Gunnery Sgt. Vitali Kholodov was standing in the street with his hands on his hips when the officer jogged past and gave him a high-five.
“How was Quantico?” the officer asked Monday, turning around and slowing his pace a bit. “Did your wife enjoy it? Makes you appreciate Parris Island, doesn’t it?”
Kholodov smiled shyly at the mention of his recent trip to Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia — where he was honored — and answered in the affirmative. His words, flavored with a Russian accent, followed the officer who jogged away down Cuba Street at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island.
The officer gone, Kholodov turned his attention to his students.
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“Push yourself,” he said to several members of Drill Instructor School Class 2-17, a group of about 50 men and women with hopes of one day leading recruits through their transformation into Marines. “Keep going.”
Kholodov watched them jog past Monday morning. Off to his left, the sun crested the horizon and shined through the moss-strewn trees near the waterfront. He wore camouflage pants and a black T-shirt, on the back of which was the word “INSTRUCTOR.”
Since joining the Corps in 2004, Kholodov, 34, has worked as a helicopter mechanic, trained would-be drill instructors, served as a drill instructor and been a water survival instructor.
Last Thursday, at a formal ceremony at Quantico, he was named Drill Instructor of the Year — singled out among more than 1,000 of his peers.
“You just see how he speaks, how he carries himself,” Drill Instructor School Director Maj. Steven Allshouse said Monday.
“What you want from a drill instructor is a drill instructor who not only believes what he’s saying, but who actually does it,” Allshouse said. “As the students go through, they’re watching. ... He’s a guy I want them to emulate.”
Allshouse stood to the side of a training area at the depot where Class 2-17 was running an exercise called “maneuver under fire.” It’s a 300-yard shuttle run divided into parts where students carry ammo cans, haul fellow Marines on their backs, drag their comrades, “low-crawl” and “high-crawl.”
Moments earlier, Kholodov ran two students through the drill — he supervised a Marine playing the drill-instructor role, who supervised another Marine simulating a recruit. As the “recruit” low-crawled toward a cone, Kholodov didn’t like what he was seeing.
“Crawl faster,” he said, an edge to his voice as he gestured with his arm — a movement of frustration. The command was meant more for the student playing the drill instructor role — a less-than-subtle hint to do a better job motivating the “recruit.”
Kholodov’s journey toward Drill Instructor of the Year began at the company level, where he previously served as a senior drill instructor during recruit training. He was then recognized at the battalion level and, later, the regiment level. At each stage, he went before “boards,” intensive interview processes that also took into account his service record, appearance and the condition of his uniform.
“It was kind of like one step at a time,” he said. “At that time I didn’t know this was going to take place, that I was going to go up that high.”
Kholodov became a drill instructor in September 2014 after completing the required 11-week, 500-plus-hour course through the school. He mentored more than 340 civilians through recruit training, according to the Corps.
He and his mother came from Russia to the United States in 1999, when she married an American and followed him to rural Oregon.
Kholodov had English classes in his birth country, and his mother later hired language tutors for him. His fluency increased — even more so when he went through recruit training in San Diego.
A good drill instructor is mature and humble, he said. You learn from your mistakes and from Marines who have more experience — if not rank — and you do things the right way.
“It’s not a secret we’ve gone through a rough patch in the past year,” he said, referring to allegations of hazing and recruit abuse that surfaced in the wake of former recruit Raheel Siddiqui’s death in March 2016. “But that does not paint the picture for the entire staff of Parris Island that trains recruits, absolutely not. I want everybody to know that we are doing the right thing here.”
The job is challenging, hard for civilians to understand. It means time away from your children, Kholodov, a father of three, said, and it can’t be done without a supportive family.
“I was really glad (my family) got an opportunity to go to Quantico with me,” he said. “It wasn’t just recognition for me; it’s more recognizing them for their accomplishments, what they have done. Because I could not have done it without them.”
He recalled how, during his first cycle training recruits, his wife, Amanda, used to wake up at 2:30 a.m. to fix him breakfast. She’d make sure his uniform was squared away. She’d bring snacks to the depot when the recruits were in a classroom session or during downtime.
Early Monday morning, as his students were nearing the end of their run, another Marine asked Kholodov about his trip to Quantico.
It was good, he said.
There was a delay at the airport.
But it hadn’t bothered his son.
It was 7-year-old Nikolai’s first time on an airplane.