05 April 2015


by Andy Weddington
Sunday, 05 April 2015

                                                              Parris Island sign

The other day, for whatever reason, a long ago conversation with a recruit came to mind. So I figured may as well write it down.

That encounter...

I was the series commander. For the uninformed, a series is comprised of four platoons with somewhere between 65-80 recruits (depends on time of year) in each platoon. Each platoon is trained by three drill instructors - one designated the senior. And I had an assistant series commander and series chief drill instructor. 

The series commander's responsibility - ensure drill instructors make Marines as detailed in the Recruit Training SOP (standard operating procedure); to the letter and in full compliance with the spirit. 

The series had completed forming and was into the first week of training - training day 4 or 5. Maybe 6. This was typically the timeframe the shock of their (recruits) new environment started to fade - most recruits accepted and some not so much. 

A senior drill instructor was having quite a time with a recruit that was not so much into continuing. The senior felt he'd done all he could and that it was time for the series commander to engage. I did.

Recruit Marks reported to me and I kept him at attention while reviewing drill instructor entries on his recruit evaluation card. The comments reflected a trend of poor attitude; lack of effort; disruptiveness; and belligerence. 

I asked the recruit to explain. His tone a mix of arrogance, smugness, confusion, and fright. 

"Sir, this recruit does not want to be here. This recruit does not want to be a Marine. This recruit's father told him that if he got to Parris Island and found it was not for him that he could come home." 

"Recruit, do you think you are the only recruit in your platoon, in this series, with similar feelings this early in training?" 

And the father comment caught my attention. 

"And your father said that? Your father said you could come home?" 

"Yes sir." 


So I asked the recruit, 

"Tell me about your parents. What does your mother do? What does your father do?"

"Sir, the recruit's mother has a full-time job outside the home and the recruit's father is retired."

"Your father is retired? What did he do?"

"Sir, this recruit's father is a retired Marine. He is a master gunnery sergeant."

"Your father is a Marine, a retired master gunnery sergeant, and he told you you were welcome home if you decided recruit training was not for you?"

"Yes sir."

"Where might your father be at this time of the morning?"

"Sir, the recruit's father is probably at home - he works around the house and in the yard."

"Well, what say we give your father a call and explain what's going on here in my office and if he says send you home then I will do all possible to make that happen."

And with that I dialed the number. A man answered after the fourth or fifth ring.

"Good morning, sir. Are you Mastery Gunnery Sergeant Marks?"

"I am."

"My name is First Lieutenant Weddington and I'm calling from Parris Island. I am your son's series commander and he's standing in front of my desk at the moment. Your son is not doing so well adapting to training and I'm calling to clear up a comment from him during our conversation. Frankly, your son has been giving his drill instructors quite a time. Now he's refusing to train. So, his senior drill instructor brought him to me with a recommendation for separation. Your son told me that you told him if he found the Marine Corps was not for him that he was welcome home any time."

The recruit's facial expression changed - looking more like uncertainty and panic. I guess he never thought there'd be a phone call home. And though still at attention his body language was losing defiance.  

I continued, 

"Master Gunnery Sergeant Marks, it just sounded strange to me that a retired Marine would say such a thing to his son and I did not want to send him along to the company commander without settling this. What would you like me to do with your son?"

Silence. After an awkward few moments I broke the silence to ensure we were still connected. We were. The old Marine, surely not expecting my call, was collecting his thoughts. 

"Master Gunnery Sergeant Marks, would you like to speak to your son?"

"No sir!" 

And so I held the phone between me and the recruit so we could both hear what followed. 

"Lieutenant, you tell my son that if he comes home before graduation day that he had better make arrangements to have his sh*t removed from my front yard." 

Tears streaked the recruit's face. 

"He is standing right here and you are certainly welcome to speak to him directly."

"No sir. I said all I am going to say. You tell my son I, and his mother, will see him graduation morning. Thank you for your time, sir." 

And with that, dial tone.

I looked at the teary-eyed recruit and said, 

"The decision is yours. Do you return to training with a newfound attitude or do I concur with your senior drill instructor and send you to the company commander recommending separation?" 

Still gaining his composure and considering his father's words, 

"Sir, this recruit will return to training." 

"I thought so."

With that he was dismissed. Recruit Marks returned to his platoon, continued training without further problem, and he graduated. At the time he was just another recruit struggling to grow up early on in training. I did not see him nor meet his parents after the graduation parade nor remember if the master gunnery sergeant and his son's drill instructors had a nice chat or not. Probably. 

And I've no idea what became of him after Parris Island. He's 50 years old now. And I suspect a better man for the hardships and fears he conquered - with not-so-subtle encouragement from his father - as an 18 year-old first time away from home. I wonder if he has a son. A Marine son.

Parris Island did not (and does not) just change the lives of the young men (and women) who volunteer and report for training. The depot changes the lives of the men (and women) who train them. And the depot changes the lives of the men (and women) who supervise training. The change endures and grows. How could it not?! And like me, most, if not all, will not fully appreciate just how much the change until the years roll by. And roll by they will. Faster than can be believed. 


Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, California, and Officer Candidates School, Quantico, Viriginia, too, rightfully and proudly boast...


Post Script

Snapshots of Parris Island come flooding back with some frequency. Something I read or see triggers a memory. I guess that will happen for life. I hope so. While writing this commentary Recruit Tavarone came to mind. As I remember, he was a platoon honor man and left Parris Island a lance corporal. I remember bumping into him a few years later in the Marine Corps Exchange parking lot, Quantico. He was a sergeant. And doing great. Rewarding. I wonder what became of him, too. 

Marks a fictional surname. Tavarone not. 

Author's Endnote

Thirty-five years ago this month I was commissioned a second lieutenant and 32 years ago this month, following a stint as an infantry officer with the 2d Marine Division, I reported to Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina, for duty. Assigned to the Regiment, I served three years (Apr 1983-Apr 1986) in Second Recruit Training Battalion - F Company series commander; company executive officer; battalion operations officer; and D Company commanding officer. Not many officers are so fortunate to spend an entire tour in a training battalion. And why such good fortune fell my way I've no idea. But more and more thankful for the experience I am, as years pass. For little did I realize at the time the lasting impact Parris Island would have on my follow on years in uniform and life thereafter. Still it does. And still I grope to find the words to explain. It was superb leadership throughout the chain of command; the camaraderie of the men in the battalion; our important mission of making Marines; and there was more that more and more just seems inexplicable. But Marines know. 


Anonymous said...

For me, as I suspect it is for most recruits, it was the defining moment of my life.

Anonymous said...

I am not a Marine, but was blessed to attend graduation at MCRD SD. Drill instructor that I happened to observe nearby was himself observing a group of recruits as they drilled near the parade grounds. Me: Gotta keep a close eye on them all the time, don't you? DI: Gotta make them Marines, sir. Much respect to you all. Semper Fi.

Robert Fowler said...

Aug. 30th 1973, 0300, a scared farm kid got off a bus and stood on the yellow footprints. Life changed. That 13 weeks of hell is something I have never regretted. Semper Fi.