How marines are made
Black or white, rich or redneck, everyone who joins the US marine corps first endures the Crucible, a 54-hour test at boot camp in a South Carolina swamp
‘Okay, you knuckleheads,” the drill instructor shouts at three recruits lined up outside the company commander’s office. They jump to attention as he upbraids them for failing to say good morning.
It’s 2am on Thursday, and the dormitory block at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island is a pulsating echo-chamber of noise as 301 recruits prepare to “step off” on a 54-hour test of physical and mental endurance known as the Crucible, the final stage of 12 weeks of boot camp that turns recruits into US marines.
“This is the culmination of their transformation from civilians,” says Capt Michael Culligan, the 28-year-old company commander in charge of the male recruits heading into the South Carolina night.
“The Crucible is to evaluate everything they have been taught and to bring it all together. When they receive the Marine Corps symbol – the Eagle, Globe and Anchor – on Saturday morning you are going to see some tears and grown men break down.”
It is three months since the recruits stood on Parris Island’s painted yellow footprints, where they assemble when they arrive. The island is venerated in the US military. Half of the marines who have served since the second World War have been trained here. The first recruits arrived in 1915, joining the swarms of biting sand fleas and mosquitoes that make this marshy swampland so inhospitable.
The recruit depot has been immortalised in films such as Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket and songs such as Billy Joel’s Vietnam War anthem, Goodnight Saigon . “We met as soul mates on Parris Island, we left as inmates from an asylum,” he sings.
Every marine recruited east of the Mississippi and every female recruit from across the US is trained at Parris Island. (Men from west of the river go to a San Diego depot.) “We Make Marines,” says the welcome sign, followed by one that says “We Shall Never Forget”, dedicated to New York Fire Department officers killed in the 9/11 attacks.
Most of the 20,000 recruits who pass through Parris Island every year are 18 or 19 years old and arrive each summer straight from high school – a ripe recruiting ground. At this time of year recruits are a little older, at 20 to 22; some are in their late 20s.
“Good homes, bad homes, upper class, below the poverty line: you name it. We have guys and gals that come from all sorts of backgrounds,” says Master Sergeant Jared Cobb, a recruiter, who adds that most young men and women sign up because they want a challenge; recruiting was most difficult about a decade ago, when many US military were being killed in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The three recruits standing outside their company commander’s office appear ready for the Crucible.
“I feel prepared,” says a breathless and evidently anxious Carl Jonathan Krondahl, a 19-year-old from Florida. “At the same time it is nerve-racking, because it puts all the things that we have learned to the test in a physical and mental way.”
James Michael Philips jnr, another 19-year-old, from Pennsylvania, says he has wanted to be a marine since he was 13. “Going through the Crucible is exactly what this recruit has always dreamed about.”
Trevor Lynch was inspired by his grandfather, who was a marine in the Vietnam War. Lynch’s drill instructors haven’t just taught him the basics of the military training over the past 12 weeks, he says. “They have taught me a lot of how to be a better person, so I feel like I am prepared to go out in the world and carry myself a little taller.”
Culligan’s company marches, with torches flickering, into the darkness on the first of 70km of hikes over the 54 hours, carrying packs that weigh up to 20kg.
Male recruits carry three MREs, or meals ready to eat, each of which is a ration packed with 1,200 calories, to sustain them during the Crucible. Female recruits carry five. The recruits decide when to eat. Consuming enough water and salt is essential if they are to avoid dehydration, hypernatraemia (low salt in the body) or heat exhaustion – a big risk in the summer, when temperatures reach the high 30s or low 40s and humidity is 100 per cent.
“By the time they get to night one in the summer time the environment will stress them far more than they expected,” says Col Daniel Haas, commanding officer of recruit training at Parris Island.
He is keen to let the outside world see inside Parris Island, to combat the “very distorted version” of boot camp in pop culture. “Drill instructors are not a universally malevolent force packaged in a human being,” he says. They don’t curse at recruits, for example. But drill instructors do spend much of their time shouting. Many apparently speak in high-pitched rasps as a result of weeks of screaming at recruits.
By daybreak on Thursday thousands of recruits in early stages of training are in the midst of physical training. “Buddy recruits” take turns carrying each other across a football field and back; others are bayonet-training with their M16s, the US marine corps’ primary battle rifle. First-week recruits have the clumsiness of chicks that have fallen out of their nest.
On an assault course nearby half a dozen instructors are screaming at a recruit who was caught cursing at fellow recruits who were correcting him. “It is about making sure they don’t wear the title marine when they don’t deserve it,” says Capt Dustin Scott, who is in charge of a company of recruits.
One in 10 recruits fails to make it through; they are weeded out long before the Crucible. Some fail to disclose medical conditions or injuries when they are recruited, which can cause them problems under the code of military justice. Others twist their ankles, or come down with asthma, pneumonia or another underlying condition. Recruits can also be sent home for indiscipline.
Scott is sending two recruits home today, one because of a “lack of reasonable effort”. “He has an attitude and thinks everything should be given to him on a silver spoon,” he says. The other failed to adapt. “He just doesn’t have it. He has been transferred from other platoons . . . Before they came here, many of the guys would have just played video games, and they will tell you that.”
Hikes, patrols, assaults
By the 10th hour of the Crucible, at lunchtime on Thursday, the recruits are looking tired. Over the 54 hours they are put through punishing hikes, patrols, assault courses and shooting, all on less than eight hours’ sleep.
Culligan explains the marine corps’ role in the US military. The army is like a heavyweight boxer, he says: a big-hitting fighter; special forces are nimble, like lightweight fighters; marines are middleweight. “We get in with enough ask to get the job done. We have to be very self-reliant when we go places. That’s why we get to be a little more hard on ourselves.”
Boot camp is not just about making warriors, or the “mighty marine: no better friend, no worse enemy”, he says. The marine corps wants to create better human beings.
Dave Washington, a 30-year-old gunnery sergeant, elaborates: honour, courage and commitment are the three core values of a marine, he says.
The recruits hear about these during the Crucible. Each exercise is named after a battle, from the Mariana Islands, in the second World War, to Falluja, in Iraq. Citations are read out before each exercise, as examples to the recruits and to show their place in the history of the corps.
One speech tells the story of Cpl Jason Dunham, an Iraq veteran who died in 2004, days after throwing himself on an insurgent grenade with his helmet to shield others.
“From the ghetto to a rich neighbourhood, from powder white to midnight black, from rednecks to gang members, you have every walk of life in one house here. To get 90 per cent on the same page and with that same belief, that is the product that we try to put out into the marine corps,” says Washington.
With that, Culligan asks playfully, “Want to go see recruits beat each other up?” Across Page Field, a defunct airfield where the Crucible exercises take place, is a poor man’s gladiator arena. Inside, recruits box and, later, whack each other with heavily padded poles called pugil sticks.
“It’s to get them used to being in a fight,” says Capt Kevin Kelly, another officer overseeing training. “Some of these kids have never been in a fight before. You can tell the kids who have.”
Culligan, whose family originally came from Cork and Clare, is a proud Irish-American from upstate New York. He was annoyed that he wasn’t allowed to drink a pint of Guinness at Shannon Airport on his way to Afghanistan. He enjoys telling a story about meeting some British marines on a tour there. When one began to talk about a successful operation in Northern Ireland, Culligan interrupted, telling him, “Choose your next words very carefully.”
By hour 41 of the Crucible, on Friday evening, the recruits look war weary as they crawl under razor wire, sound effects from Saving Private Ryan blaring from loudspeakers. “At a low cost, it adds some reality to the training,” says Culligan. Recruits are on their final exercise before a 15km night hike returns them from the field.
Culligan, who is standing with Kelly and Capt John McCormack, says the three of them represent the branches of the corps: logistics, aviation and infantry.
Kelly describes himself as a weapons-system officer. “Have you seen Top Gun ?” asks Culligan. “Do you remember Goose? Well, he’s Goose.”
Kelly says the growing use of drones might force them to adapt their skills to the changing nature of warfare, and to more surgical attacks. The gaming skills of teenage recruits might yet come in handy.
In February Chuck Hagel, the US defence secretary, announced plans to make the army smaller than it has been since before the second World War. The marine corps looks set to escape most of the sweeping changes being proposed after 12 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Haas says that throughout their history the marines have shown their “ability to adapt with the goal of remaining the most ready when the nation is least ready”.
Out on the Crucible the recruits are preparing for their three-hour hike in darkness, before they finally become marines. “They are pretty much running on fumes at this point,” says Culligan. They are feeling “every ounce of pain” that comes from being tested mentally, physically and emotionally.
Exhausted but relieved
At hour 54, on a wet Saturday morning, the recruits march back looking exhausted but relieved, calling back the chants of their instructors with the new-found energy that comes with completing their ordeal. One woman recruit is on crutches; a dehydrated man had to be put on a saline drip the previous day. Both will pass.
In front of a replica of the US marine corps war memorial, which depicts five marines and a navy corpsman raising the US flag over Mount Suribachi, on Iwo Jima, during the second World War, 426 recruits – 301 men and 125 women – listen to a speech about the sacrifices made in that ferocious battle and about how they, as new marines, are assuming the mantle of the “pride, respect and esteem” of those who went before them.
Afterwards, as stirring orchestral music is piped over the speakers, the recruits’ drill instructors press Eagle, Globe and Anchors into their hands. Tears stream down faces; rows of marines sniffle.
“All the tears, all the sweat, all the hard work over the past 70 training days have finally paid off,” says Kathryn Plata, a 20-year-old from Arlington, Virginia.
The following Saturday, outside Washington DC, Donald Boots is visiting the orignal Iwo Jima memorial, in Arlington Ridge Park, for the first time.
A marine corporal with responsibility for a Browning machine gun, Boots, who is now 89, was in the second wave of soldiers to land on the Japanese-controlled Pacific island in 1945, fighting in one of the fiercest battles of the war. “We got hit real hard: in my squad only two of us made it,” Boots says, his voice cracking. “We lost 50 per cent of our company.”
His grandson David later tells more of his story. Boots, from Denton in Texas, found himself in a divot on the beach in Iwo Jima. He left to return an injured friend to the landing craft. When he returned to the divot he found another marine who had taken cover there. He had been shot in the head.
Boots told his grandson how, arriving at Parris Island in December 1942, recruits worked together against a great fear of losing the war. “Failure is not an option,” his grandfather told him.
Standing at the Iwo Jima memorial, flanked by two serving marines, Boots jokes, “I’m thinking of returning to serve.”
Once a marine, always a marine.