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Making Marines

Friday, Mar. 8 | By Mark Grandstaff | Google+
Times-Democrat reporter Mark Grandstaff, left, battles against Sgt. Brian Sixto with a pugil stick.
Brentsville High School teacher Greg Prifti from Warrenton waits as Sgt. Robert Portell ties on a rope harness, preparing for a trip down a 47-foot rappel tower.
Any delusions I had about qualifying for service in the United States Marine Corps vanished at 4:40 a.m. Feb. 27.

In the bathroom of our hotel, before our trip to the famous yellow footprints of Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, I struggled to free a complimentary wafer of soap from its plastic wrapper.

I'm in good company. Three out of four people in the Marines' target demographic don't make the cut, we're told, because of physical weakness, bad grades, too many tattoos or a criminal record.

The Marines invited me and about 80 teachers to Parris Island so we could have informed conversations with the remaining 25 percent: young men and women capable of and possibly curious about serving.

We had the opportunity to learn by doing. Col. Scott Blankenship cautioned us against over-doing.

"Be thoughtful about what you can and can't do," Blankenship said.

After about a week in the tender care of the Marines, I've learned what I can't do.

I can't run, jump and swing from a rope. My spirit was willing, but my grip strength was weak. The rope slid and burned through my hands.

I landed on my back and yelled something the Times-Democrat will not allow me to print.

I did no better at Leatherneck Square, where the Marines on Parris Island train their recruits in close combat.

Sgt. Brian Sixto laid me out with a pop in the face from a pugil stick after blocking two or three of my pipe-cleaner-arm swings.

The most galling experience for me, though, was my turn at Khe Sanh Firing Range. It was my first time holding and firing something more powerful than a pellet gun.

The Marine instructors furnished us with M16A4s, Rifle Combat Optic scopes and 10 rounds. I pulled back the slide, turned off the safety and took aim.

I missed all 10 times.

For God's sake, I come from West Virginia. Our state animal is the gun.

"Aim to your left," my instructor coached me in vain. "You gave him a haircut," he said, pointing to my unblemished target.

Some of the teachers felt conflicted about their turn at the firing range. They had fun, but the mass killing at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., cast a long shadow over the firing range.

Greg Prifti, a Warrenton resident and tech ed teacher at Brentsville High School, hit his target eight out of 10 times. But it troubled him to hold a rifle that was the basis for the one Adam Lanza used to slay 20 children and six adults.

"These are military," Prifti said, nodding to the assault rifles. "Everyone else? Goodbye, you don't need that."

The guns weren't the only experience to disturb our group. They saw recruits sparring in an octagon pit, screaming "Marine Corps!" and battering each other with pugil sticks.

They spoke with recruits at a box lunch, young men and women midway through their transformation into Marines. Many were quiet, unsmiling, not sure if they had permission to speak in the first person.

"It was heartbreaking for me," said Kelley Hines, a teacher at Woodgrove High School. "I wanted to reach out and tell them that things were going to be OK."

In the austere squad bays, the teachers asked Staff Sgt. Jeremy Teal what he does when recruits mouth off to him or disobey his orders, problems they face every day.

It rarely happens, the drill instructor said, because the recruits volunteered for this. They want to be disciplined, made better, he said.

As for the rest?

"Eventually, through motivation, they all come around," Teal said, looking malevolent under his campaign hat.

Brandon Singhas, an 18-year-old recruit from Winchester, told me he's actually come to enjoy what the drill instructors call "incentive training" -- calisthenics in punishment for lapses in discipline.

"It's not like 'Full Metal Jacket' where it's a bunch of bad stuff happening," Singhas said. "It's stuff that benefits you, teaches you."

Discipline, Parris Island's stock in trade, manifested in strange ways every so often. In the Marine Corps Exchange, the closest thing to a big box retailer, a drill instructor cut ahead of me at the checkout line.

He didn't see me, and after a day of screaming "Aye, sir!" I wasn't going to press the issue.

The cashier saw it though, and scorched the DI with a blistering tirade.

"Sorry, sir," he said to me in a rasping robot-frog voice, backing off.

Our hosts talked to us about the educational and career opportunities available through service to the Corps. Even so, it was a far cry from the 1990s, when America's military branches marketed themselves as a big technical school with guns.

Recruits are prepared for war, never made more clear than in the Crucible, a 54-hour ordeal that pushes the recruits to their utter physical, mental and emotional limits.

We saw hungry, sleep-deprived recruits crawl face-down through mud in combat gear, while instructors and Navy chaplains circled them like sharks. Audio from the beach landing of "Saving Private Ryan" -- gunfire and the screams of the wounded -- blasted at them on loop from loudspeakers.

The reality of war showed itself in more quiet ways too. At the Exchange, shoppers can find a children's book called "Our Daddy Is Invincible!" It prepares children to cope with parents badly hurt in battle.

"Some days are hard on the whole family," reads a page in the book, illustrated with a cringing man clutching a scar on his head. "Tears, yelling, and even his silence can make us feel like Daddy's upset with us."

We got to see a small part of the harrowing transformation of willing recruits. We got to see the end result, too, what Brig. Gen. Loretta Reynolds called Parris Island's "product": graduating Marines, men and women standing tall, proud and ready.

Cory Brunet, a teacher at Broad Run High School, told me she sees the Marines who come out of basic training as outstanding citizens, the sort of people she wants as neighbors.

"If nothing else, they're producing people of moral character," Brunet said. "No one's letting us do it in high schools. Our hands are tied."
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