The Few, The Proud ...

Four days at a South Carolina boot camp


Rickman executes a light blow to the Marine's shoulder.


Scripts taped next to telephones instruct recruits what to 
say to their parents the first night at boot camp
Emily Witt
Scripts taped next to telephones instruct recruits what to say to their parents the first night at boot camp
Recruits line up to quickly phone home
Emily Witt
Recruits line up to quickly phone home

A cheer erupts from the bleachers.

"Drop it like it's hot!" the spectators holler.

The exercise, known as pugil sticks, is intended to simulate combat with rifles. "We try to teach recruits that this is not a game," says Lt. Col. Joe Shusto. "We try not to cheer anybody on."

The teachers ignore him. Despite her fans, the plump, blond Ohio native gets pummeled. When the match is over, she throws off her helmet and walks to the sideline. "You kicked my ass!" she yells over her shoulder to the vanquisher.

At Parris Island, the military's power is at its most inspiring and untarnished. The reality of armed conflicts abroad seems far-off, and equal opportunity exists regardless of socioeconomic status.

The closest the teachers get to witnessing combat is on an obstacle course where clips from the soundtrack of D-day landings in Saving Private Ryan blast over loudspeakers, and a soldier pushes around a smoke machine on wheels.

The organizers of the educators' workshop say they aim to target those wary of military service. "We invite people who have shown some resistance," says Maj. Guillermo Canedo, director of public affairs at Parris Island. "Often they walk away with a 180-degree difference in opinion about Marine training and Marine life."

But in this group, few are anti-military from the beginning. Some, like Peggy Rickman, have family members in the Marines. Others are simply enamored of all things soldierly.

Sadiq Abdullahi, a tall, bespectacled, Nigerian-born educator who teaches government at Homestead Senior High School, would like to see more people schooled in defense. "The school system should look at it as an alternative and encourage students to look at the military," he explains. "We're in a time of war. The world as a whole is becoming unsafe. People need to be ready to defend their country."

Kevin Simon, a history teacher at Miami Beach Senior High School, wears a U.S. Marine Corps lanyard around his neck. Attached is a large "God Bless America" pin, replete with undulating flag. The diminutive Simon was himself a recruit at Parris Island in 1975 but spent the bulk of his four-year stint playing drums in Washington, D.C. He has attended an educators' workshop before, in 1999. He returned to take more video and photos for his students.

Simon is fond of sharing the many nuances of the Marine Drum and Bugle Corps, but he boasts it was infantry training that "saved my life on the mean streets of Miami." In 1997 he fended off a mugger who approached him with a .357 Taurus at the 1700 Biscayne Blvd. Burger King. "I disarmed him, then shot him to disable with his own weapon," he says proudly.

More than one educator complains students no longer stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, and of widespread disrespect for authority.

Gwen James, a career specialist at North Miami Senior High, laments her students' lack of discipline. "This gets them in shape," she marvels, as the bus drives past knots of recruits jogging and doing pushups. "Put them in boot camp at eighth grade; put them through training.... They would take pride in uniforms. They would have respect for their elders."

Many of the other teachers agree with her, but the show doesn't impress everyone. "There's no way you can counsel a person by simply going to boot camp," says Camilo Mejia, an infamous South Florida National Guard deserter who recently spent nine months in jail before remaking himself as an antiwar activist. "In terms of the reality people are going to face, boot camp has nothing to do with it. They don't tell them anything about what it does to a human being when you put a bullet through its flesh, about what that does to your conscience.

"If they really want to counsel," he concludes, "they should bring teachers to Walter Reed [Army Medical Center]. Go meet people who have no legs."

Parris Island, in the South Carolina low country, alternates between open vistas of marshland and wooded areas adorned with palmettos and Spanish moss. On the rifle range, the visitor is greeted with an expanse of natural beauty and light, marred only by targets in the distance that rise and fall when they are popped with bullets from M-16 rifles.

Warrant Ofcr. Fred Keeney, the rifle range supervisor, looks like Smokey Bear with fluorescent orange earplugs. A career Marine with a tour in Iraq behind him, Keeney admires the liberal gun laws of other countries. ("I want to go to Switzerland so bad and hunt Alpine Ibex," he says at one point, gazing toward the horizon.) Keeney is of the opinion that "Most Americans are used to being rewarded for mediocrity." Of the Marines he takes pride that "Here, just trying isn't good enough."

Keeney likes order.

"Get those weapons off the deck!" he roars suddenly at a hapless recruit. "Deck" is Marinese for "ground." Many of the teachers pick up some new lingo before they leave the workshop. "Gotta take a head call!" more than one begins announcing before using the bathroom.

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