Just about everyone understands that the physical rigors of boot camp – for any branch of the military – can be daunting. From the discipline required to arise at “oh-dark-thirty” every day, to the seemingly endless pushups, to the punishing slogs through rough terrain while weighted down with gear, military training asks a lot of any man or woman who undertakes it. It is, therefore, no surprise that so many would-be soldiers drop out before basic training is complete. The United States Army, Navy, and Marines report similar attrition figures, with between 11% and 14% of recruits tapping out partway through boot camp.
And then there is the four-month trip to hell and back that is the French Foreign Legion’s boot camp. As a recent recruit to this legendary military organization, Massachusetts-born Maxwell Sweeney was able to experience firsthand just how intense those sixteen weeks spent at The Farm – the Legion’s infamous training ground in the south of France – can be.
It takes a certain type of man to pit his wits against the Foreign Legion’s basic training and come out on the other side. In fact, Maxwell Sweeney says, many American service members who have already faced the grueling demands of Marine or Army basic training – which aren’t exactly a walk in the park themselves — are nevertheless unable to stick it out at The Farm.
Out of every 10 men who sign up to join this elite group of soldiers, only one will make it through boot camp. It’s that rigorous.
The first four weeks, Maxwell Sweeney explains, are essentially an introduction to military life – discipline, a demanding physical regimen, and how to care for and use. Next comes a three-week stint of field training and a week’s worth of mountain training, on location in the French Pyrenees. The final physical and mental obstacle is reminiscent of the famed Crucible of the Marine Corps. The French Foreign Legion’s version is a 75-mile march that must be completed in three days.
After that, new Legionnaires get to take it a little bit easier – but only a little – with their last few weeks devoted to technical training, instruction in driving military vehicles, etc.
Maxwell Sweeney is currently deployed to French Guiana, but Legionnaires can be sent to roughly a dozen destinations, primarily in the Middle East and Africa. Others remain in France as part of Operation Sentinelle, which was instituted after the 2015 terror attacks that left Parisians and other French citizens reeling.
According to Maxwell Sweeney, the challenges imposed on potential Legionnaires are formidable, but so too are the rewards. One is becoming fluent in French; the recruits are given language instruction as well as picking it up through immersion. After three years’ service, any member is eligible to apply for French citizenship. The incredible sense of camaraderie that develops during basic training is unlike any other relationship. Joining the French Foreign Legion – and making it through basic training – isn’t accessible to just anyone. But for those who do prevail, membership in this exclusive club becomes a point of pride and a way of life.