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
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
"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
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
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
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."
"We got to do this for Holloway now," he said.
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
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
Then, a few miles into the hike, she felt someone grab at
"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
Turner steadied her, and Pujols kept going -- head up, face
streaked with tears.
Now, she thought, there was no quitting. They were in this
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
"This is a combat casualty," a drill instructor urged them.
"He's losing blood. You want to get him to the medevac as soon
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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?"
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
There was no pause.
"September 11th," they answered loudly.
"From now on," Black told them, "we call it 'Worldwide Coward
Day.' You understand that?"
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
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'