We pulled up in a school bus to the Parris Island Marine Corps Recruit Depot at six in the morning. The sun was still rising, and shards of orange sliced through the navy sky. Fog threaded through the dark green grass. A man in full camouflage charged onto the bus, screaming for us to get off and line up in rows.
This was the jarring beginning to my two days in recruit training. Tagging along with a group of educators, who were visiting Parris Island to better familiarize themselves with the Marine Corps, I experienced recruit training firsthand. There, I learned that although push-ups and drills are certainly a big part of training, much of it is mental.
This is reflected in the Marine Corps Recruit Depot motto: “We make Marines.” The slogan is displayed on a sign in the center of camp, and emphasized throughout the recruits’ 12 weeks of training, through drills and exercises designed to get them combat-ready. While it’s important for recruits to be strong, their demanding training emphasizes discipline and quick-thinking above all. It’s for that reason that recruit training is all-encompassing, so that these men and woman can be made into Marines that will have that situational acuity where it matters most: a war zone.
As soon as we got off the bus, the drill instructor had us line up in four long, neat columns with equal space between each person. To emphasize the precise distance needed between rows, he would yell “40 inches” at us, and we would scream back “back to chest.” This sounds simple, but it wasn’t. By the time I figured out that he wanted the group to run to the other side, he was already yelling at me for being slow. In the background I heard one instructor say that “it only gets worse.”
Only the very best can become Marines. It takes a lot of reflexive thinking to be able to immediately absorb a command and respond to it accurately. And it’s important to develop these skills during the first hours, days, and months of training because when you’re on the front lines, there’s no time to think over orders. You must act — and act quickly.
Instilling this type of discipline and obedience begins immediately. On the first day, men have their heads shaved, while women have their hair tied into a taut bun. You are allowed to make one phone call home, wherein you must recite a scripted greeting, taped to the wall of every phone booth. There’s no “I love you,” and definitely no “I want to come home.”
For the next 12 weeks the recruits work on developing the precise strictness Marines are known for. Everything is regimented, counted off, and performed efficiently. Even mundane activities like washing your hands before a meal are completed in a straight line. Even when you’re doing nothing, you’re doing something, whether that means practicing marching or learning how to follow orders without question or confusion.
Take lunchtime. Recruits eat in neat rows, one hand on their knee, the other holding their fork. Trays must sit perfectly parallel to the edge of the table, and, to punish infractions, some recruits are even banned from eating the thick, chewy brownies or pudding served as dessert. Meals last roughly five minutes and are silent, save for the clattering of silverware and the sharp click of recruits speaking to their drill instructor — and only when spoken to.
It’s difficult, and not everyone makes it. First Instructor Sumter, who handles processing at Parris Island, explains that the first month is hard, but recruits will get through it as long as “they understand that they’re getting stronger, smarter, and more disciplined.”
Central to recruit training is accepting that sometimes they will fail. To emphasize this point, many of the physical tests are mental ones as well, intended to make recruits understand how to keep a clear head under heavy stress. Take the Gas Chamber. It’s exactly what it sounds like. Recruits enter a gray, concrete room with a gas mask on. The room then fills with nonlethal CS tear gas, and they must then remove their masks. The trainer then takes them through a series of basic exercises like jumping jacks.
Physical endurance has nothing to do with this test. Instead, it challenges your mental endurance, in the form of your capacity to stay calm as your eyes fill with tears and the cuts on your body burn. When faced with a chemical attack, it’s important to have a clear head. The gas chamber helps you get there.
The rappel tower similarly tests your ability to get over weaknesses, forcing you to let go of baggage (say, a fear of heights, or a lack of confidence in your fellow recruits). Here, recruits must walk backwards down a towering 48-foot wall. Think of a trust fall, but then add a stomach-churning amount of space behind you.
First, you stand at the edge of the wall with your heels over the edge and your back facing the wide-open air. Then, you slowly rotate along the wall’s edge at a 90-degree angle until you’re parallel to the ground and perpendicular to the wall. My hands shook. Even as I was strapped in and secure through a system of ropes and pulleys, my knees knocked together as I dropped backwards over the edge.
Since Marine training focuses on building character, recruits use very little technology during these first three months. In a real combat situation, this technology might not always be available. Captain Gerard Farao explained, “That’s the Marine motto. We can do more with less.”
Reliance on fancy gadgets and machines can be a handicap. Instead, Marines must think on their feet, making use of what they have in front of them. As Captain Rob Clark explains, “technology is useful and makes the job quicker, but it can also be a crutch. What happens when you don’t have those capabilities?”
A recruit’s 12 weeks of training concludes with the Crucible, an intensive physical and mental obstacle course designed to test your problem-solving skills, moral reasoning, and physical ability. It’s 54 hours long. Part of the test comes from food and sleep deprivation. On top of that, recruits must march over 48 miles and carry 45 pounds of gear. The recruits also work off of a nearly empty stomach and just six hours of sleep.
The Crucible also tests your leadership skills, through a series of riddles that simulate a wartime environment. The one I took part in asked us to scale a wall in order to deliver cans of supplies to a theoretical group of engineers. Only three people could be on the wall at the same time, and the wood chips on the ground simulated mines, primed to explode at the slightest touch. To complete this exercise, a strong voice and a clear head were crucial. Brigadier General Williams, Commanding General, Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island and Eastern Recruiting Region, also explains that “leadership is essential.” That’s because, while recruits must of course be able to follow orders, they also must be able to give orders. In a stressful environment, they will be required to use their heads and execute their mission in the best way possible. It’s not enough to just be strong. Instead, recruits must maintain the presence of mind to push down fear and use their brains to complete their task as a team. That’s what the Crucible teaches.
After graduating from recruit training, newly minted Marines go on to specialized schools where they will hone their skills in specific, pre-determined fields. But they take these 12 weeks with them no matter where they go. That’s because this time teaches them to be ready for anything — resourceful, inventive, and smart. That’s really what makes a Marine.
Nandita Raghuram is a Senior Writer at Studio@Gawker. She tweets here.
Photos by Noah Fowler.