'Key Influencers' Get an Eyeful at Marine Boot Camp

2006 Newhouse News Service

PARRIS ISLAND, S.C. -- With spittle flying from his lips, Staff Sgt. Craig Finger herded 38 wide-eyed new recruits off a bus and onto the yellow footprints where generations of young men and women have begun their transformation from civilian to Marine.

"Congratulations on your decision to become a United States Marine. It is a decision you will never regret," Finger shouted in a raspy baritone. "For the next 13 weeks, the words `I,' `me' and `mine' will no longer be part of your vocabulary."

The recruits -- a few with knees visibly trembling -- shouted back in unison, "Sir, yes, sir."

As this scene unfolded just before midnight one recent night, several teachers stood in the shadows and watched.

"This is a window into a world few people ever see," said Matt Wilkinson, a 46-year-old driver's education teacher at Princeton High School in New Jersey. "I'm amazed."

That was the reaction the Marine Corps wanted.

Each year, the Marines pay for nearly 2,000 educators to observe four days of basic training, or boot camp, to reach people the corps considers "key influencers" of young people.

Educators from Western states go to Marine Recruit Depot San Diego; those from the East come here, to Marine Recruit Depot Parris Island, a swampy, bug-ridden place north of Savannah, Ga.

The educators workshop recently drew about 60 administrators, guidance counselors and teachers from New York and New Jersey -- all flown down on commercial planes. The Marines put the group up at the Country Inn in Beaufort and treated them to dinners at places like the officers' club at Marine Air Station. On the last night, the Marines took the educators out for seafood and steaks. An impromptu bar tour followed.

Last year, the program helped the Marines meet their goal of 32,000 new recruits despite suffering heavy losses in Iraq, having the longest and hardest basic training -- and without offering extra cash to enlist as the Army often does.

Col. John Valentin, the second-in-command of Parris Island, told the educators his aim was "to pull back the curtain and show how the business of making Marines is done."

"Our mission is not to take 19-year-old kids and get them to march across a parade field. ... Our mission is to eventually turn back to society people who are better citizens."

All four branches of the military try to reach people kids look up to. Each has an educators program. But the Marines' is the oldest and -- according to some educators who have attended others -- the most comprehensive.

William Gibney, an assistant principal at Montclair (N.J.) High School, said he attended the Air Force program several years ago. He called it informative but less involved.

The Marines let the educators fire M16 rifles and navigate the recruits' obstacle course. They showed them how Marines are trained to kill. Most educators donned football helmets and battled martial arts instructors with pugil sticks, a padded device that looks like a giant Q-tip and is designed to teach recruits how to fight with a rifle and bayonet. (The instructors usually won.)

The educators also ate two meals with recruits, most of whom are only barely removed from high school classrooms. Finally, the educators saw a separate class of 250 recruits graduate.

As Gibney saw it, the Marines' ultimate aim was to sell themselves as "best of the best." It worked for him.

"Their tag line says it all: Join us and become one of the few, the proud," Gibney said. "I'd buy that. That's how they sell Lexuses."

Few of the educators on the trip had served in the military, but most said they were impressed.

As she walked off the range in a knee-length skirt after firing a weapon for the first time ever, Doris Perkins, a retired teacher who still meets with students at a school in New York City, said she was sold. She had been on a Navy-sponsored workshop, but there was little interaction with the recruits or their drill instructors. And no trip to the firing range, either.

"It was nice, but it wasn't nearly as thorough as this one," she said. "I would definitely recommend the Marines. The Navy was nice, but I didn't feel it was enough to make a recommendation."

Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, every public high school in the United States must open its doors to military recruiters and provide them lists of student names unless children's parents complete "opt out" paperwork.

School districts are free to limit times recruiters may visit and where they can set up. Recruiters say access is generally the most limited in more affluent districts.

Sgt. Major Ray Centeno, the top enlisted man in New Jersey's recruiting office, said the corps respects the boundaries the districts set.

"We're not predators," he said. "We're not coming into your schools to recruit kids who don't want to be Marines. The military is not for everyone. The Marines are not for everyone. ... We want kids who are going to be successful in life. We're not looking for thugs."

As the educators traveled around Parris Island, they passed countless groups of recruits marching in perfect rows. They toured a squad bay where the recruits sleep in perfectly aligned bunk beds and scramble to attention on perfectly polished linoleum.

"I can't wait to go back to school and report what I saw," said Janet Chiocchi, a school administrator and PTA member in Smithtown, N.Y. "This place is beautiful. It's not like the horror stories you heard about."

She said the young people she saw here looked just like the young people she sees in school, but they acted differently.

"To see the discipline they're instilling in these kids is inspiring," she said. "Today's kids are so `gimme, gimme, gimme.' The kids I've seen here are the opposite of that."

The Marines made some inroads with Adacia Edwards, a 23-year-old career counselor at Ewing (N.J.) High School, who came here with a deep ambivalence about the military. Edwards said she never interferes with recruiters in school, but never steers kids to them either.

That may change.

She sat in a reviewing stand and watched as recruits were presented with the "Eagle, Globe and Anchor" lapel pin to indicate they had made it through boot camp and could now be called Marines. As the song "Proud to Be an American" blared from loudspeakers, Edwards started crying.

"They sure know how to pull at the heartstrings," she said, wiping her eyes. "I still don't know if I feel better about the military now, but I feel more comfortable with it."

(Wayne Woolley is a staff writer for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. He can be contacted at wwoolley@starledger.com.)