It really is an island.
It’s surrounded by wide, thick marshland on all sides. You could try to swim for it, but you’re not going to make it.
There are alligators in that marsh.
They built a causeway to connect it to the mainland in the late 1920s. Before then, recruits were ferried across the swamp from nearby Port Royal.
“There’s one way on and one way off,” Staff Sgt. Kevin Brock said.
Those are important details for prospective Marines arriving at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island. From the time they’re bused over from the Savannah/Hilton Head Airport - always after midnight, always with their heads between their knees as the bus approaches to the gate - the sense of isolation that is Parris Island is an immediate and physical thing.
For four days earlier this month, the United States Marine Corps afforded teachers and media representatives from two of its recruiting stations an up-close look into the making of a Marine at its storied boot camp in the South Carolina lowlands.
The educator’s detachment through Nashville was met at the Beaufort, S.C., Holiday Inn by Brock, the group drill instructor for the week. The combat-veteran Marine and Madisonville native gave unvarnished, straight-forward answers to all questions throughout the week. His take on the “Stockholm Syndrome” that develops between drill instructors and their recruits during their 12 weeks together on the island was hard to swallow after watching the poster Marine in action with a recruit in front of the chow hall on Day 2.
“They hate us in the beginning,” Brock said. “At the end, they think we’re the best thing ever.”
Parris Island is the only one of the Marine Corps’ two recruit depots where female Marines are made. The workshop from the Charlotte, N.C., recruiting district was assigned Gunnery Sgt. Francisca Rodriguez for the week. The Portland, Ore., native said she joined the Marine Corps out of high school because she had “a bad attitude.” It looked at times there’s still plenty of it left.
“The best way to describe a drill instructor is a pit bull that’s been let off the leash,” Staff Sgt. Andrew Hurt, recruit station Nashville, said.
Against the backdrop of career Marines like Brock, Rodriguez and Hurt, there was William Blount High School graduate Lee Schmidt.
The former Governor was in his 10th week during the workshop’s tour. The young man that wrestled at William Blount two years ago was already long gone. Schmidt looked spent as he sat for a 15-minute interview. He sat bolt upright in his chair, his hat in his hands across his lap. When he spoke, as is customary for recruits until they reach their 12th week, he referred to himself in third person.
“This recruit went from being one of the best wrestlers on his high school team to trying to make it every day,” Schmidt said. “High school was definitely a long time ago.”
There’s a reason they don’t let mothers watch their children go through boot camp, Brock said. All the while, as he sat there, the determination in Schmidt’s eyes never wavered.
It starts right away for Schmidt and others like him at Parris Island. There’s little said on the ride from the gate to receiving station. The instant the bus pulls to a stop, chaos.
“Until you experience it, you have no idea of what’s about to happen,” Schmidt said. “You’re never going to get what actually goes on here until you do it.”
That first night on Parris Island is meant to be a shock, said Col. Jeff Fultz, who enlisted in the Marine Corps many years ago before taking advantage of its officer candidate program.
“When you get off the bus, you are not a Marine,” he said.
Curious thing about that first 24 hours. Not Schmidt, not Brock, not Rodriguez, not Hurt - nor any of the other Marines Blount Today spoke to during the week - remembers very much about it. The yelling, the screaming, the hunger, the fatigue, it all becomes a blur, they said.
“I remember having to go to the bathroom real bad,” Schmidt said. “The entire experience was definitely unexpected. This recruit knew he was going to be up for some time.”
That first, sleepless 24 hours is no different for female recruits.
“This recruit thought, when she lay in her bunk at night, ‘What are you doing here? You’ve got a wonderful family at home who loves you,’” recruit Kimberly Gibson, a 19-year-old former cross country runner and softball player from Bayville, N.J., said one afternoon over lunch.
It’s early on where recruits will occasionally make a break for it across the marsh, Hurt said. Rescue boats are quickly sent out to pluck them from the muck before the tide comes in. Parris Island sits just 4 feet about sea level.
“They say the fastest way off this island is to graduate,” recruit Mariah Cureton, Charlotte, N.C., said.
Eight percent of males and 16 percent of females wash out and are sent home in the first two weeks. Former heavyweight champion Riddick Bowe, looking to fulfill a lifelong dream in the late 1990s, asked to leave after three days.
“We don’t want everyone to graduate recruit training,” said Col. Bill Harrop, assistant chief of staff for the Eastern recruiting region. “We want it to be special to become a Marine.”
Two weeks in the making of a Marine is all about marksmanship, marksmanship in the morning, marksmanship in the afternoon, marksmanship all the time. Among the many firearms recruits become acquainted with is the M203 assault rifle, “the Scarface model,” Sgt. Michael Misner said.
“It’s a cool weapon,” he said.
To get a sense of the level to which marksmanship is taken at Parris Island, recruits are taught to use only the thumb and forefinger to lift their glass during meals to facilitate a smoother action on the trigger.
“It was an amazing feeling to be able to shoot this recruit’s weapon,” Gibson said, “very satisfying.”
Without question, the most memorable feature of recruit training, one any Marine will tell you they’ll remember for the rest of their life, is the drill instructors themselves, more specifically, their voices. During an 11-week course prior to being assigned to one of Parris Island’s four battalions, drill instructors are taught every technique in the book to protect their pipes, Brock said.
“You have to warm up your voice when you’re driving in here at three in the morning,” he said.
It’s not uncommon for a drill instructor to cough up blood the first couple of weeks with a new company, Brock said. For Rodriguez, the damage to her vocal chords has become permanent.
“Your vocal chords should touch to make the harder sounds,” she said. “Mine don’t.”
When they first began to fray, Rodriguez said doctors advised her she could continue as a drill instructor but that her voice might never be the same if she didn’t stop and have surgery. Parris Island is understaffed when it comes to female drill instructors. Leaving would place even more of a burden on her colleagues, Rodriguez said. So, she stayed.
“I thought, ‘If you leave, you’re going to hurt your team,’” she said.
The physical demands of recruit training, which includes basic martial arts instruction, are endless the first 10 weeks. Gradually, you learn to cope, Schmidt said.
“Your body can deal with a lot more than your mind actually perceives,” he said.
At the time, that philosophy was only days away from being put through Parris Island’s most grueling test.
It’s called “the Crucible.” Beginning with a lengthy morning hike into the woods, almost-Marines will cover 48 miles the next 54 hours, enduring almost every combat-related mental and physical challenge imaginable. There’s little sleep. No more than four hours a night, and that’s the time allotted, not necessarily how much rest is actually attained.
There are full-contact, hand-to-hand bouts inside an eight-sided concrete structure called “the Octagon,” its roof removed so drill instructors can ring its terrace and shout instructions to their recruits.
There’s very little food. Recruits must make three meals-ready-to-eat last for the duration.
Saturday morning, those able to finish hike back out, followed by a ceremonial 4-mile march around the island’s perimeter. Once completed, successful companies kneel beneath a life-size replica of the Iwo Jima monument and, in a private ceremony closed to the public, and are officially addressed as Marines for the first time.
The 12th and final week for new Marines is largely one of making ready for graduation. Families begin arriving on Wednesday. Thursday morning, graduating companies take in a morning jog of honor with the base commander.
Schmidt took that morning run last Thursday.
“The days go by slowly,” he said, “but the weeks fly.”
After four days of lectures, observing, trying out the M16, and some really bad marching on the part of both groups, members of the two workshops came away with varying ideas of what they’d tell students who came to them with questions about the Marine Corps.
Emily Workman, a principal at Ezell-Harding Middle School in Nashville, wife and mother of two, said she found the week an eye-opener.
“After being here, if any of my kids wanted to come here, I’d be OK with it,” she said. “They could have controlled what we saw and put up a façade, but they didn’t.”
That the fact female recruits are subjected to the same trials as their male counterparts she found appealing, Workman said.
“You’re going to be a Marine, not a female Marine,” she said, “and I like that.”
Jeff Phillips, a Nashville police officer and coach of Ezell-Harding’s high school football team, had a slightly different take on things.
“I’m not sure if any of my kids could cut it here,” he quipped. “I’d fully support them if they did, but I’d want to be sure they made an informed decision.”
If every member of the workshops took with them much the same feeling, the week was a success, Folkes said.
“We don’t do this to get you to go back and be a Marine Corps recruiter,” he said. “Absolutely not.”
It really is an island, after all, and, whether or not you belong there, Schmidt said, depends on how badly - and why - you want to be Marine.