who had fun this weekend?” our platoon sergeant asked in formation. I raised my hand. He looked at me.
“Shut up, boot,” he said. It’s against Marine Corps standards for boots to experience any form of happiness on Camp Horno.
When my best friend, Ernie, heard what happened over the weekend, he was adamant about getting me to invite “Priscilla” back to our barracks, under the condition that she bring her friend. Now, Marines that dared to bring their girlfriend to Camp Horno would have to tolerate a random Marine yelling “Girl!” at the top of their lungs, followed by everyone running outside to catch a glimpse of such a mysterious creature. For a boot like me to bring girls aboard Camp Horno … that was a tall order to fill.
Priscilla was different. I just didn’t have enough experience to recognize it at the time. While trying to give her directions, I told her I was located at area 53.
“Oh, Camp Horno! I’ll be there in 30 minutes,” she said.
That’s odd, I thought. She knew the base by its designated area number. Lucky guess?
Priscilla eventually showed up with her friend, accompanied by another male Marine.
“Well, you’re on your own,” Ernie said as he walked back to our heinous living quarters. I was bringing Priscilla up to our barracks after 10 p.m., and all the lights were off, so we were able to avoid the all-hands-on-deck call for when a woman entered our area of operation.
The restrooms were located in the center of the squad bay and split all the boot Marines to one side and salty Marines on the other. Only a select few boots coexisted with salty Marines — due to space constraints — and I was one of them. This made trying to study anatomy with Priscilla difficult; I couldn’t even answer my phone at night without being yelled at for being too loud. Fortunately, one of my senior Marines said I could use his bunk on the other side of the squad bay under the condition I made the bed after. I found his offer peculiar because he typically treated me like the worthless boot I was.
Over to the other side of the squad bay I went.
Illustration by Joseph McDermott.
We arrived at the bottom rack. We studied anatomy. After a few minutes, we both looked up from our … books … and realized part of my platoon was watching from a short distance, silently cheering us on. I vividly remember the glare from the TV shining off a Marine’s glasses as he gave us a thumbs-up. The glare shining off his glasses illuminated at least 10 Marines around him, huddled together. His name was Garcia, and it was weird, but Priscilla didn’t care. We finished studying, another Marine arrived to pick her up, and I returned to my bunk.
The following morning, a Marine who also treated me like a worthless boot came back from his overnight stay in Los Angeles.
“Who slept in my rack last night?” he yelled at the top of his lungs. Mortified, I glanced over to the Marine who’d let me use his bed. It dawned on me he’d tricked me into sleeping in his best friend’s bed so everyone could watch. They fought in Fallujah side by side and serve on the LAPD together to this day. Marines have an odd way of expressing love for one another!
The upset Marine then went to put his boot (an actual boot, not a junior Marine) on and saw a used condom wrapper on the floor.
“Who the fuck fucked in my bed last night?” he screamed, enraged.
“I thought that was your bed, lance corporal,” I whispered to the Marine who did me the “favor” the night before.
“Fuck no, you’re on your own,” he said. “I told you to make the bed.”
Fucking Horno Cloud, I thought.
“Governale!” he shouted, giving me away.
My senior Marine was irate. He had been fighting in Fallujah only days prior, and I had been in the fleet not even a week. I spent the next several hours being properly trained on how to do pushups, crunches, and jumping jacks as all my senior Marines laughed. I had to keep a straight face, attempting to salvage my first impression in the platoon.
The war didn’t end, and we deployed to Iraq later in 2005. The Marine who’d tricked me was severely wounded. He almost died. I was part of the quick reaction force that first arrived on the scene.
Fortunately, he lived to tell the tale, and we’ve recounted this story over beers at several platoon reunions. Every Marine ever stationed on Camp Horno can tell you an unbelievable story from the wasteland, and though there are many like it, this one is mine.
I wonder whatever happened to Priscilla? I miss studying anatomy with her!
This article first appeared in the Summer 2022 print edition of The Forward Observer, a special publication from Coffee or Die Magazine, as “The Legend of Camp Horno.”
Justin Governale is a stand-up comic based in San Antonio, Texas. He also served as a Marine scout sniper, is a Purple Heart recipient, MMA fighter, jiujitsu black belt, entrepreneur, dog rescue/foster advocate, published writer, and former private military contractor based in Kabul.
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