Marching in Time

The century-old legacy of Parris Island lives on in new generations of United States Marines; first to fight, and always faithful.

These are my recruits. I will train them to the best of my ability. I will develop them into smartly disciplined, physically fit, basically trained Marines, thoroughly indoctrinated in love of Corps and country. —“Drill Instructor’s Creed” as it appeared in the Parris Island “Boot” newspaper, Aug. 31, 1956 

Just as surely as the tide in Port Royal Sound ebbs and flows, the sound of marching feet on an island just outside Beaufort, SC, signals the passage of time.  For over a century, the sun has faithfully risen over that rippling water, to shine down on the 8,100 acres of the U.S. Marine Corps Eastern Region Recruiting Depot, Parris Island, and on the recruits who march in time to a cadence as old as America. 

It was in November of 1775 that the Continental Congress met to approve a resolution calling for the formation of two battalions of Marines to fight for independence at sea and on shore.  They would be called Continental Marines, and in the course of history they would fight for this country from the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli; from the frozen mountains of Korea’s Chosin Reservoir, to the steaming jungles of Vietnam.  In recent history, it has been to the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan that these brave Marines have been deployed.  Semper fidelis.  More than a motto, it is the code by which Marines live and die: Always faithful.

South Carolina is a state well-known for its military presence, but there is perhaps no place as iconic as Parris Island, the recruit training center through which over a million Marines have passed in its 100-year history.  Regardless of age, gender or ethnicity; of having worn the uniform or having been touched by someone who has; the mere mention of the island evokes strong images in the minds of many generations.

Today, a new generation will join those ranks.  It is a cold day on the parade ground for those who have made the trip across the causeway.  The unmistakable perfume of the Lowcountry marsh drifts in the breeze, and a rhythmic drumbeat rides the wind behind it.  Slow and steady as a heartbeat, the sound gradually becomes more distinct.  In the distance, a column of men can be seen moving toward the parade ground’s vast rectangle of light.  Rows of seats are filled with the anxious anticipation of those who have waited twelve weeks for this graduation ceremony.  Soon, the earth shivers with the vibration of almost a thousand marching feet.  

The flag raised over Parris Island earlier this morning held special significance for the men of Kilo Company, 3rd Recruit Training Battalion, for they have struggled and fought to secure the right to watch it rise over this sacred ground, on this special day.  They know it marks the last of their intensive training, and that before the sun goes down, they will join an elite group of men and women who have beaten the odds to earn their rightful place in an institution representing excellence for over 240 years. 

There have been no shortcuts taken to reach this place of honor, and there are no corners cut today, as the drum major leads the band onto the parade ground.  The Marines of Kilo Company’s six platoons follow the precise Pied Piper.  Each step is meticulously placed, and each arm swings in perfect symmetry.  This group has learned to take the long way if necessary, and to get it right.  They have been tested and found worthy.

They are hardly recognizable as the same collection of individuals who volunteered to enter the gates of Parris Island’s Recruit Training Depot late last year, and in the wee hours of a November morning, stepped down onto the yellow footprints of the oldest continually operating recruit training installation in the country.  Nervously aware that many of their number would not make it past the initial physical, moral, and aptitude tests of the first week, they stood with trepidation before the symbolic silver doors; the portal through which they would pass to begin the long, arduous journey toward graduation.  Their concerns were valid, for statistics show that 71% of applicants in the primary target market (ages 17 to 21) do not meet the Corps’ required standards.

Today’s Marine recruits cite pride/honor, self-discipline, and being part of an elite unit as the primary reasons they join, and they are not disappointed at the lengths the Corps goes to ensure that they warrant the calling.  Marine Corps training for both male and female recruits is centered around character and warrior ethos, with core values and leadership at the very heart of each week’s training objectives.  Discipline, esprit de corps, and military bearing are the non-quantifiable skills to be learned, while mastery of Marine Corps history, military law and policies, marksmanship, first aid and other USMC common skills are among the quantifiable tasks.  In addition, combat conditioning includes vital physical fitness and endurance tests.

Until this week, the recruits of Kilo Company had no names.  Each was known simply by a number, and required to refer to himself in third person, as “this Recruit.”   It was only this past week, upon completion of the grueling, 54-hour test known as the Crucible, that they earned the right to be called “Marine” for the first time, and received the Eagle, Globe and Anchor emblem of the United States Marines Corps.  

Marine Corps recruit training has evolved through the years to keep up with the ever changing theatre of war.  The Crucible was added to recruit training during the program’s 1996 restructuring, and instituted to address the changes in modern combat.  Additional recruit training changes were implemented in 2007, with a new whole-person approach.  The Combat Conditioning Program now stresses strength training, as well as instruction placing stronger emphasis on the Marine Corps core values of honor, courage, and commitment.  These improvements offer a system of ethical guidance to assist new Marines in making moral and ethical decisions in combat, and in their everyday lives. 

Recruit training is now identical for both male and female recruits; and is a result of many significant changes, including female drill instructor training.  Since 1949, the 4th Recruit Training Battalion at Parris Island has been the only female Marine recruit training program in the country, and roughly 2,400 female recruits are trained here each year.  Though there are varying degrees of integration, at this time there is little crossover in the actual training of female and male recruits.  This may change in the future, as women are increasingly assimilated into combat duty positions.  

The men of Kilo Company who stand ready to graduate today are volunteers who stepped into the fray of their own accord.  They knew how high the bar was set for them, and each moved heaven and earth to reach it.  For weeks they have marched and run through heat and humidity and bone-chilling cold.  They have stood at unflinching attention despite the whine of voracious mosquitos in their ears, and the relentless bite of “no see-ums” on exposed skin.  

Each has completed water survival requirements, and passed both physical and combat fitness tests.  They spent hours on the firing range to earn their marks for rifle qualification, and endured the aches and bruises required to qualify for tan martial art belts.  They have proven their academic mastery of Marine Corps history and protocol, and they understand the concepts of honor and commitment.  One by one they spit-shined and polished themselves and their equipment for their Battalion Commander’s inspection. 

Applying all they learned in the preceding weeks, they approached the Crucible as a team, and at full tilt; covering over 50 miles of difficult terrain, crawling through mud and under barbed-wire, clawing their way over, around and through obstacles.  They carried each other when necessary.  They left no man behind. With very little sleep and very few rations over the three-day trial, they worked together to meet every challenge the Crucible threw at them.  Dirty, bloody, and both physically and mentally exhausted, they stood shoulder to shoulder at its completion for the emblem ceremony.  Well into the future, most will describe receiving that emblem as the singular defining moment of their lives.

Today, they are pressed and polished, tall and proud.  With all eyes front and center, the graduates face the stern drill instructors whose impact will be forever etched in their memories, and see their pride returned ten-fold.  In the stands are mothers and fathers, siblings and grandparents, sweethearts and friends.  Even from this distance, they see the new strength and confidence in the young faces before them, and they cheer ecstatically as the platoon of “their” Marine graduate marches by.

Some attending the graduation are veterans, scarred and battered.  They have come here to revisit their younger selves and pay homage to this place. They marched to the drums of the past, but when the opening notes of The Marine Corps Hymn ring out, the phantom pain of lost limbs is forgotten, and the ache of frostbitten feet momentarily fades.  They spring to their feet, and the eyes of young, strong marines look out from their world-weary faces; spines ramrod straight, shoulders back, heads high.  Once a Marine, always a Marine.  

When the Marines of Kilo Company are dismissed from training for the last time, they will pass beneath a banner proudly declaring: We Make Marines.  They will smile to themselves as a platoon of new recruits passes in an inelegant formation, and hold their heads a little higher.  They will never forget the lessons learned on this spit of Lowcountry land, where they earned their place among the few and the proud.

As they watch the gates of Parris Island grow smaller in their rearview mirrors, the wheels of a bus on a distant road will roll steadily toward it, carrying a new group of hopeful recruits.  Like thousands before them, they will awkwardly step onto the yellow footprints and stand before the silver doors – behind which a world of honor, courage and commitment awaits them on Parris Island.  With hard work and determination, in the weeks to come, they, too, will rise to meet the challenges of the Crucible, stand to receive the emblem, and proudly fall in step with those forever marching in time.

by Susan Frampton