The Few, The Proud ...

Four days at a South Carolina boot camp

In the throes of military indoctrination, Biko Harvey is small and serious. He has traveled far from Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where he signed four years of his life over to the Marines.

Something catches his eye. "Recruit, your cover!" he hisses at a skinny kid with crooked teeth behind him in the line for Swiss steak and boiled carrots. "Recruit!"

His platoon-mate starts and removes his cap. Harvey again looks forward.

Educators on the yellow footprints
Emily Witt
Educators on the yellow footprints
Training for combat
Emily Witt
Training for combat

Rickman appears upset. "It's okay," she tries. "You can smile."

He considers this, stony-faced. "Bad habits, ma'am."

Rickman's eyebrows ascend. She picks up a chocolate chip cookie and advances toward the salad bar, striking up a conversation with another teacher about her losing encounter with the instructor wielding the foam-covered barbells.

Biko Harvey interrupts. "This recruit hates pugil sticks, ma'am."

"What's that?" asks Rickman, startled.

"This recruit can't stand pugil sticks," Harvey says curtly, adorning his salad with croutons. "This recruit might say that pugil sticks are his most hated activity in boot camp."

Tickled that her lunch partner has opened up, Rickman responds, "What do you love about boot camp?"

The recruit considers this. "Nothing."

They walk to one of the cafeteria's orange tables, sit down, and are joined by an educator from Naples engaged in deep conversation with a recruit who seems not at all worried about the use of personal pronouns.

Rickman looks on longingly and then tries again with Harvey. "When do you graduate?" she asks.

"Two weeks, ma'am."

"Is your family going to come?"

"No, ma'am."

"Why not?"

"This recruit asked his family not to come, ma'am."

"But why?"

"This recruit feels his family would hold him back. This recruit's father and girl were not happy he joined the Marines."

Rickman seizes on this conversational nugget.

"Are you still together with your girlfriend?"

"This recruit was looking for a way out of the relationship, ma'am."

Rickman bursts out laughing.

Harvey stares straight ahead impassively. "This recruit wants to take back what he said before, ma'am."

"About what?" asks Rickman.

"About not loving anything about boot camp. When this recruit arrived at boot camp, this recruit did not know how to swim, and he was afraid of heights. Now this recruit can swim, and he is no longer afraid of heights."

Rickman looks down at the cubes of reconstituted turkey breast adorning her tetrazzini and smiles.

"The military is not held in such high regard in this recruit's state [of New York] as it is in other states," he says. "People where this recruit is from hold other things in high regard. They are more impressed by getting a degree. Most recruits here go home and everybody will love them because they are Marines."

Finally he switches to the first person. "When I go home," he says, "nothing will be different for me."

For many, escaping home life is part of the advantage — indeed the allure — of joining the military. But for some, the lack of identity is oppressive (the attrition rate is ten percent for men, eighteen percent for women).

Michael Ruiz, a Vietnam vet who works with severely emotionally disturbed students at Homestead Senior High School, says the military provides ideal conditions for young people to transform themselves: "They need to get out of the environment they are in to learn how to be adults."

Does that mean he encourages his students to join the Marines?

He snorts in reply. "My students don't know the difference between the army, the navy, and the Boy Scouts.... I had two students who were thinking about the Marines: One got pregnant, the other dropped out."

Ruiz is the only teacher from Miami-Dade County on the trip who can claim combat experience. He has returned to Parris Island for the first time since completing boot camp in 1966. During this trip, his physical appearance has earned him the nickname "Billy Crystal" from the teachers who flock nightly to Bonkers, a bar near the Country Inn.

Ruiz is not the type to immerse himself in war memories or glorify his combat experience. "Ask anybody who's ever been in Vietnam," is all he says of his experience in the war. "You never come back."

On lunch breaks, when the educators mingle with recruits over Meals Ready to Eat (which by the way aren't bad if you like hydrogenated vegetable oil flavored, apparently, with children's aspirin and called pineapple pound cake), Ruiz makes little effort to depart from his group of friends.

He describes watching recruits eating MREs with a Vietnam vet from Orlando. They asked about his combat experience, but as Ruiz sees it, "They were waiting for an answer that doesn't exist." Yet the veteran/teacher is pragmatic about military recruiting: "Why not let these men and women — if they enjoy what they do — go ahead and do it?"

The next day, the educators have their own afternoon at the rifle range. Mindy Mathos, a guidance counselor at Miami Lakes Education Center, hits her target, a rectangular, black-and-white bull's eye, with the black, 39-inch-long M-16, which weighs about nine pounds and can fire 800 rounds a minute.

"I got the white one!" cheers Mathos to the young Marine helping her shoot. A motherly figure in black jeans, white sneakers, and a polar fleece jacket, Mathos thought she was going to dislike this particular activity. "I don't like guns. I'm totally against guns. I thought I was going to hate it. But it wasn't so bad," she says afterward.

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