For the past four years, a drill instructor's wife has made sure no Marines stand alone when they leave Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island.
Jennifer Iddins quietly presents bags of goodies to the few Marines who walk off the Peatross Parade Deck alone after the weekly graduation ceremony.
Conquering the infamous boot camp is a high water mark in a young life, and parents, step-parents, fiancès, siblings, aunts and uncles drive 12 hours or more to see it. When the ceremony ends, they form a mass of hugs and kisses. They take snapshots in front of the Iwo Jima monument. They load into cars with the new Marines' names written on them like newlyweds. They scream "Oo-rah" and make a beeline for civilian chow.
But last Friday, 21 graduates stood alone amid the festivities because no family or friends were there. Some weeks it's as many 60. They empty their barracks, board a bus, and with no phone calls head for the Savannah bus station or airport for a lonely trip home.
Soon Iddins will be loading up and leaving Parris Island herself. Her husband, who now teaches at the Drill Instructor School on Parris Island, has orders to report to Naval Station Great Lakes near Chicago in January.
Someone else in our community -- preferably an active-duty military wife -- must now step forward to replace Iddins.
"This is my child," she said. "I don't want it to go away."
Iddins doesn't act alone.
The Stand Alone Marines project sprouted from Internet communication between family members while their recruits go through 13 weeks of hell on Parris Island. The website (parrisisland.yuku.com) is run by a volunteer in Georgia and needs donations to survive.
Parents organized a "meet-and-greet" gathering at the end of Family Day each Thursday so they can see the people they've been talking to online. They gather for dinner and a pep-rally type program at Gilligan's Steamer and Raw Bar restaurant on Boundary Street, where Iddins is a part-time manager.
After eating, they pack "SAM Bags" for the next day's graduating "Stand Alone Marines."
Iddins founded the Military Overseas Package Project to mail extra supplies, sundries, food, magazines and toiletries that aren't needed for SAM Bags to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. They've mailed 1,200 boxes this year. They also try to greet all single Marines returning from deployment to Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort.
Gilligan's has been a partner from the beginning, offering storage space, staff time and money to mail boxes. The Charleston-based chain of nine Lowcountry restaurants even bought a large step van to store all the material donated for troops.
A stack of about 20 postal boxes -- packed, addressed and ready to go -- sit at the front of the Beaufort restaurant, beneath a wall full of letters, photos and news clippings with comments like this from Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan:
"Just knowing that someone back home thinks about us keeps us going."
SAM Bags are filled by hand with stuff from all over America. Iddins asks one parent from each battalion to take charge of collecting items for each graduation.
Suzette Smith of Ormand Beach, Fla., was in charge of last Thursday's group. Her twins, Josh and Jeremy Walker, celebrated their 20th birthday on Parris Island and graduated as privates first class.
"It's emotional," she said as volunteers raced to fill bags on the deck of Gilligan's overlooking the marsh on a chilly night. "It's a prideful emotion."
A Girl Scout troop made pillow cases with the Marine Corps insignia for 50 travel pillows.
Someone sent a box full of travel neck pillows in fuzzy camouflage.
Carl and Tami Robertson came in a full car from Ellijay, Ga., to see their son, Jeffrey Jacobs, graduate with honors.
Carl Robertson works at Huff's Drug Store in Ellijay, and owner Steven Purvis donated 60 medicine bottles to be used to hold quarters. The label on each bottle thanked the Marine. The Robertsons donated $50 worth of quarters.
Their future daughter-in-law, Sara Stephens, brought a box full of Powerade water bottles donated by Coca-Cola in Cleveland, Ga. She brought candy, lip balm, toothbrushes and toothpaste donated by Kroger and the Hall County, Ga., Commission.
In the end, the SAM Bags form a boot camp for Marine families. It trains them from the beginning that in the Marine Corps, no one stands alone.
Now it's a boot camp for our community. Do we let Marines stand alone?
Gilligan's general manager, Eric Horlback, and manager Dana Aiken say they won't let the SAM Bags program die when Iddins leaves.
But Iddins said, "We definitely need help."
She needs a volunteer to step forward now so she can train her replacement.
She needs addresses for troops of any branch of service who could use a box of goodies from home.
She needs help packing boxes.
She needs people to pick up boxes and mail them.
She needs someone to discreetly greet the Marines as they get on the bus to leave Parris Island alone. She needs someone to feel their warm appreciation. She needs someone willing to do what she's done every Friday for four years. She needs someone willing to cry.