The Few, The Proud ...

Shortly after 9:00 p.m. November 29, a busload of 25 recruits arrives for the first time at the gate of the U.S. Marine Corps Recruit Depot on Parris Island, South Carolina. Before the vehicle enters the two-lane causeway, a military policeman stops it, ascends the narrow steps, and orders the passengers to look at the floor.

The bus accelerates into darkness while the passengers wait in silence, heads down, until it stops a short distance from a nondescript brick building. The driver opens the door. Next to the vehicle, painted on the asphalt, are four long columns of yellow footprints, silhouettes of feet positioned at the 45-degree angle of attention. The marks form a rectangle the precise size and shape of a platoon. Then the yelling begins:

"Get off the bus! Run! Get off the bus! Get on the yellow footprints! Do we understand?"

"Sir, yes, sir!" shouts a gaggle of terrified voices. The first recruit, a slouchy large-eyed teenage girl in jeans, scrambles off at the bidding of Staff Sgt. Tony Kimmanee, a small but ferocious drill sergeant who serves as late-night welcome committee. "You should be standing in a position of attention! Your heels are touching! Your mouth is shut! Do we understand?"

"Sir, yes, sir!" all the recruits yell.

Kimmanee hustles the group through steel doors into a sterile room with a wall of telephones. "You receive one phone call home to inform Mommy and Daddy that you have safely arrived at Parris Island. If they aren't at home, call their cell phones. If you get voicemail on their cell phones, call your grandmother. I don't care."

The recruits line up at the phones and dial furiously, their faces red, their hands shaking. No "Hi, Mom"s or "Miss you"s. No conversation, just a script taped next to the phone, which the recruits speed through:

1. This is recruit (last name).
2. I have arrived safely at Parris Island.
3. Please do not send any food or bulky items to me in the mail.
4. I will contact you in three to five days by postcard with my new address.
5. Thank you for your support. Goodbye for now.

The same words rise and fall in a chorus, some shouted, some read deliberately and softly.

For the next 24 hours the recruits will not sleep. Every personal possession that might distinguish an individual — shaving cream, flip-flops, bug spray, soap — will be replaced with identical brands. Recruits are advised to limit reading material to the Bible and address books. Feet are measured for boots. Contact lenses and eyeglasses are exchanged for the clunky brown plastic-framed spectacles known as BCs (which stands for birth control). Heads are shorn. First names are officially changed to recruit, and the first person is eliminated from spoken conversation.

The following morning, in the pale dawn, the scene repeats. Another drill instructor, veins popping, bellows at a white school bus. From its doors pour 37 eager recruits. They race to align themselves on the yellow footprints, faces deadly serious. But something is wrong.

This group looks, well, old.

Some of its portly members are carrying purses; others discreetly snap photos with digital cameras. Well-padded in borrowed camouflage Gore-Tex raincoats, the 37 educators from South Florida are treated more gently than the recruits of the previous evening. For one thing, they are asked politely if anybody would like to exit the bus before the yelling begins. And they are invited to dine that evening at the officers' club, which has been decorated for Christmas.

Each year since 1997 the South Florida U.S.M.C. Recruiting Station has sent 30 to 40 guidance counselors, assistant principals, Boy Scout leaders, and teachers to Parris Island for an all-expenses-paid immersion into Marine basic training.

For four days in late November, the 37-member group — which joined 36 guests from Central Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands — shot M-16s, attempted pullups on monkey bars, wielded bayonets, and dined to jazz standards played by the Marine Corps Band.

The trip cost the U.S.M.C. as much as $1150 per person (including airfare from Fort Lauderdale to Savannah; the price of three nights' lodging at the Country Inn of Beaufort, South Carolina; food; and promotional T-shirts.)

Parris Island hosts twelve such workshops a year. At $55,000 to $60,000 a pop, they are considered an investment in the Marine Corps' future, a courtship of those dispensing career advice to the young and unsure at a time when the recruitment effort is hindered by war. Since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, 2429 (as of December 31, 2005) soldiers have lost their lives in the global war on terrorism. Marines, who comprise an average of 13 percent of the force, have made up 27 percent of the war's casualties. Most of those killed have been under the age of 24.

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Emily Witt
Contact: Emily Witt

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