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From Part 3:
readSchool: Marines learn to lead a platoon
readGetting Lost: Everyone gets lost
readTeachers: Learning from those fresh out of combat
readMess Night: A Corps tradition

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Part 1 Immersion

Mess Night: A Marine Corps tradition

By Christian Lowe / Times staff writer

The intel was incontrovertible. The photos were clear as day.

There he was, Capt. Ryan Gilchrist, a native of Memphis, Tenn., an infantry officer, a Basic School instructor, a platoon commander — and a member of an al-Qaida sleeper cell? A Saddam sympathizer?

Candidate carrying clothes

One of the highlights of TBS is Mess Night, a celebration steeped in Marine Corps tradition. Officers regale each other with stories of past exploits and make alcohol-fed toasts to future conquests. Following the formal dinner, TBS students, from left, Ramsey Brame, Victor Sosa and Michael Milliman gather for drinks and to watch videos of their training produced by the TBS staff. (Rob Curtis / Military Times)

“Mr. President, a heinous war crime has been committed,” a young lieutenant shouts over the smoke-filled din.

The assembled crowd of Marines erupts in scathing catcalls. Fists pound on tables. Heads turn in astonishment.

“This photograph was taken by ground intelligence officers during urban patrolling in Iraq,” the lieutenant said. A hush settles over the room as the formally dressed Marines lean over their tables to catch a glimpse of the shocking evidence.

There it was, a photograph of Gilchrist with the “butcher of Baghdad” and America’s most wanted terrorist.

Audacious claims

The charge of treason against Gilchrist was among a host of audacious claims made during a Marine ritual that is the stuff of legend. Few units participate in them these days — commanders increasingly frown on drunken reverie and prolific profanity — but the “Mess Night” is still a Marine Corps rite and part of the instruction at The Basic School.

It’s unclear when Mess Night became tradition. Some historians say it began with the Shanghai Marines and their British Scots Guard counterparts in 1927. Others believe it began in the summer of 1954, when then-Commandant Gen. Lemuel Shepherd held a formal dinner at Marine Barracks Washington. Regardless of when it started, the ceremony has been adapted over the years, incorporating traditions of the Continental Marines and old English seafaring lore, while at the same time losing some of the bacchanalian abandon so evident in its early years.

The lieutenants undergoing combat training at TBS imbibed in the traditional way before this Mess Night at Quantico, Va., some 50 years after Shepherd’s first such dinner. With beer plucked from stashes in their rooms, the officers decked out in dress blues made their way through the drab yellow cinderblock hallways to the mess hall.

While a band played in the corner of the mess hall, the lieutenants drank and chatted — they had no war stories to share, just their excitement and apprehension at a future in the Corps. Just a few days before, most had learned what their job in the Corps would be. They spent a lot of this “cocktail hour” talking about their new assignments, making plans to rendezvous at a distant base after going their separate ways for job-specific training.

A bell rang to announce the last chance for a bathroom break — “paying tribute to Lord Nelson,” as it’s known — before the dinner was to begin. Once inside, there’s no chance to hit the “head” until Mess Night ends.

After a meal of prime rib — a cut of meat more likely hacked from a musk ox than a fine Angus steer — and shrimp cocktail that seemed more than a few days old, the toasts began. A white wine, a red wine, a port wine. To the presidents of Nicaragua and Mexico — honoring the international officers attending TBS, and to the Corps.

The guest of honor, retired Brig. Gen. Richard Vercauteren, spoke about courage and commitment, honor and country — all typical Marine Corps fare.

Then the fun began.

Stories and pranks

For all the ceremony and tradition, Mess Night is also about good old fashioned pranks and a lot of war stories. Typically, these dinners are held shortly after a unit has returned from a deployment, as a way to blow off steam and talk about the highs and lows of a trip overseas.

The officers elect a president of the mess, who sits at the head table with unit commanders and the guest of honor. The vice president, usually the most junior officer in the unit, is dubbed the “vice” and acts as an enforcer, making sure the rowdy officers keep their bearing and stick to the rules: uniforms must be immaculate, no officer may leave the mess for any reason during the meal and all requests to address the mess must be made in a specific way.

Anytime the vice deems that a rule has been broken, the offending officer is fined. Speaking out of turn — addressing the president without first asking the vice’s permission, for example — could cost you $2. Slipping out of the mess to hit the bathroom: $25.

The money is used to pay the bar tab after the formal dinner. By the end of this mess night, the pot was swollen with cash.

“Mr. President, a heinous atrocity has been committed,” said 2nd Lt. Davis Gooding, pointing at his platoon commander, Capt. Bobby Danzie.

“Captain ‘Night Train’ has been sneaking malt liquor into the mess. A fine must be assessed!” Gooding proclaimed, as he walked over to Danzie’s chair and reached beneath it, producing a 40 oz. bottle of Colt 45 malt liquor. The crowd erupted in laughter.

“Say it isn’t so!” shouted 2nd Lt. Almar Fitzgerald, one of Gooding’s platoon mates.

But the president, 2nd Lt. Kaleb Harkema — the TBS student with the highest grade-point average and master of ceremonies for the mess night — would have none of it.

Instead of levying a penalty against Danzie, he fined Gooding $2 for improperly addressing the mess; he didn’t ask the vice president for permission to speak. Gooding suffered the indignity of walking to a bowl at the back of the room and depositing his bills, accompanied by cat-calls and jeers from his classmates.

He also had to chug the bottle of malt liquor. By the time he reached the last few, warm, malty ounces, Gooding looked as if he’d made a big mistake calling Danzie out.

But he would not be the last.

Later, Gilchrist stood to face his accuser, 2nd Lt. Patrick Sullivan, a student from Gilchrist’s platoon.

“Through an inquiry into the matter of this photo, we found that the lieutenant has produced a forgery and I request that he be fined for his infraction,” boos drowning out his final words, the woody cigar smoke mingling with the sweet smell of rum punch at the tables.

Convinced by the weight of the evidence, the president ruled in Gilchrist’s favor.

“I will fine you five dollars for your infraction!”

And the party continued into the wee hours.

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