The Few, The Proud ...

Four days at a South Carolina boot camp

Mathos is a Democrat and against the war. "We have no business being in Iraq," she declares while riding on the activity bus. "Not only did the presidential administration lie to the public, but they're wasting valuable resources, wasting men and women ... it's terrible."

But for her students, the valuable resources in question, she says, "Let's be honest. I'm a college advisor, but not every kid is college-bound. The best way is to be straight up: The military is a great option for confidence, for building your self-esteem, for getting vocational skills, but on the other hand it can be dangerous."

The rifle range where Mathos and other teachers learn to shoot M-16s consists of small, submerged bunkers. It is named for Khe Sanh, the notorious Vietnam combat base where a mostly Marine force was surrounded by the North Vietnamese Army in 1968. "If all of the barbed wire and all of the sandbags were taken away," wrote journalist Michael Herr in Dispatches, "Khe Sanh would have looked like one of those Colombian valley slums whose meanness is the abiding factor, whose despair is so palpable that for days after you leave you are filled with a vicarious shame for the misery you have just tripped through."

Joseph Martinez of South Miami must earn his dress blues 
— and college money
Emily Witt
Joseph Martinez of South Miami must earn his dress blues — and college money
Peggy Rickman obeys orders
Emily Witt
Peggy Rickman obeys orders

But on Parris Island, Khe Sanh, for today at least, consists merely of trigger-happy high school teachers playing with semiautomatic weapons.

Vietnam is a subject that arises frequently. Many of the teachers grew up during that war, and worry this one will come to a similar end. Renae White, administrative dean of Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando, is one of them.

She is an imposing presence with spiky hair and a Bluetooth device permanently affixed to her ear, leaving one with the impression of a character from Star Trek. The other teachers grumble at her outspoken opinions and confrontational questions, particularly a small fuss she made during a speech by the base's general regarding the Marines' neglect of Hurricane Katrina victims. ("Totally irrelevant," said at least one of the teachers.)

But her opinion about sharing the experience with students is firm: "I'll tell them what I saw and what I learned, what I see as the advantages and the disadvantages. I would lay the facts down, but I would not encourage a student to join. Coming up in the Seventies, I had quite a few classmates who were drafted. When you go to Washington, D.C., you see that wall with all those names. Now they're going to be putting up another one?" She shakes her head.

In the Country Inn on the Friday morning before a battalion is due to finish boot camp, emotions run high. One recruit's stocky mother yells at a hotel attendant when the bagels are gone before 7:00 a.m. "Don't you know there is a Marine graduation? Don't you plan ahead for these things?" she squawks.

"There's a graduation every week, ma'am," says the hotel employee dryly.

Before catching their flight back to Fort Lauderdale, the educators attend the weekly event. In 2004, 16,906 Marines graduated from Parris Island. Today's ceremony alone will be attended by about 1000 spectators and will send 511 new soldiers out into the world, most of whom can expect deployment overseas within a year.

Trumpets trill, flag-bearers prance like ponies, and the Marine mascot, a bulldog named Mac, is waddled out for display. It's a time for brass-band renditions of "You're a Grand Ole Flag" and "Stars and Stripes Forever," followed by the swish of many hands saluting and heads snapping to and fro — a celebration of synchrony, pomp, and applause.

The event is so planned that the most exciting moments end up being the grave mistakes: One of the band members drops his cymbal to awkward silence, and then, topping the show, one of the few, the proud — a blond guy in the third row — faints after he locks his knees. He has to be led outside. There he is condemned for the rest of the ceremony to the certain consternation of visiting relatives and woe of his drill sergeant.

The educators are slightly bruised and exhausted. One, a teacher from Ocoee, had to be taken to the infirmary after a possible pugil-stick-induced concussion left him nauseated.

The rest, alternately hung over or simply sleepy from waking up at 5:30 a.m. every day, seem ready to return to sunny Florida, laden with their U.S.M.C. T-shirts, ties, and mugs purchased at the depot's gift shop.

At 10:00 a.m. the drill instructors dismiss their green-clad hordes, who reply with a hearty "Ay, sir! Ooh-rah!" The families swarm. The teachers leave.

Only Kevin Simon, the Beach High history teacher who served his Marine years in the Drum and Bugle Corps, seems still full of energy. Brass bands are, after all, his area of expertise. "Did you see?" he asks excitedly. "The drummer dropped his stick! He was playing 'Troop March #1' with one hand!"

In the end, the irony of both the educators' workshop and Parris Island itself is best displayed at the depot's Marine Corps Exchange, or MCX, a convenience store where military personnel receive discounts. The store's motto is "Core brands, Corps value," a play on the U.S.M.C.'s "core values" of courage, honor, and commitment.

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