Christmas for recruits at Parris Island? Sir, no, sir!

pdonohue@beaufortgazette.comDecember 23, 2012 

Wreaths hang on the guard house at the gate to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island on Thursday afternoon as a vehicle waits to enter the base.

SARAH WELLIVER/STAFF PHOTO

Wreaths hang in the windows of a brick guard house that sits in the shadow of a large pine tree decorated with brightly colored lights.

Toy soldiers are affixed to lamp posts that line streets with names like Guantanamo, Shanghai and Boulevard de France.

It's Christmas on Parris Island, but the decorations are the only giveaway. Mainly, it's business as usual. Recruits and their drill instructors march past in formation and rifles pop in the distance.

This is where more than 4,800 young men and women will be spending the holidays.

For many of these would-be Marines, this is their first Christmas away from home but some, like Ceyonna Toller, 21, say they aren't feeling wistful about missing family dinners and other Yuletide traditions.

Toller said she knew she would be spending Thanksgiving and Christmas at the Marine Corps' infamous training ground when she left her home and family in Chester, Pa., near Philadelphia, more than 10 weeks ago.

"I've never been much of a holiday person anyway," Toller said with a smile with a shrug. "What better way to spend the holidays than here, becoming a Marine. Of course, I miss my family and my friends but I'm here for a better cause. I'm here to better myself and my life."

Miami native Shanoc Mejia, 23, had never left home before departing for boot camp in late October but said he knows whatever is waiting for him this Christmas will still be waiting when he graduates from basic training in mid-January.

"I miss the big dinners we have when the family comes together around this time of year, but this recruit and this recruit's family knows he's here for a reason," Mejia said, briefly referring to himself in the third person as recruits are trained to do. "We will all have a chance to be together ... but I mentally prepared myself to be away from home right now."

Not all recruits have such a rosy outlook, according to several drill instructors.

In addition to training the recruits, it is often the job of the depot's drill instructors to act as de facto parents, a role that involves more than its fair share of tough love.

"A lot of these kids are just that -- kids," said Staff Sgt. Ambrose Harris, a senior drill instructor from 1st Recruit Battalion. "If they are having a tough time, you just try to explain to them that, not only is this a part of their job now -- but it's also part of growing up. When you leave home, and especially when you start a family, you're not going to be able to go home for Christmas."

Letters from home tend to help, Harris said.

"I had a recruit who got a letter from his parents asking what he wanted for Christmas," he said. "I told him that they aren't sending anything here, but he knew that. He knew that his presents would still be waiting for him when he got home, and it seemed to make him feel better."

On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, recruits will be allowed about four hours of extra free time, most of which is typically spent writing letters home, exercising or seeking the counsel of drill instructors like Staff Sgt. Octaya McGee.

McGee, a senior drill instructor from the all-female 4th Recruit Battalion, said drill instructors often use their own experience in boot camp to help steer their recruits through the Corps' grueling 13-week training regiment.

"It's really just about reminding them that they came here for a reason and that they need to stay focused on their goals," McGee said. "If they're having a really tough time then I might let them call home to get some peace of mind, but you have to tell them that once they're part of the fleet, they may be deployed at Christmas."

Though being away from home for Christmas can be difficult, some recruits, like Toller, see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Toller's company will among the first group of Marines to graduate from Parris Island in 2013, a date that also coincides with her mother's birthday.

"I'm going to be able to see her and wish her a happy birthday before she sees me graduate," she said, smiling widely. "That's exciting."

Follow reporter Patrick Donohue at twitter.com/IPBG_Patrick.

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