Jalen Rooks knew something was up when one of his drill instructors summoned him to the small office inside his barracks at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island and started asking him questions.
One of the questions — Who was your recruiter? — and the text the drill instructor was editing on a computer screen offered some clues, as did the informal, almost collegial, conversation that transpired between the two men.
“I kind of had a guess,” Jalen said, adding that he’d sneaked a peek at the screen and saw, among other entries, lines for his training platoon’s best shooter, top fitness performer and honor graduate.
Jalen, 19, had just been meritoriously promoted to private first-class ahead of graduation, which was just days away. But on this day, there was no public ceremony — only a private moment with the man who’d trained him and, as he left the office, the whispered questions of fellow trainees curious about the summons.
Jalen said nothing.
Coming to Parris Island in the fall of 2018 had been a homecoming of sorts for him. While he’d shipped to the depot from Jacksonville, N.C., where his family currently resides, Jalen spent chunks of his childhood in Beaufort, where he was born.
His story is that of a lot of military families whose duty assignments bounce them from town to town and sometimes across oceans. But his family has exceptionally strong ties to Parris Island. And before he graduated, he and his father would share a couple of moments that, to outsiders, might seem serendipitous but, to Marine families, aren’t as surprising, yet no less special.
The youngest of three boys, Jalen had seen brothers Cpl. Jordan Rooks and Lance Cpl. Devin Rooks graduate from Parris Island.
And their father, recently retired Master Sgt. David Rooks, had been a drill instructor there from 2005 to 2008 during an almost 25-year career.
“It may look a little bit different,” David, a 42-year-old, Columbia, S.C., native, said Friday of Parris Island, “but the people are still the same.”
Gone are the old 3rd Recruit Training Battalion dorms from his time on the drill field; in their place, the new barracks that housed his son and the rest of Kilo Company’s platoons.
But the above-ground pipes that snake through the depot — the ones his son wondered about on childhood trips to the island — are still there.
The same tailor fit the Rooks men for their uniforms.
And, as his son readied for his official Marine Corps portrait just days ahead of graduation, there was another reminder of the roots that endure, from one Marine to the next, to father and son.
It was a December day, and a cold snap chilled the depot as Jalen and about 20 other recruits waited in line for their portraits.
He shivered as he took off his sweatshirt and unbuttoned his camouflage shirt to don the half-coat for the portrait.
At the command of the photographer, he stepped in front of the camera — but was abruptly stopped.
“‘Rooks, get over here!’” he remembers the photographer ordering.
“And I didn’t know if it was going to be good or bad,” Jalen said, with a chuckle.
He stepped over to the photographer — who inquired about his last name.
“‘I remember your dad,’” the photographer said before ordering him back in line and taking his picture.
It was a surreal moment for Jalen; he’d have another days later, after his graduation ceremony, when he looked in the mirror at a man in dress blues and told his mom, Latasha Rooks, that “it didn’t feel real.”
“I had known my entire life it was something that could possibly happen,” he said.
It’s something he’d always wanted.
Earlier, on the day he walked out of his drill instructor’s office and avoided his platoon mates’ questions about the summons, he had an idea he’d earned something special.
He was soon named the platoon’s honor graduate.
He had the privilege of carrying the unit’s guidon — its flag and colors — at the graduation ceremony Dec. 14.
It’s a date his father won’t forget.
On Dec. 14, 1994 — 24 years to the day when Jalen graduated, according to the family — David stepped off a bus before sunup.
Stepped onto a pair of yellow footprints.
And, amidst the chaos and barked commands of drill instructors, took his first step toward becoming a Marine.
On Parris Island.