Sent by Crisis, Called by Duty
THE SEPT. 11 MARINES: Enlisting in the Front Lines
By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 17, 2002; Page A01
OUTSIDE CHARLESTON, S.C. -- The loaded bus coursed through
a cold Carolina night, and for one final hour its destination
was still an idea. It was still only vaguely grasped, out in
the distance, somewhere beyond the dark country roads and coastal
Many on the bus drifted between long yawns and fits of sleep.
They knew, as the miles passed, that the change before them
was immeasurable, like nothing they had known in the places
where they grew up -- Maryland, Virginia, Florida, New York.
They had enlisted in the military.
They were on the path most likely to lead to combat.
They were 46 men and women, young and strangers, their fates
joined in the chill of January and in the call of war. When
the bus stopped, they would be ordered to give up their clothing,
hairstyles, music, telephone calls, even their manners of speech.
They hoped to become Sept. 11 Marines.
They would belong to a new generation of combat fighters
in America, those who were made in the shadows of 21st century
terrorism and war. Some were on this bus precisely because of
Sept. 11, signing up in anger about the attacks and with an
expanded sense of duty to country.
Even for those more motivated by the promise of college
money, life focus or better jobs, Sept. 11 bore down on the
decision and could not help but shape the experience ahead.
This was a time history would remember, a time when the
importance of the nation's military was well and powerfully
understood. In some ways, this was invigorating to the recruits.
But many also left behind tearful mothers and friends who called
In Afghanistan, Marines had already been on the ground,
following the arrival of the Special Forces. The Marines set
up a U.S. base. Launched patrols on Humvees. Blocked off roads.
Raided an al Qaeda compound. Killed Taliban fighters. Searched
for Osama bin Laden.
The Corps, as it was known, had long prided itself on being
first in combat -- "the tip of the spear," as Marines like to
say -- and in being the most rigorous and disciplined of the
But now, in the deep night of January, 74 hours into the
new year, across miles of unyielding rural landscape, the bigger
picture had begun to fade. It was after 2 a.m. The bus was headed
farther and farther from everything familiar and loved.
For some, anxiety had been overtaken by sheer exhaustion.
Now there were lighted signs.
There were stores and houses.
The bus rolled on.
Finally it slowed beside secured gates, then crossed a causeway.
This was Parris Island, the boot camp both dreaded and fabled.
A Small Sacrifice
Inside, Kyle Conley awoke in an aisle seat. He had not slept
long. He was unusual in this group, older than the others, more
accomplished in college and career. He was carrying a Bible,
partly because it was the only book he was allowed to bring.
Through the window of the bus, he could see the guard shack.
The driver had turned on the interior lights. It was time to
be alert, to be ready.
The night was about to get intense.
Conley had been thinking about this moment for months --
in one way or another, really, since shortly after Sept. 11.
By October, he was talking to his wife, Alexis, about the Marines
-- in their spacious Arlington home, with its wide picture window
and stately fireplace.
Alexis Conley did not thrill at his idea. Her husband was
32, a thesis away from his second master's degree. He had a
career as a senior associate with the Washington office of PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Their child, Sarah, was a toddler.
The couple spent weeks, on and off, sorting out the whys
and hows. For Alexis Conley, the whole idea was jarringly beyond
her instincts. After Sept. 11, her impulse was to protect home
and hearth, not venture toward the danger zone.
In the end, she supported Kyle's wish to become a Marine
rifleman. Unlike most of those he was traveling with, he would
be a reservist. He would return to his old life after training,
but be ready to serve in time of need. It was a small sacrifice,
Kyle Conley felt, at a time of national uncertainty and peril.
His own belief was that political leaders had failed to
help Americans imagine how to contribute after Sept. 11. "There's
a huge untapped will," he said one December day in Washington.
"Everyone wants to do something, but what they're told to do
is go shop."
The day that Kyle Conley left, his daughter was sick, and
the three bid a difficult goodbye at Baltimore-Washington International
Airport. It was not only that Kyle would be gone, but for three
months he and Alexis, pregnant with their second child, could
not even talk by phone. Conley had tried to explain to 18-month-old
Sarah: "Daddy's going into the Marines." But he knew she did
Already, Conley missed them more than he had imagined.
Now he looked out the window at the two-story receiving
barracks. There was no time to ponder what came next. Almost
as soon as the bus stopped -- and its civilian driver bid them
a warm "Good luck" -- the tone of Kyle Conley's life veered
into sharp new octaves.
"Get off MY bus RIGHT NOW!"
Staff Sgt. Stacey Holcomb boomed aboard -- six feet of thunder,
well-muscled and square-jawed, in a pressed olive and khaki
uniform and a Smokey the Bear hat. Look straight ahead, he told
them. Collect your gear.
His words were not spoken. They were hurtled, like rocks.
"Hurry up!" he said. "Fast! Get up! NOW!"
Conley no longer needed to think.
The life he had known did not exist here.
An Uncertain Future
Only once in U.S. history has there been a similar attack
on America, and that was at Pearl Harbor in 1941. In the outcry
that followed, Americans showed up to enlist in the military
in lines that disappeared around city blocks.
Sixty years later, there are no mass enlistments. But this
is a different kind of war -- few ground troops, advanced technology,
transient and borderless enemies. The fighting could last for
many years, as President Bush has suggested.
By joining the Marines, Conley and his fellow recruits chose
the front lines of the new war on terrorism. Not all would go
right away, but chances were good some of January's recruits
would find themselves on the ground in Afghanistan or the next
None knew exactly what to expect. Most were still baby-faced,
under the drinking age, with high school diplomas newly minted.
Many signed up in the weeks or months after Sept. 11 and then
went through several months of screening, testing and physical
preparation, as is typical.
Now, as they struggled with the complex reality of their
choices, the future was unfathomable. But, in the year to come,
the paths they had chosen would almost certainly be one small
marker of larger changes and challenges in America after Sept.
'Needed to Do Something'
Scrambling off the bus with Kyle Conley was Leroi Grant.
Both filed into the street with the other recruits, absorbing
each barked order in stunned obedience as Staff Sgt. Holcomb
continued to preside -- his voice deep, rough as gravel, in
His words echoed down the dark and silent street.
Grant planted his feet on yellow footprints painted on the
street for this ritual introduction to life as a Marine.
"You are now," Holcomb told the men and women, "aboard the
Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina."
The recruits stood at attention.
"You WILL do what you're told to do when you're told to
do it, without question," Holcomb told them.
In all, nearly 350 recruits arrived in buses that night
and the next. The men were assigned to six new platoons in the
Golf Company of the 2nd Battalion. The women, far fewer in number,
would train separately, with 77 arrivals assigned to the Oscar
Company of the 4th Battalion.
In this lot of tense faces, Grant did not stand out. He
was 5 feet 10 inches and 123 pounds, narrow and fine-featured,
a guy who penned poetry and rap lyrics but who looked like track
team material, which is what he had been at Northwestern High
School in Hyattsville.
Now 19, having given college a try, Grant joined the Marines
because he felt he lacked discipline; he had liked college but
it had not quite worked for him. He admired the Corps' culture,
the high physical standards, discipline and order.
Grant was clear about the seriousness of this choice. He
felt it was the biggest decision of his life. He watched films
about Marine life -- repeatedly. He discussed the idea with
his father, an electrical engineer at D.C. General Hospital
who emigrated from Guyana 20 years ago.
His interest only deepened after Sept. 11. That day, a family
friend fled the Pentagon's flames; Grant also had relatives
in New York. "I felt like I needed to do something," he said.
"I felt it was a personal attack on my home, my family, and
I will protect my family at all costs. If I have to go to war,
I have to go to war."
In ways that surprised him, Grant felt comfortable with
other recruits even before they arrived at Parris Island. Passing
hours together at the airport, talking and joking, Grant interjected:
"We're acting like we've known each other our entire lives."
Now, in the dark of a cold southern night, he said nothing.
This was it. Grant was at the precise spot where new recruits
had arrived week after week, 16,000 a year. If the dropout rate
held true -- 10 percent for men and 15 percent for women --
some of his new friends might not make it, in spite of all the
advance screening and testing.
At 2:45 a.m., Grant and the others were led through the
silver center doors of the receiving depot -- too rushed to
absorb the inscription above. "Through these portals," the words
read, "pass prospects for America's finest fighting force: United
It was one of few adornments on a sandy sea island in the
shallow waters of the Atlantic where Marines had been trained
for battle since 1915 -- through momentous days of combat at
Guadalcanal and Tarawa and Okinawa, and through countless modern
skirmishes around the globe. Here, few ever forgot that this
was about war.
A Day of Decision
To make a Marine, Raif Zakhem quickly learned, the Corps
believed first in stripping away much of what a person once
was. Zakhem was just 19, but he arrived with short hair and
khaki pants and community college credits and a love of movies.
Zakhem had been raised by his aunt and uncle; his mother
died during childbirth, and his father died when he was 10.
In the family's home in Alexandria, where he grew up with two
cousins, his bedroom was decorated with posters of films like
"Braveheart" and "Scarface." In June, he graduated from Annandale
Now, not five minutes after his arrival on Parris Island,
Zakhem was fully involved in his transformation. His hair was
completely shorn. This took 29 seconds in the hands of a civilian
barber who barked orders just like the Marines who employed
The barber did not smile.
His shop was brightly lit and all business: one chair and
a counter stocked with plastic bottles of alcohol and anti-bacterial
soap. No magazines. No conversation. The barber chair was turned
away from the mirror.
No one dared to steal a look.
Zakhem was ushered toward a nearby room of men and told
to take a seat. The room was arranged like a classroom, with
rows of desks, but it had just one sign on the wall.
"POINT OF NO RETURN," it read.
For Zakhem, the idea of the Marines took hold during his
first semester at Northern Virginia Community College, where
he was taking classes while working two part-time jobs.
On Sept. 19 -- he remembers the day -- Zakhem was at work
as a cook at a Fuddruckers in Virginia, when several customers
talked loudly about how people like him, of Middle Eastern descent,
used the country as a steppingstone and would never defend it.
Zakhem told them pointedly, "I am an American citizen, too,
and I will defend my country better than you." He was stung
by the accusation. The truth was, Zakhem had long considered
joining the military, and Sept. 11 had only made him feel stronger.
He told himself he would show the critics wrong.
His aunt and uncle did not fully share his determination.
They were proud he wanted to serve but worried that, with his
background, he would be sent into combat quickly. Zakhem speaks
Arabic and has family roots in Lebanon and Syria.
Undeterred, Zakhem asked to work in intelligence. He said
he was told his test scores were good enough but he would need
to start elsewhere. He agreed to begin in motor transport.
"It's a big decision that you're making today, especially
with the events that are going on in the world," a naval officer,
Lt. j.g. Brandon Cornett, had told Zakhem and other bleary-eyed
recruits just before they left for Parris Island on Jan. 2.
"Now, more than ever," the officer said, "the military is
a noble profession to choose."
It all happened quickly. The shaved head. The platoon number.
The perfunctory 30-second call home to report a safe arrival.
Now, at 4:45 a.m., the load of new gear. There were no choices,
not even in underwear. Everyone was issued the same undershirts,
socks, jogging shorts, sweat pants, sweat shirt, belt, jungle
boots, New Balance sneakers, camouflage fatigues, canteens,
poncho, flashlight, sleeping bag, backpack, half tent, gloves,
Gortex outerwear and cap.
Hour by hour, as the day progressed, the recruits were less
distinct. Their old clothes had by now been banished to storage.
So had the word "I." Now they spoke in third person. They would
start: "Sir, this recruit requests permission. . ."
There was no room for individuals on Parris Island.
When the sun began to set on these scrubby lowlands, one
platoon was on the move -- 69 men bearing rifles on streets
named for famous battles and campaigns. The path was set off
by the towering profiles of the island's ubiquitous palm trees.
The sky was a watercolor flush of blue-gray twilight.
"We're stepping out," a drill instructor thundered.
"Stepping out NOW."
They marched awkwardly, painstakingly, just several blocks,
until they approached a red-brick building: three stories, wide
and unremarkable, designed for shelter but not comfort. This
was it. This would be home for most of the next 12 weeks.
'A Wake-Up Call'
Forty-five hours after his last night's sleep, Romeo Lozano
was finally in bed again. But he could not rest. His mind was
reeling. He replayed the day's events as he lay in his rack
in a dark barracks nearly 600 miles from his home in Reston.
He lingered on how many mistakes he had made.
"I've just got to do stuff quicker," he told himself. He
felt stressed. He knew "mental games," as he called them, were
part of boot camp. He knew he needed to keep focused, push on,
learn the drills, be resilient.
Still, this was hard.
Earlier that evening, as a Marine sergeant ordered him and
other members of his platoon to march from the receiving depot
to the barracks, Lozano had been a mess.
As the group tried to stay in formation, Lozano struggled
to carry his load of new gear. But it was bulky and hard to
balance. Worst of all, his camouflage pants would not stay up.
They slipped down his hips. He tripped on them.
One recruit after another staggered or stumbled.
Lozano fell down.
He lost his flashlight, gloves, hat and detergent.
"Pick it up! Pick it up! NOW!" the drill instructor shouted.
The platoon stopped, and started, again and again.
Lozano could barely contain his frustration.
At 21, Lozano had been through a variety of short-term jobs
-- laying cable, helping install communications networks, assisting
an electrician. He was a part-timer at community college. He
lived with his mother, stepfather and two young siblings.
He felt like his life was moving too slowly.
For a long time, his mother put off the recruiters who occasionally
phoned. Lozano was not really interested, and she did not like
the idea. But Sept. 11, they watched the televised collapse
of the World Trade Center. They saw the flames at the Pentagon.
That day, Lozano first felt strongly: "I think I'll go into
Several weeks later, he went to see a recruiter.
"I was mad like everybody," Lozano said, "and I got that
feeling of being useless. And then I started thinking that it
was like a wake-up call for my generation, for people who aren't
doing much, to be useful."
He decided it would be good for him personally. "I know
they'll instill a lot of discipline in me, and that's what I
lacked before," he said. "They're going to teach me a kind of
self-discipline and a lot of courage and build up my confidence."
He tried to prepare for the challenge. At home before bed,
he read his Marines manual, trying to memorize the nautical
vocabulary and rigorous expectations of a world he could only
Eyeglasses were portholes.
A hat was a cover.
Pens were inksticks.
Right was starboard and left was port.
Lozano thought about it so much that by December, there
was not a morning he did not wake up thinking of boot camp,
first thing. He said then: "I'm not going to quit for nothing.
I'll suffer as much as they want. Nothing can make me quit."
He knew it would not be easy; he tended to be a slow starter.
At the same time, he assured himself: "My whole life, whenever
I've done something, I've started out bad but then I've always
Now, on this first night of sleep, Lozano thought of a fellow
recruit, Leroi Grant, whom he had met for the first time en
route to Parris Island. In his early misery, Grant had helped
him out a number of times -- which he appreciated.
This was, it would turn out, exactly what the drill instructors
wanted, a group-first esprit de corps. This was the culture
of the unit, the platoon, the larger good. It was an idea necessary
to combat, where Marines depended on each other for their lives.
Finally, Romeo Lozano fell asleep.
The Dream, Then Reality
They went to bed when it was dark. They woke up when it
was dark. None of the recruits knew how many hours they had
slept. Three? Six? More? There were no watches. Few clocks.
Time mattered little anyway.
They had no control of it.
Their lives were now limited to an austere one-room barracks
with a cement floor and two long rows of bunk beds made with
simple green wool blankets. The few decorations around pertained
to the experience at hand, like a Marine recruiting poster that
said: "We'd promise you sleep deprivation, mental torment, and
muscles so sore you'll puke, but we don't like to sugarcoat
This was hard even for the well-acquainted, like Jason Parks,
20, who grew up around the Corps. Both of his parents had served,
his mother as a military policewoman and his father mostly in
the recruiting command. His father retired in 2000 as a master
The day Parks announced to his parents that he had flagged
down a recruiter at the mall, both were surprised. Jason's life
in Chantilly centered on computers and heavy metal music and
hanging out with friends. He had just graduated from Chantilly
High School in June, and briefly taken a job at a Subway restaurant.
"We were under the impression he was going to go to college
or a technical school because he was really into computers,"
his father, Larry Parks, said.
When Jason Parks told friends he had enlisted in the Marines,
a few urged him to think again. What if he was sent overseas?
He might get hurt or killed, they warned. Parks had signed on
for an armored support program. In the long run, he hoped to
become a pilot.
The cautions did not sway him. But after Sept. 11, Parks
dreamed about his future as a Marine -- imagining himself in
a tank and capturing Osama bin Laden. In his dream, he contemplated
whether to shoot bin Laden on the spot or deliver him to a more
painful and public demise.
Reality was nothing so heroic. It was the mind-numbing,
body-aching, lonely, doubt-driven, oh-my-God beginning -- all
of that, and it was about to get worse.
The Drill Instructors
The men who arrived on the bus together became part of two
platoons, and on their second full day at Parris Island, they
were delivered to those who would most shape them. This was
when boot camp began in earnest.
For Platoon 2028, the man in charge was Staff Sgt. Shawn
Hannah, a tall Californian with sharp creases in his uniform
and hard edges in his orders but whose manner was open, likable,
Hannah, 29, had joined the Marines just after Desert Storm,
inspired in part by the grandfather who helped raise him seven
miles from Disneyland. In 11 years, he did duty overseas as
a combat engineer -- building structures and blowing them up.
He was in Okinawa twice and in Korea; for nearly three years,
he had been a drill instructor.
Hannah met his platoon as part of a tightly scripted ceremony
known as "pickup," in which recruits are introduced to their
company's senior Marines and then, once the formalities end,
quickly witness the intensity of their new drill instructors.
In a matter of seconds, the room was all shouts and orders
and jabbing fingers.
"Stand on the line!"
Upstairs, on the second floor of the barracks, the man in
charge of the same kind of regulated misery for platoon 2029
was Staff Sgt. Jason Itro -- 5 feet 6 inches tall, thin-waisted,
and at 27 seemingly as colorful, voluble and high-intensity
as senior drill instructors come.
Itro was all Marine, all the time -- loud, in-your-face,
no detail too small. He drove a flashy laser-red Mustang GT,
was given to occasional bragging, and would win no medals for
political correctness, chiding his men by calling them "girls."
He had grown up in a tough neighborhood in St. Petersburg, Fla.,
and knew a thing or two about the trouble some of his recruits
had faced; by Itro's account, he had first wielded a knife at
For all of his charge, Itro believed in the near-holiness
of his mission. The job required family sacrifice, with its
days that lasted 15 hours, sometimes more, and alternating overnights.
To keep close to the daughter he adored, Itro taped the 3-year-old's
photo inside his imposing drill hat.
Itro let little of his sensitivity show to his recruits.
For now his men needed to buck up, talk loud, move fast and
take apart all their assumptions about the way the world worked.
It seemed to many recruits that they had been on Parris
Island for a week. In fact, it was 55 hours after their arrival
when, it being a Sunday morning, Itro, the senior drill instructor,
asked Platoon 2029 who wanted to attend church.
Fourteen men came forward.
"Make sure all your trash is put away and locked up," he
"Aye, sir," they said.
"You're going to go to church not shoving and not giving
each other high-fives or any trash like that," he said sternly.
"You will go and behave like Marine recruits. Do you understand
"Step it up, right now!"
Down cement sidewalks outside the barracks, in the pouring
rain, Staff Sgt. Itro marched them toward the island's nondenominational
house of worship -- wide, with a peaked ceiling and stained-glass
windows showing Marines in combat and in prayer.
They walked into a world unlike any part of Parris Island
they had seen.
There was music. It was soothing. They could sit.
They could close their eyes.
The ministers talked in easy, guiding tones.
The recruits took seats in a back row, melding into a crowd
of 500, almost everyone in camouflage. Most other recruits were
further along in their training, and more accustomed to the
island's unrelenting severity.
Even now a drill instructor walked the aisles, ordering
people to straighten up.
The 14 recruits from Itro's platoon kept their gazes forward.
As a minister began speaking, some lowered their heads. No one
interfered. Several then bowed their heads so tightly their
faces could not be seen at all.
Ten minutes into the service, there came the sound of several
sniffles from somewhere in church, then a low and muffled sob.
When the sun returned hours later, Platoon 2029 was out
marching again. There was no time to lose. They were behind
schedule because of the New Year's holiday.
The recruits stood tall, backs tilted slightly against the
horizon. They passed live oak trees, hung with Spanish moss.
They passed low-slung barracks buildings, not far from the chow
hall. Staff Sgt. Itro demonstrated the drill, and corrected
them, one after another.
In the rhythm and fresh air, some recruits managed to find
a relative calm. They had eaten lunch. They had made it through
the first two and a half days. Most were following orders, holding
up from one demand to another.
They headed back to their barracks.
Now as Itro looked them over, his glance rested on Jason
Parks. He saw in the young man's face that something was wrong.
Itro pulled him out of line.
When the other recruits were out of range, Parks could not
help himself. His eyes filled with tears.
"Stop the waterworks," Itro insisted. Then drill instructor's
voice softened, navigating between toughness and concern.
"Now stop the waterworks, boy. What's wrong?"
Parks could not get the words out.
"You're not thinking of doing something stupid now, are
you?" Itro asked. He asked whether Parks had any history of
psychological problems or depression.
"No, sir," Parks says. "Just emotional."
The drill instructor eyed him carefully.
He knew Parks had been at church that morning, and that
Sunday services often stirred up homesickness in new recruits.
He also knew that, in these first several days, many recruits
were seized by doubt and physically strained.
The drill instructor told Parks he was on a path toward
making something of himself -- finding a career, earning a paycheck.
"I can't feel sorry for you, boy," he said, and reminded him
that he could come to him with problems.
He added roughly: "Marines don't cry. Men don't cry."
The bright sun bore down on them.
Then the drill instructor -- who served in the infantry,
who had seen people shot and killed in Kosovo -- raised his
hand and wiped the tears off the recruit's boyish face.
Parks looked at him unsurely.
The drill instructor rubbed the tears onto his own face.
Their fates had become entwined.
Part I: A Day of Terror Inspires Recruits
To Take Up Arms for the New Fight
Part II: For Female Recruits, the Struggle
Begins Long Before the Battlefield
Part III: Recruits' Dreams and Fears Come
Together in the 54-Hour 'Crucible'