Beginning life a new, as a Marine
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    Thumbs up Beginning life a new, as a Marine

    Beginning life a new, as a Marine
    Members of Platoon 4034 graduate from recruit training
    Published Thursday October 26 2006
    The Beaufort Gazette

    As the sun breaks through the darkness and playful clouds early Friday at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, the newly minted Marines of Platoon 4034 receive final graduation instructions from a drill master.

    "After graduation, I want you to get you and your crap off my island!" she yells grumpily to the new Marines of the female Oscar Company and male Golf Company, who respond with a hearty, "Aye, ma'am!"

    Few members of Platoon 4034 could have imagined this bright morning three months ago when they arrived scared and bewildered in the middle of the night during a lightning storm.

    On July 24, they came as girls wearing ponytails, jeans and designer makeup. As they entered recruit training and had their individuality and even the luxury items of femininity, such as cosmetics, stripped away, they wore camies that became grungy with dirt and sweat.

    But Friday, wearing their tailored olive green and khaki "Charlie" service uniforms and with some venturing to wear lightly applied makeup, the recruits of Platoon 4034 appeared to have grown into the label of young women -- and the title of Marine.

    Some parents swear that their daughters have actually grown taller.

    Their families, mostly decked out in the burgundy of Fourth Recruit Training Battalion, cheer from bleachers as the

    women march out on Peatross Parade Deck, their last act as Platoon 4034. Parents struggle to pick out their daughters in the unified movement and rigidly straight lines of their formation -- a far cry from their second week of training.

    The women of Platoon 4034 made up 56 of more than 600 Marines who graduated Friday. When the platoon's senior drill instructor, Gunnery Sgt. Brenda Chrismer, met them at "pick-up" July 28, there were 65.

    "They went from scared children to grown women," Chrismer says.


    The recruits' three-month stay on Parris Island is the farthest and longest most have been away from home. And when they greet their parents as they rush the parade deck Thursday after the Eagle, Globe and Anchor ceremony, in which they receive the black pins that symbolize the Marine Corps, the tearful embrace isn't quite the same as when they left home.

    These young women have been transformed in a secluded, foreign environment their families can't begin to fathom. And as they start touring their families around the base on their liberty, or free time, it becomes apparent that it requires a conscious effort to adjust their newly instilled warrior ethos to communicate and relate to their civilian parents.

    "It's over there by the head," now-Pfc. Kristie Ness says, trying to direct her mother to the water fountain near the restroom in the platoon's squad bay.

    "By the bed?" Susan Ness replies in bewilderment. Kristie Ness and her 21-year-old brother, Scott Ness, just shake their red-haired heads. He's enlisted in the Army and recently returned from Iraq. They compare training and tease each other.

    "I'm pretty sure, if I had to fight you, I'd win," Kristie Ness says, grinning at her brother while bragging about her martial arts skills.

    Other recruits must make more than semantic adjustments with their parents, such as now-Pfc. Shannda Walton.

    One of the strongest recruits, who had bragged about being the only girl on her high school football team after tearing through an obstacle course most recruits struggle with, Walton melts into a blush when walking around with her petite mother, Marrianne Kelley, who sports a peace sign necklace and watch.

    A self-proclaimed hippie, Kelley drew peace signs on all the letters she sent her daughter at recruit training. She also designed a sign for Walton that says "Go, Dewber," her familial nickname, derived from her middle name, "Dew."

    "I'm anti-war, not anti-military," Kelley proclaims. "She needs to put a peace sign on her uniform."

    Meanwhile, Pfc. Lakisha Ellis smiles wide with relief and joy while her mother admires her well-developed muscles. Ellis didn't find out until the previous day that she was definitely graduating after being caught stealing food twice during training.

    "We're stopping at every fast-food place on the way home," she informs her family, including her brother, who is in the Navy.

    Pfc. Brandi Short's family day is even more contentious since it was the first time she had faced her father after telling him in a letter from boot camp that she was married. A week before leaving for recruit training from their home in western Pennsylvania, Short, 18, married Matthew Wolfe, 19, who graduated from Parris Island last week.

    They went to the local magistrate's office for the nuptials because they wanted to be married before training. Wolfe says a recruiter told them it would increase the chances that they would be stationed together.

    Short, who didn't have time to change her name, didn't have the heart to tell her father before leaving.

    "I thought he'd just say, 'You're too young for that,'" she says while nibbling on her third Subway cookie of the day. "I waited too long" to tell him, adding that she wrote the letter breaking the news in her third week on the island. "I don't think he objects to it. He's accepting to it."

    Jesse Short, who already proudly wears a "Marine Dad" shirt, says he has had time to get used to the idea.

    "Yes, I was upset," he says. "I like Matt, but I thought they could've done something more conservative than elope and get married."

    Wolfe and Brandi Short say they plan a more traditional ceremony after they're settled at their first duty station, which won't be for months.

    Pvt. Cindy Juarez, who struggled through recruit training, says she is prepared to deploy to Iraq if necessary and believes in doing so.

    "I feel sorry for the kids who live out there," she says with a calm and confident demeanor that's a stark contrast to the tearful disconsolation she displayed upon her arrival on the island. "I have to protect my mom and my family."

    But her mother isn't ready.

    "It's not in her hands," Cindy Carol Vasquez, who drove from their home in Long Island, N.Y., says of her daughter deploying. "If they're going to send her to Iraq, we have to pray for her. ... Now it's her job. It's her duty."

    Left behind

    After almost twice as much time on Parris Island as her fellow graduates, Pfc. Karla Delcid finally hugged her parents Thursday as she became a Marine with Platoon 4034. And though the injuries that delayed her graduation for so long prevent her from marching with her fellow Marines on Friday, she's still all smiles, clapping enthusiastically as they pass on the parade deck while she is sitting in a chair with crutches stowed underneath.

    The 19-year-old from Atlanta arrived on the island April 17 and made it through about a month of training before stress reactions and fractures to her legs sent her to the Female Readiness Platoon, which includes a group of injured recruits who work on physical therapy to re-enter training. She started out in Oscar Company, and being able to join the same team of drill instructors when she started training again, about a month into

    Platoon 4034's training, was motivation and relief.

    But with the recruits, "It's a little tough because they already have bonds," she says. "I'm the new girl."

    Despite a flare-up in her injuries during the Crucible, the 54-hour final exam in combat training, she kept going through training without medication until after the final drill test. After that, Delcid received light duty for the remainder of training.

    While Delcid finally graduates, some recruits who began with the platoon are left behind. Delilah Ramirez can't help but think that if she had scored higher on the rifle range her first two weeks of trying, she would have been with her family today and leaving tomorrow. Instead, while the graduating Marines of Platoon 4034 reunite with their families, Ramirez was in the middle of an obstacle course in the second day of the Crucible.

    The 18-year-old from Baytown, Texas, was dropped back, or "recycled," to Platoon 4036 in Papa Company, which is two weeks behind in training, in order to retake the rifle classes and qualification. She passed this time because she says she overcame a bad cold.

    Though the recruits in her new platoon are nice enough and she was made squad leader, she can't let go of the platoon with which she spent her first two-thirds of training.

    "A lot of people get mad at me," she says, her face smudged in the camouflage face paint typical of recruits enduring the Crucible. "I still look at Platoon 4034 as my platoon and Gunny Chrismer as my senior."

    And Chrismer remains her inspiration. During her final fitness test, she dedicated it to Chrismer and ran the 3 miles in 23 minutes. Ramirez says she even keeps a newspaper photo of Chrismer with her whenever she can.

    Ramirez says she's most disgusted with the lack of discipline in the new platoon, which she blames on the drill instructors.

    "They don't work as hard to discipline us," she says in a whisper, trying to avoid being overheard by her new senior drill instructor. "But it's almost over. I'm out of here in two weeks."

    Lauren Aluise doesn't mind going to the "pit" - a sand pit behind the squad bays used to punish recruits - as much. She was with Platoon 4034 until a few days before the Crucible when stress reactions in her hip became too much for her to undergo the final and most strenuous physical tests in training.

    "The first two days I was shy," says the 18-year-old from Pittsburgh, her blue eyes characteristically darting and distracted. "The girls are a lot nicer. Oscar Company is really disciplined. Here, everybody talks. We still have voices."

    Aluise says letters from home helped her through her setbacks. She didn't even hug her mother goodbye, but through boot camp, their relationship grew and is "100 percent better." She even plans on hugging her mom when she sees her next.

    Challenges ahead and behind

    As the new Marines of Platoon 4034 venture out into the "fleet," they'll leave the carefully constructed insulation of leaders, instructors and colleagues who are almost exclusively women and have to prove themselves in an elite warrior force of about 180,000 Marines, about 94 percent of whom are men.

    Luckily, they have some female Marines who've marched before them and cleared some paths ahead, such as Brig. Gen. Angela Salinas, whose official biography reads as a list of firsts for women and Hispanics in the Corps.

    Her latest accomplishment is becoming the first female commanding general of the Marines' other recruit training depot in San Diego.

    Her leadership roles in recruiting nationwide and training on Parris Island are what landed her the command this year in San Diego, where she oversees not only the base's operations but also the Western Recruiting Region. She says people find it odd that a woman heads the recruit training depot that doesn't train women, but Salinas doesn't.

    "The Marine Corps asks who's best qualified," she says. "There hasn't been a woman with my background. Now the Marine Corps has made one. This is like a glove. I actually fit on the hand."

    Salinas was mailing a letter in 1974 when a Marine recruiter stationed at a post office approached her, and a week later, she was on Parris Island, which remains the only place in the world that trains women who enlist in the Corps.

    There, she learned to "iron and iron and iron" to keep her uniform sharp, and when she began her job in legal administration, only 2 percent of Marines were women.

    "When you are a minority in a warrior environment ... it's a tough thing," Salinas says. "They're going to be suspicious."

    Early on, being a young officer and often the first woman to hold the leadership role created doubt among the men she oversaw, Salinas says.

    However, she says, "Mostly they ask, 'Are you going to treat us firmly? Fairly? That's all we care about.' That's been how it's been."

    Retired Sgt. Maj. Denise Kreuser, who became a Marine in 1978, was one of the first women to enter a job in a utilities position at Camp Lejeune, N.C. Recruit training hadn't even taught her how to put on a utility uniform of camies, and her boss made it clear that he wasn't crazy about having a woman in his shop.

    "He said I have to do everything the males do," says Kreuser, who spent almost 27 years in the Corps and now lives on Lady's Island. "That's what I wanted anyway."

    Kreuser would train extra hours to keep up with the men physically and learned to shoot a rifle with them.

    She spent a good deal of her career on Parris Island, which she says is the only duty station for Marines where there is such a large contingent of women. And female Marines tend to be hardest on female Marines, Kreuser says.

    "I didn't have any tolerance," she says. "I wanted to make sure they didn't fail. Our numbers are so small, if one female does something wrong," it reflects poorly on all.

    Lt. Catherine Florenz, the series commander of Platoon 4034 and a Marine for about three years, says she still feels there's a prejudice against women in the Corps, and she tells the recruits that.

    "Women are expected to be less competent and less strong physically," she says. "It falls on us to be strong and be good at our jobs. It's not a prejudice that's insurmountable."

    However, some aren't ready to carry their own weight, says Staff Sgt. Toniette Sumpter, who is the enlisted officer in charge of the platoon's series.

    "Some of them are very small; they need to get stronger," she said. "On Parris Island, we carry packs that are half-empty. In Iraq, their gear is going to weigh more than some of them, and they're not going to be given special treatment."

    The following month of Marine Combat Training at Camp Geiger, N.C., will help some of these smaller, basically trained Marines get stronger, though, Sumpter says.

    About 64 of the more than 3,000 U.S. troops who have died in Iraq since 2003 have been women, at least three of whom were Marines, according to the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, which compiles its information from the Department of Defense.

    Sumpter and Florenz don't lobby for female Marines in combat and recognize physical limitations that may prevent women pulling the same weight as men in direct combat. However, all believe it's imperative for Marines of both genders to be trained in the basics of combat.

    "Before, there was a line," Salinas says. "Now a truck driver can find themselves in combat. You need to know a weapon or you become a liability to someone else."

    Not only will some women have to constantly prove themselves as a minority in the Corps, but being a Marine isn't a 9 to 5 job. It's a state of being where personal lives often take a back seat.

    "This is a tough way of life," Salinas says. "It's a selfless way of life. ... You're going to be deployed. We're always on the pointy end of the spear somewhere. There's always somewhere Marines make the sacrifice of not being with family."

    Out to prove them wrong, together

    All throughout recruit training Pfc. Blanca Cortez and Pvt. Sandra Gonzalez have been inseparable, and family day and graduation are no different, especially because they were the only family they had. Due to financial and medical reasons, along with strained relationships, their relatives didn't make the trip from Iowa or Texas.

    "My family was never really involved," says Cortez, the platoon's honor graduate. "I have a different family now. I have family here."

    On Friday afternoon, they're waiting around in the Visitors Center for a fellow recruit's parents to drive them to the airport in Savannah.

    Gonzalez, who has provided the sisterly support behind Cortez's strong leadership and success, says she looks forward to her family reunion.

    "Since we're females, they didn't expect us to make it," says Gonzalez, who was escaping drugs and gangs in her hometown in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas when she joined the Corps. "I'll prove a lot of them wrong."

    Both say they expect to run up against prejudice from male Marines in the Corps. However, they're determined to prove wrong anyone who thinks female Marines are inferior.

    Cortez thinks any prejudices are especially unfair since training is identical.

    "If anything, it seems our drill instructors are harder," she says, adding that she felt some of the male graduates didn't see her as equal when she tried to congratulate them. "We do the exact same thing."

    Entering an intelligence specialty, Cortez says she's thinking about volunteering to deploy to Iraq. Though she doesn't think women should be in the infantry, she believes it's good that women are more involved in combat operations now more than ever before.

    "It shows society they can do the same things," Cortez asserts.

    Cortez, who was serious about JROTC in high school, is serious about a career in the Marine Corps. She joined to help her country and provide a role model to her two younger brothers.

    Gonzalez, who joined the Marines as more of an escape from her old life, isn't so sure.

    "I don't know if this is what I want to do with my life," she says, adding that she would be interested in a job helping troubled teens, as she was, after working in administration for the Corps. "I'll wait until my four years are over."

    Both would like to have families, but that's a long way off.

    Cortez and Gonzalez are certain they want to maintain their friendship. After their 10 days of leave, they will undergo recruiters assistance, which is a few extra weeks at home preparing for Marine Combat Training. All female Marines attend the monthlong advanced combat training at Camp Geiger, where the best friends hope to reunite.

    Following MCT, they'll scatter to their respective Military Occupational Specialties schools, which vary in length depending on the specialty. Then it's off to the "fleet" and their first duty station.

    Starting out, the Marines will earn between an estimated $1,300 and $1,500 a month, plus medical and housing benefits.

    Cortez admits she'll actually miss Parris Island -- and most of all, she'll miss Gonzalez.

    "For more than three months, we were the ones pushing each other," Cortez says. "She was my counselor. We became so close. ... They won't understand what sisterhood we developed here."


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  4. #4
    Guest Free Member
    Long, inspiring, and a 2006 current thread. Good job bringing it back up.

  5. #5
    A good read!

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