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Recruits' Dreams and Fears Come Together in the 54-Hour 'Crucible'





Post Series: The Sept. 11 Marines
Private Struggles, United in Pain
Recruits' Dreams and Fears Come Together in the 54-Hour 'Crucible'

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 16, 2002; Page A01

PARRIS ISLAND, S.C. The lights in the barracks flashed on suddenly. Squinting, Jason Parks hustled out of bed and reached for the clothes that by now were familiar -- camouflage fatigues, black socks, combat boots. It was 2 a.m. This was a moment he had both waited for and dreaded.

The night before, he and others in his platoon had prayed it would go well. Standing together, some closed their eyes, speaking softly to God from a narrow barracks where they had lately wondered which miseries might be greater than those already endured. "Please Lord, get us through this last and final test," one young man had said aloud.

They had made it to week 11 of boot camp. Under the still-dark sky, they would begin the "crucible," the culminating trial of their training.

Parks braced himself. He was rangy and sandy-haired at 20, a kid who struggled some in school but found a niche in computers. He understood the next 54 hours would be hard on the body, tough on the mind.

He and others in his platoon would have to persevere to leave Parris Island the way they wanted: with a rank, a title. As one of the Sept. 11 Marines.

If they succeeded, they would join the nation's newest generation of combat fighters, those forged at a time of certain and protracted war, after the terror of a homeland attack, when the national psyche was indelibly changed.

Like the country they stepped up to serve, the recruits would in some ways be transformed by history's course. They joined knowing that some in their ranks would be deployed toward hostile-fire zones. Maybe Afghanistan. Maybe Pakistan or Iraq.

On Parris Island, they trained for the day.

In the past 10 weeks of boot camp, they had fired M-16s and delivered killing blows with bayonets. They had dragged ammunition cans under barbed wire and rappelled from 40-foot towers and swum in camouflage fatigues and learned chokeholds in martial arts classes.

Now, the crucible would take them to the last rugged test -- 40 miles of forced marches and hour-upon-hour of combat problem-solving, with an emphasis on the team, the unit, the larger good.

For Parks, the culture was familiar. His parents were Marines when they met, and his father made the Corps a 30-year career. But growing up, most recently in Chantilly, Parks had talked little about enlisting. His family was surprised when he did.

Parks had already dreamed of driving a tank across Afghanistan and capturing Osama bin Laden. In his imagined future, he was on the front lines.

In boot camp, he found the demands surprisingly difficult. He was so homesick by day 3 he broke down in tears in front of his drill instructor. At the rifle range, he failed to qualify three times. In pull-ups, he scored below his platoon's average. He was chided repeatedly by drill instructors.

Still, if Parks endured the crucible he would almost certainly make it to graduation, eight days later. He knew this as he collected his combat rifle, Kevlar helmet, bed mat, sleeping bag, tent, extra fatigues, extra boots, extra socks, Gore-Tex jacket, thermal garments, flashlight, poncho, canteens and prepackaged military meals.

He cringed at the 54-pound load, then told himself not to think about it.

At 2:05 a.m., the lights flashed off.

He and his platoon rushed down the stairs toward a staging area.

"Parks!" a drill instructor yelled as he took his place. The recruit had forgotten his camouflage hat.

"Get your cover on!" the drill instructor shouted.

Jason Parks was scrambling again.

Moments later, the senior drill instructor of his platoon, Staff Sgt. Jason Itro, boomed a pointed warning at his platoon. "I ain't playing no more rookie games," he thundered. "We ain't acting stupid. . . . This is the crucible. It's supposed to be damn hard."

At 2:30 a.m., the march began. Daylight was hours away.

An Insular World

In the world outside Parris Island, the war on terrorism was headed into its sixth month. Special Forces units were still on the ground. The Marines had been part of the offensive, establishing a base near Kandahar, tracking al Qaeda holdouts in Afghanistan, patrolling desolate countryside, hunting for Osama bin Laden.

In January, as boot camp started, the nation lost its first soldier to hostile fire. The next week, seven Marines died in the crash of a KC-130 in the Pakistani mountains. Before month's end, two more Marines died when a helicopter went down in Afghanistan.

The risks of war grew vivid.

At boot camp, this was hard to see. Here, there was little talk of Afghanistan or terrorists or President Bush's "axis of evil." For now, the recruits existed in a place apart -- a literal island with nearly 600 drill instructors and 4,400 recruits at any given time. Here, all that was taught, all life revolved around, was how to become a Marine.

The Corps was distinct among the services -- smaller than the others, more steeped in ritual and lore. Marines considered themselves the gung-ho elite, with the most rigorous boot camp, the toughest basic standards, the most direct route to combat.

But training at the fabled boot camp was so consuming that only in scattered moments did world events seep in. A letter would arrive with a news clipping and a recruit or two would glimpse headlines like: "Marines Handily Beat Back Gunmen at Afghan Base." Or: "U.S. Forces Raid Taliban Compounds."

By the time boot camp was in its final stretch, violence in Israel had commanded the world's attention. Tensions were flaring between India and Pakistan. And the war on terrorism was widening, with strategists debating the wisdom of invading Iraq.

In the insular world of Parris Island, what loomed was a 54-hour ordeal in the woods. If they made it, the recruits knew, they might then face battle in the world beyond.

Nearing the End

They hiked six miles across the sandy lowlands of Parris Island, 310 men from the Golf Company of the 2nd Recruit Training Battalion, M-16s on their shoulders, flashlights beaming from their chests, gear strapped to their backs.

Just ahead, 63 women from the Oscar Company of the 4th Recruit Training Battalion hiked along the same road toward the same woodlands, bearing their own heavy loads.

The night was black, and the moon hung in a humid sky.

What lay ahead was daunting to many. They had heard about the physical rigors of the crucible, which became a boot camp standard in 1996, when Marine leaders decided they needed a "defining moment" to solidify the emphasis on teamwork and moral character.

For days, young men in Platoon 2029 had whispered to each other nervously. What would it be like? What if they could not keep up? In the early weeks, most platoons shrunk by about 10 percent, mostly because of physical injuries, failed drug tests or psychological issues. To fail now would be a horrible blow -- so near graduation.

Some recruits were counting down to the end. "Twelve days, two hours, 14 minutes," they would whisper.

To James Dorsey had come many worried questions. He was his platoon's "guide," or recruit leader, which meant he was supposed to set a strong example and push fellow recruits to work harder, give more. Many looked to him for quiet help.

Tall and fine-featured, Dorsey, 19, had stood out from the beginning -- a one-time varsity tennis player from Charles County with a quick grasp of what was expected and a flair for military drill, partly developed in his high school's ROTC program.

"Keep the hype down," Dorsey insisted as the crucible neared.

Dorsey's own determination was intensified by tragedy. On Sept. 18, his mother was killed. She had stopped to exchange insurance information after a fender bender on the Capital Beltway and was hit as she returned to her car. She was just 40, an eight-year Navy veteran who by then was working in communications for NASA in Greenbelt.

Her death was hard for the family to absorb. It came within a week of Sept. 11, in days when confusion and grief had already consumed their home in Bryans Road. For Dorsey's mother, the attack had been personally devastating. New York was the city of her childhood. She worked briefly in the Twin Towers. Her relatives lived in Manhattan.

His mother, who rarely watched television, was glued to it. She spoke of driving to Ground Zero so frequently that her husband came to believe that God ultimately gave her the chance to help she longed for -- not on Earth, but in Heaven.

Dorsey, her eldest child, fell into an unyielding fog. He and his mother were so close that he did not mind saying he considered himself a "mama's boy." It took two months before he could bear to recommit to his plan -- to join the Marines.

But as it turned out at Parris Island, Dorsey felt his mother's presence often, unseen and reassuring. In his final trial now, he set out with six platoons feeling apprehensive but sensing his mother was with him in spirit. As before, it made him feel stronger.

Forcing Their Hands

It was still dark when they arrived at the swath of asphalt and pine forest where the crucible was to be staged, on the southeastern side of the sea island.

The first day, there was a range of events: firing at targets at shifting distances, scaling a 12-foot wall with weapons, improvising bridges with wooden planks, crawling through battlefields, swinging from suspended tires, hoisting mock casualties.

Right away, there was a problem.

Ryan Holloway, 19, felt something go wrong with his right foot when he started hiking that morning. He said nothing about it, thinking he had pulled a muscle and would stomp it out. "What horrible timing," he worried to himself.

Holloway pushed through the hike anyway and kept going through the first three field events. He stopped only when a medic noticed something wrong and pulled him aside. Before noon, Holloway was in a cast. He had broken a bone in his foot.

For him, the crucible was over. He was taken away in a van.

That evening, Itro, his senior drill instructor, brought together the 49 remaining recruits of Platoon 2029. He knew they would be disappointed. But he wanted them to keep the faith.

Itro was larger than life to his platoon -- tough-talking and colorful and can-do, a machine gunner by training who found it hard to be away from the war in Afghanistan. On Parris Island, he delivered the Marine gospel like a fiery southern preacher.

"If he could survive after his dang foot broke," Itro now told them, "you all can survive."

"Aye, sir!"

"We got to do this for Holloway now," he said.

"Aye, sir!"

The difficulties did not let up.

Across a field, Sara Pujols was herself at an aching point. Not yet healed from a stress injury in her foot, she had seen a doctor before the crucible. He had recommended she sit out the grueling event.

"If I break, I break," she had pleaded, "but at least let me try."

The doctor relented.

Now Pujols was hurting from the first day's exertions, and she was facing a five-mile night hike across rough terrain in total darkness -- no flashlights allowed. She had slept five hours of the previous 39 and eaten one standard-issue field meal. She would sleep again after the hike; four hours were allowed a night.

Pujols and her teammates had already flagged at times. Once, they bickered over a combat problem until a drill instructor interjected: "You're starting to get cranky. You're starting to get irritated with each other. But mission is always first. Hash out your problems later."

Now, Pujols tried to keep her mind on her goal. She was 19, in her final weeks of a two-year paralegal degree, when Sept. 11 changed her priorities. A close friend's father died at the Twin Towers, and Pujols shared the family's grief. The daughter of a 20-year Marine in Union City, N.J., she decided to enlist. "I decided there was no time to waste," she said.

Now, Pujols tried not to think about her injured foot.

Hiking in the darkness, she tried to stay focused on the backpack of the recruit in front of her. It was worn by Alexandra Murphy, 21, a onetime cheerleader and ROTC cadet from Colorado, who was holding strong in spite of the pace and the load and the M-16 slung around her shoulder.

Pujols tried to keep up.

She set her mind on finishing.

But she felt like she was rushing through a jungle, as she traversed tree roots and big rocks and unexpected ditches. It was beyond hard. It was excruciating.

"Padre nuestro," she whispered, "que estas en el cielo . . ."

Our father who art in heaven...

Several recruits asked after her injury.

"Pujols, are you okay?" another recruit asked in the darkness.

She told herself: It doesn't hurt. It doesn't hurt. It doesn't hurt.

Then, a few miles into the hike, she felt someone grab at her.

"I can't see," the other recruit lamented.

Sara Pujols took the extended hand.

It was Amanda Turner's.

"I'll help you," said Pujols.

As they hiked on, Pujols felt her natural optimism waning.

She felt beyond her limits. She thought the end would never come. Her exhaustion was turning into frustration.

She began to cry in the moonlit darkness.

Then she tripped.

She lost her balance.

But before she could fall flat, she felt Turner's tightening grip.

Turner steadied her, and Pujols kept going -- head up, face streaked with tears.

Now, she thought, there was no quitting. They were in this together.

'Corps Values'

His clothes were still damp from hiking the night before. Before the morning sun fully warmed another Carolina day, Kyle Conley was sweating again. It was 6:30 a.m. He had been up since 4 a.m. So, it seemed, had Parris Island's sand fleas.

They swarmed -- and bit -- as Conley stood at the edge of a pine forest with the four other men on his team, trying to make a stretcher out of a thin wool blanket and two wooden poles. The first attempt did not work.

A second try, and they were on their way.

Now, they were to rush an injured comrade toward medical help, waiting a mile away. The event, like many others, was named for a Marine who was awarded a Medal of Honor: Thomas F. Noonan, killed in Vietnam trying to save wounded men in his unit.

"This is a combat casualty," a drill instructor urged them. "He's losing blood. You want to get him to the medevac as soon as possible."

Conley's team set out easily. But soon they realized the stretcher was harder to bear than they imagined. Four men held it aloft, and the fifth played the role of casualty. The casualty was heavy. Keeping him stable required coordination.

"Let's do it this way," Conley directed, motioning for a change in position.

They slowed, then rushed, then substituted one casualty for another, as the spring sun expanded in a bright wash of warmth. Birds chirped from the treetops, as if it was just another sun-dappled morning in the woods.

Gunfire exploded in the distance, as if it were nothing of the sort.

"Imagine having to do something like that, when you know the enemy's out there," said Staff Sgt. Scott Rixmann as they finished, sweat beading on their faces. The principle, he said, was: "Take care of your wounded and then take care of yourself."

It was 7:15 in the morning. Since the crucible started, Conley had eaten one allotted meal, finishing every morsel of his chili with macaroni, his peanut butter, his crackers, his dessert cake, even his salt, sugar and nondairy creamer.

He did not mind the deprivations, not really; he regarded boot camp as a necessary evil. The hardest part was being cut off from his old life. Conley was a senior associate at PricewaterhouseCoopers, and at 32 a thesis away from his second master's degree. He had a toddler and a two-career marriage and a lovely house in Arlington.

He had enlisted because of Sept. 11. On the day of the attacks, he was in his second day of training to fulfill a personal goal he had dreamed of since seventh grade -- swimming the English Channel. Almost immediately he felt a sudden shift in his values.

"I felt a little selfish, gearing myself to a goal that was only meaningful to myself," he confided to fellow recruits.

This admission came that morning in a wide, green tent with wooden benches where Conley's team gathered -- weapons down, tasks put aside -- for a "Corps values" discussion. The idea was to talk straight, lay out emotions, bare some part of their souls.

In these sessions, recruits who had gone 11 weeks knowing little about one another spoke candidly about brothers who died unexpectedly and parents who seemed to give up on them and racism and alcoholism and children and hope.

"I'm trying to put the past behind me," one said.

"My life's been pretty messed up since I was born," said another.

Conley was the exception in his group -- older, more advanced in education and career. He read volumes of history in his free time, and liked Hemingway and Faulkner, and even at boot camp pored over details of the Bush budget, mailed by an office friend. "You are such a nerd, Conley," a drill instructor had teased.

In the green tent, Conley offered that, in joining the Marines, he had been thinking of the duty of fathers in wartime; he had a second child on the way. "I felt strongly that our nation should be taking an active offensive," he said. "I felt I should be contributing, because I could."

The other recruits nodded, listened.

Conley did not speak about how hard it had been to live away from his young family. When he dwelt too much on the memory of his little girl's gleeful laugh or his wife's pregnancy, it was harder than he imagined to bear the decision to be away.

'I'm Not Letting Go, Sir'

Jason Parks had missed two meals in one day and another the next. He did not mind his field fare -- he had actually enjoyed his pasta alfredo in a pouch -- but he was still hungry. He had never rationed food before now, and at the crucible, recruits had to make it 54 hours with just 2 1/2 ready-to-eat meals.

Around him, many recruits were tired. Parks was too, but not as much as some of the others. He felt he had an advantage that way, having spent so many late nights on his computer. But the hiking had taken a toll; his feet were sore and blistered.

Now, Parks was flat to the sandy dirt, helmet down, with the sound of simulated machine gun fire ripping through the humid air in every direction. His task, with a team of three other men, was to advance without exposing himself to the fire.

Parks knew he needed to keep his body down and move forward in a low crawl, mostly by using his elbows.

This was fine in the beginning. He set out on the 200-meter course, with barbed-wire obstacles, grime all over his face, fleas biting. One of his teammates was hauling an ammo can. All four were clustered when a drill instructor eyed Parks.

"Come here, Parks, let me have your rifle," the drill instructor said.

Parks knew that, as a Marine, the rifle was his life -- he had even named his M-16 Lindsey, after a close friend from home. He remembered that he was never supposed to give it up; he was supposed to take it with him everywhere.

"No, I'm not letting go, sir," Parks replied.

Parks continued to crawl. It was spring, but it felt like summer on Parris Island, the afternoon sun by now hot on his baking back. He liked the battlefield course, liked the idea of simulating combat.

In the rare intervals of calm between machine gun fire and mortar rounds, Parks and his group rose up and rushed forward for just a second or two. As they ran, they told themselves: "I'm up. He sees me. I'm down."

By the time they said the word "down," they needed to be back on the ground.

At one point, Parks was not down all the way.

"Parks, you just got both your legs blown off," a drill instructor announced.

"Damn it. This sucks," Parks thought to himself.

He had just become a casualty.

"And we were almost to the end," he lamented silently.

Now his team would have to repeat one segment of the battlefield course. His teammates were openly frustrated. They would have to drag Parks -- 140 pounds -- by his camouflage shirt as they crawled forward on their stomachs, ammunition cans in tow.

Flat on his back, Parks tried, as much as he could, to shift his weight and make it easier for his teammates. He reassured himself: The unexpected was part of combat.

Badges of Honor

The rain started as if it were written into their schedule. At just the moment when 309 other members of the Golf Company set out to hike the final 2.3-mile stretch of the crucible, the sky opened up.

The dousing soaked six platoons of recruits as they marched, sweat and grime rinsing across their hands and faces. The more they walked, the surer their steps, the louder their cadences.

The end was at hand.

There were brief words of congratulations at 7:37 a.m., once they arrived back at their barracks, blistered and dirty and wet from the rain. But then the recruits of January were quickly led toward a "warrior's breakfast" unlike anything they had had before on Parris Island -- with steaks and omelets and French toast and muffins, so much that their food trays overflowed.

The more formal end came a week later, at a ceremony where they were given the title of Marine.

That day, in front of filled reviewing stands, the men and women of the Golf and Oscar companies stood in the bright afternoon sun, clean and straight and pressed in uniform -- green pants, khaki shirts, gleaming black shoes -- fixed-gaze profiles of military discipline.

"They all look the same!" one relative lamented in the stands.

Kyle Conley, the 32-year-old father, spotted his young daughter in the stands as he stood in formation. He could tell, seeing her movements from many yards away, that in three months she had changed -- less baby, and more girl, now 21 months old. It tugged at his heart.

"Daddy, a Marine," said Sarah Conley to her mom, looking at her father, in the front row of his platoon.

When the ceremony started, each recruit snapped to attention as a drill instructor approached. One by one, they were handed a small emblem of an eagle, globe and anchor.

One by one, they shook hands.

In this solemn rite, the recruits of winter became the Marines of spring.

Jason Parks, who had struggled more than most in his platoon, felt relief and a swell of pride as he faced one of his platoon's drill instructors. He felt like crying for a moment, as had happened early on, but this time he did not.

His Marine father was in the stands, proud and struck by how much had changed since 1970, when he enlisted in the divided times of Vietnam.

Sara Pujols, who had hiked on her hurt foot, faced her senior drill instructor near the stands, where she was forced to sit. She had made it. But a bone scan had since revealed three stress fractures in her foot.

Pujols was on crutches.

Their families had expected to see change, but not so much. The recruits walked differently, straighter. Their hair was shorn. Their bearing was so serious that one father joked it seemed his son had forgotten completely how to smile.

The teenagers they last had seen in blue jeans and T-shirts wore creased uniforms tucked in against flat stomachs and thin waists. Some had lost 20 pounds, 30 pounds, even 40. One young woman proclaimed: "Oh my God, half my husband's gone!"

The day was not without its disappointments. Ryan Holloway, who broke a foot on the crucible, was now in a unit for injured recruits; his graduation would be much delayed. It was the same for several others who had started in January.

But for the majority, graduation came the next day, and minutes before the ceremony began, they gathered in formation for a final talk -- 371 men and women, most of the 430 who had arrived on buses in the chill of early January.

A thick Atlantic fog that had kept the island in a white haze all morning was beginning to lift.

Gunnery Sgt. Troy Black, the island's drillmaster, told them in a booming voice to regard the day, and the meaning of this passage, with the awe it deserved.

"I have a wife and three children and a happy home," he told them. "But walking across that parade deck was the biggest day of my goddone life. You understand that?"

"Yes, sir!"

They roared the words.

In the viewing stands, he said, were people who would expect great things from them -- not just their families, but older and retired Marines who attended graduations to see the newest generation and be reminded that what they valued goes on.

"Most importantly," he told them, "remember what happened in America."

There was no pause.

"September 11th," they answered loudly.

"From now on," Black told them, "we call it 'Worldwide Coward Day.' You understand that?"

"Yes, sir!"

He asked: "Who's from New York City?"

He asked: "Who saw the towers fall down?"

He told them that the Marines were looking for "payback."

"If you're scared of it," he warned, "you shouldn't be here right now."

After 12 weeks of boot camp, no one flinched.

In the ceremony that followed, James Dorsey stood out in front -- the guide of his platoon, and now an honor graduate.

He scanned the faces in the crowded viewing stands, searching for his mother. He had not forgotten she was gone, after her car accident on the Beltway. But her spirit had been so strong during boot camp, he almost felt he saw her -- smiling, laughing at him, waving her hand.

His mother never wanted her son near the dangers of war, but Dorsey felt she would not object now, in the world as it was after September.

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'

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