TCS Daily

Among the Few and the Proud

By Martin Morse Wooster - April 11, 2005 12:00 AM

PARRIS ISLAND, South Carolina -- It's a lovely March day here in the Carolina Lowcountry. The sweet spring winds are sweeping down from the north, caressing the live oaks and palmettos. It would be a good day to stroll the streets of Beaufort for antiques, or get 18 holes in at Hilton Head Island.

But for the recruits at Parris Island, it's time to do what the Marines here have done for nearly a century: prepare young men and women for war.

The Marines present themselves as a service whose warrior virtues are timeless and unchanging. When new recruits show up here in the dead of night, their first task is to leave their buses on Panama Way and stand in formation in a series of painted "yellow footprints." The recruits are told that all the Marines who trained here -- the men who captured Tarawa and Iwo Jima in World War II, fought ferociously at the Chosin Reservoir in Korea and Hue in Vietnam, and marched into Kuwait City during the Gulf War -- started their military careers at the same spot the raw recruits are standing in.

The road the recruits are standing in hasn't changed much, but the building the recruits spend their first 48 hours in is less than a decade old. In 1980, the building was a fading Quonset hut. In 1940, it was a giant tent, slightly bigger than the barracks the men slept in, (Back then, one veteran told me, if you were bothered by the bugs that flew past your bed every night, well, then you just weren't tough enough for the Corps.)

The Marines are also affected by many other kinds of trends. Like many military bases, Parris Island is increasingly privatized. Sodexho runs the mess halls. (The chow, I'm told, is about the same, but service is a little less snappy.) The laundry is about to be contracted out. The officers' housing is also being built privately; the shingled-roof brick single-family homes are being burned down by local fire departments as part of their training. In their place are shining yellow apartment complexes that would not be out of place on more expensive parts of the Carolina coast.

And yes, even in the middle of Parris Island there's a Seattle's Best cappuccino shop.

The role of the drill instructor (or DI) has also changed. By all accounts, the drill instructors of the 1940s and 1950s were notoriously tough. Dick Chambers of Watkins Glen, N.Y. went through basic training in 1952. He vividly recalled an exercise where two platoons met on Elliott's Beach. The DI took off his pistol belt and placed it in the middle of the beach. The two platoons fought with savage fury to get the belt to one end of the beach by any means necessary. The point of the exercise was to remind the recruits they were subject to the DI's iron will.

The hard men who trained the Marines who served our country in World War II and Korea would have been appalled at the female DI I heard tell a female recruit who wasn't screaming hard enough on an obstacle course, "You've got to do a better job with the sound effects."

But after several recruits died in the late 1950s, Congress restricted the authority of the DI's to use physical force against recruits. More importantly, the mission the Marines fulfill today has changed. Unquestioned obedience to an officer might have been necessary when the mission was to storm a German machine gun nest in the Ardennes or capture an island in the south Pacific. But the recruits who may serve in Iraq face a highly volatile battlefield, where orders may change rapidly as a lance corporal in the field continually downloads up-to-the minute intelligence about the enemy from the Marines' intranet.

So Marines today are being trained to be flexible, adaptable soldiers who work well in teams. Training is still hard. Marines still have to learn how to rappel down a 40-foot tower and accurately shoot an M16A2 rifle at a range of 500 yards. And Marines have to be competent swimmers -- a test that's particularly challenging for inner-city recruits who have never been near a pool.

Moreover, recruits have to adapt to a world where everything's planned for them, except for an hour of "square-away time" at night. Most of the teenagers who show up at Parris Island have a hard time adapting to a world where reveille is every morning at 5 and when you're allotted ten minutes to shower, shave, and dress and five minutes to wolf down your chow in the mess hall. Staff Sergeant Patrick Wiley, who processes new recruits, says that many of the new recruits have been misled by action-adventure shows. "What do they see on TV?" Wiley says. "Obstacle courses and weapons. They don't see anyone saying, 'Yes, sir.' 'No, sir'."

The drill instructor is still boss. Talk back to him or her too many times and you're still likely to get the boot (although you may receive psychological counseling first). But if the old DIs were tough guys, today's DI's practice what Staff Sergeant Joe Wilborn calls "tough love."

Staff Sergeant Wilborn has been a Marine for ten years, seven of which were spent as a DI. " I am a mean instructor, " he says. "But I am also a caring instructor. You can't be mean to your recruits all the time. "You have to relate to them."

For at least the first few weeks, Staff Sgt. Wilborn has to be tough, in order to show that recruits can only succeed through "discipline, hard work, and effort." Many of the recruits, for example, thought they'd only have to do physical training once or twice a week, and are flummoxed when they have to exercise every day.

But once the recruits become used to the pace of training, Staff Sergeant Wilborn relaxes a bit, becoming more like a coach and less like an iron man. He tells the men something about his life and why he decided to become a Marine. "I tell them my family is number one," he says, "and they're number two."

Staff Sgt, Wilborn, like the other DIs, also tries to teach the three "Corps values" all Marines are supposed to learn: courage, honor, and commitment, "We try to teach them how to be successful in life," he says. "You've got to be committed to something. You've got to have honor to be faithful to your wife."

The climax of training at Parris Island is an event called "The Crucible," where Marines go into the field for 54 hours and complete a series of exercises. If they're successful, they are rewarded by the "Warriors' Breakfast," a giant pig out where recruits can chow down on all the steak, eggs, potatoes, and omelets they can consume. And for the first time in their training, recruits are given up to an hour to eat their chow.

Part of the goal of The Crucible is team building. Recruit Michael Dixon of Silver Spring, Maryland thought the most challenging part of The Crucible was an exercise where he and his team from 2018 Platoon had to get themselves and their gear over a 12-foot wall. There were ropes on the other side, but someone had to get over the wall first. How should this be done? One member of Dixon's team was 6'6", so they formed a human stepladder, with the tall recruit lined up against the wall with two other shorter men behind him. A fourth recruit then used his three colleagues to climb over the well and get the ropes.

Another section of The Crucible teaches Corps values. The recruits perform various tasks, after being told a story about a Marine who earned the Medal of Honor. One station tells about Corporal James Mackie, who was blown up in a gunboat steaming up the James River during the siege of Richmond in 1862. A second describes the heroism of Sgt. Louis Cukela, who single-handedly charged and captured a nest of German machine-gunners in the Forest Du Prez in 1918. A third honors Sgt. Alfredo Gonzalez, who died on the fifth day of the battle for Hue in 1968 after he had carried two Marines to safety. Sgt. Gonzalez saved the second Marine's life after he was severely wounded by North Vietnamese fragmentation grenades.

The lessons these stories teach are simple, but important: These Marines started out as men like you. They sacrificed themselves to save their friends. They served their country with honor.

The climax of training is the graduation ceremony. Since over 21,000 Marines leave Parris Island each year, ceremonies are held nearly every Friday at Peatross Arena. The gunmetal-grey stands fill with parents, grandparents, cousins, friends, and lovers. Many spectators wear shirts with every variant of the Marines' scarlet-and-gold colors that the market offers. Other spectators show up with their dress uniforms. One man has a splendiferous powder-blue tunic and a snappy wide-brimmed leather hat. His uniform, it turns out, is the dress uniform of the Maine State Prisons.

"You look very Canadian," I say.

"If my tunic was red, I'd be a Mountie," he responds.

The event begins with the presentation of Mac, the Parris Island mascot. Mac is a bulldog. In 1923 Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Smedley Butler declared that the bulldog was the official Marine mascot, because in World War I the Germans called Marines "Devil Dogs" for their toughness. Mac, we're told, is a Marine, who enlisted in November 2002 and completed his training in March 2003. There's no word on what Mac did to become a Marine, or if his training involved cats.

As for the ceremony, it consisted of marching, awards presentations, and more marching. The camp commander reminds the new Marines of a comment once made by President Ronald Reagan. "Some people go through life without knowing if they made a difference," President Reagan observed. "Marines don't have that problem."

Finally the ceremony is over, and the new Marines march off the field, for seven days of liberty, six months of advanced training at Camp Lejeune, and a career of military service.

Martin Morse Wooster is a former editor of The American Enterprise and The Wilson Quarterly.



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