Here’s how Parris Island’s toughest test turned a Carolina kid into a Marine
James Tucker McConnell limps across the old airfield’s cracked tarmac, his knees aching, his heels raw from dozens of miles hiked and run in military-issue boots.
Like his fellow trainees in Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island’s Platoon 3072, he’s caked with dirt and wet sand, and the muck on their camouflage blouses often obscures the patches bearing their names.
The recruits are almost indistinguishable from each other on this morning, Friday, Sept. 21, at the depot’s Page Field. They are yet another batch of trainees united in fatigue, nearing — hopefully — graduation.
They are almost home.
At the most basic level, “Tucker” and his comrades are standardized components facing final scrutiny at the end of a process designed to forge uniformity, conformity — selflessness. Collectively, they are enduring the Corps’ final boot-camp test and rite of passage: The Crucible.
Individually, at this moment, their backstories matter little, if at all — even though Tucker’s is intimately tied to Parris Island.
On July 24, near the beginning of the 12-week recruit training cycle, he’d written to his family.
“Dear Mom, Dad, & Molly,” the letter began, addressed to mother Joy McConnell, father Rick and sister Molly. “While the days for you may drag, God has blessed me with time flying past me. ... However I have not been blessed with the ignorance of unfamiliarity.”
He didn’t broadcast his familiarity with the area, the kind that enables him to know rain’s coming, to orient himself geographically on the island — true feats considering the disorienting-by-design blur that is boot camp.
He didn’t boast his family’s deep ties to the depot.
He’d kept his head down and tried not to stand out, a strategy his dad advised, knew to be effective.
He’d suffered homesickness in his hometown.
Boot camp is a “mind game,” he says, and the one he’s faced had a unique twist.
He and his family have endured the same recruit training as thousands of other would-be Marines and their loved ones, yet the McConnells’ experience is inherently different: it is so proximate, glimpsed from commutes over the Russell Bell Bridge and trips to the Parris Island post office, echoed in a chance encounter with a Platoon 3072 drill instructor’s wife out in town.
And in some ways, their story is that of many families, military or not: children trying to figure out their life paths and make their loved ones proud, parents doing their best to help them.
Now, on this September morning, Tucker is focusing on putting one foot in front of the other.
“Their bodies have never been pushed to anything like this,” says Staff Sgt. Brandon Keziah, a drill instructor running Tucker’s platoon through The Crucible, the 54-hour endurance test, the final obstacle to graduation. “They’re dead, and that’s good.”
Tucker needs to hang on for 20 more hours.
Then, he can call himself a Marine.
Of the some 20,000 recruits from states east of the Mississippi River who come to Parris Island each year, only a handful are from Beaufort.
Over the past three years, an average of 21 trainees — men and women combined — have hailed from the city and “a few fringe areas on the outskirts of town,” according to Capt. Adam Flores, spokesman for Marine Corps Recruiting Command’s 6th Marine Corps District.
Keziah, who’s been in the Corps almost a decade, doesn’t know if he’s ever trained a Beaufort recruit during his year and a half on the island.
“Honestly, I couldn’t tell you, and they probably keep it secret for a reason,” Keziah says. He’s sitting in a shaded hut pierced by the noise of recorded machine-gun fire and screamed orders, the standard Crucible soundtrack that echoes through the pines surrounding Page Field.
“When no one knows your name, you’re doing your job well,” he says.
Tucker’s nickname, one he picked up in a nearby Fat Patties’ kitchen before recruit training, is “Tweak.”
“The whole (backstory) is things would pick up, and I’d be all over the place ... bobbing and weaving between people,” Tucker says, describing the dinner rush at the burger joint, where he worked the grill.
“And then when things would slow down, I’d just kind of be there, tapping my foot, like I couldn’t really sit still,” he continues. “And so my kitchen manager would always call me ‘Tweak,’ because I had that high-strung energy.”
He’s exhausted now, during a break in The Crucible — he and his platoon have just finished a series of runs and an obstacle course, one that required them to crawl face-down, blindly, through dense sand, feeling for phantom booby traps with gloved hands, flipping onto their backs to negotiate low-hanging barbwire.
They’d awakened before sunrise, after four hours of sleep.
When he was 15, Tucker spent a few nights on Parris Island as part of a JROTC high-school field trip, a taste of recruit training, according to his mother.
He’d “cried a little bit” when he returned home, she said; he’d almost felt like he’d never see his family again.
He’d always gravitated toward the military, but he didn’t like yelling.
He’d always liked structure — trips started on time with detailed itineraries — but his room was messy.
He ran races and lifted weights. He played video games.
He grappled with what to do with his life.
He read and researched histories of wars and battles and combatants.
He wrote short stories and essays crafted with metaphor and rhythmic prose.
During boot camp, he received a letter — drafted in his parents’ typical format — that made him realize how close home was, and how far.
The Parris Island post office receives about 250,000 pieces of mail a year, the vast majority addressed to recruits, according to depot spokesperson Warrant Officer Bobby Yarbrough.
Before their son shipped to Parris Island — a process that first required stops in Jacksonville, Fla., and Savannah — on July 9, the McConnells learned that if they mailed a note to Tucker from an area post office, it would first have to travel to Burton, then Charleston, before finding its way to the depot.
So, Joy and Rick McConnell hand-delivered their stamped letters to Parris Island’s post office, and the postmaster put them directly in 3rd Recruit Training Battalion’s box.
“My mom wrote to me about it in a letter once,” Tucker says during a break from The Crucible. “And that just kind of — that was, like, probably the first, like, time I got emotional with a letter,” he says, his voice faltering, his eyes watering.
It was “surreal,” he says, knowing his family would have to come and go without being able to see him.
Joy would close her eyes if she saw a training platoon cross the street in front of her; seeing Tucker would be a cruel tease.
She and Rick took the most direct route to and from the post office; they didn’t drive around looking for their son. They didn’t want to be a distraction.
His parents’ letters followed a typical format: his mother wrote the second half of the letter, offering encouragement and support. His father wrote the first half, explaining, in Tucker’s words “the science” of recruit training: what to expect during gas-chamber exposure; reminders about marksmanship principles; nudges to go to church on Sundays, if only to get out of the barracks for a bit, and away from the drill instructors.
“I love the parents that would come up to me ... after graduation and say, ‘What have you done with my son?’” said Rick, who served as a Parris Island 3rd Recruit Training Battalion drill instructor in the mid-1990s. He finished recruit training at the depot in 1980 and served 20 years in the Corps; now, he’s a civilian contractor at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort. His father, Bob McConnell, is a Korean War-era Marine.
“‘Half of him is gone,’” Rick said, mimicking parents’ observations after a graduation ceremony. “‘Well, he’s lost 30 pounds,’” he’d reply.
“‘He called me “ma’am” — he’s never said “ma’am,’” he continued. “‘It’s just what we do,’” he’d say.
Rick married Joy after his stint as a drill instructor.
She’s a Beaufort native.
Her grandfather, Don Everett, a U.S. Navy veteran, was the fire department chief at the air station.
Her dad, Mike Everett, was a civilian worker in Parris Island’s public works department for more than three decades.
Mike is married to Johnnie Everett — Tucker’s “Granny” — who hosts Sunday family meals at her home, and whose taco soup Tucker could almost taste one day in the Parris Island chow hall: a concoction of beans, corn and hot sauce was on the menu, and he’d filled his entire tray with the stuff. Meanwhile, the McConnells found themselves almost avoiding Johnnie’s Sunday gatherings, because there was an empty seat at the table.
“‘If you think we’re expecting you to carry on this “grand tradition,” don’t think that,’” Joy remembers telling then 15-year-old Tucker after he returned from his JROTC stay on Parris Island, when she wondered if her son was having second thoughts about one day joining the Corps.
“I wanted him to be sure that it wasn’t expected, you know,” Joy continued, “that if this is not what you want to do, as long as you’re a good person, we’re going to be proud of you.”
On this September morning, Tucker limps across Page Field’s cracked tarmac and rejoins his platoon.
He carries with him the unknowns.
What will the next 20 hours of The Crucible bring?
What will he do after Parris Island?
“Recruit training has really, kind of, put me on a seesaw, a teeter-totter,” he says moments earlier, explaining he’s still weighing college, whether he’ll pursue a Marine Corps career as an officer or use a degree for something else. He’s also considering police work.
Tucker will train as a landing support specialist — a “Red Patcher” — a Marine who, according to the Corps, helps “coordinate ship-to-shore movement of troops, vehicles and supplies,” making sure “everything goes quickly and safely to where it is needed.”
He’ll be based out of Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah.
And he will be a Marine Corps Reservist, a route he chose in hopes of staying close to home.
“(My parents) always told me that you don’t have to do this, we’ll always be proud of you no matter what,” Tucker says. “But I knew that if I came here, I would feel proud of myself, which would make them even more proud of me.”
The next morning, Tucker completes a nine-mile hike to Parris Island’s Peatross Parade Deck and the nearby statue commemorating the Iwo Jima flag-raising — he finishes The Crucible.
He receives his Eagle, Globe and Anchor pin, the Corps’ symbol, at a ceremony where pain, pride, joy, relief and fatigue rain from the eyes of, now, former recruits.
He will graduate recruit training Friday, Oct. 5, according to depot officials.
James Tucker McConnell is a Marine.
Like his father and grandfather, he’s called by his middle name. The trio share the same first name — “James.” Now, they share something more.
“For a majority of my life, (Parris Island) was just kind of this place that I never went,” Tucker says on this September morning.
“The fact that it’s been this close this whole time and I didn’t realize how important it was just kind of ... sets it in my mind that this place is part of home ... ,” he continues.
“And it’s really special to me that a town that means so much to me, and an island that means so much to me, can both be in the exact same place.”
Editor’s note: James Tucker McConnell successfully completed boot camp after this story was reported and written; he graduated Friday, Oct. 5, 2018, from Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island.