Inside ‘the Crucible’ - Marine recruits’ grueling, final test on Parris Island
The crying started the moment they dropped their heads in prayer.
One sniffle became three became 20, the soft discordant sounds forming a battle hymn of the briefly vulnerable.
As with everything else they had experienced in the previous 54 hours, they were prepared for this. They knew the tears would come, and that they would not be alone in that emotion when it took over.
This was the end for them.
It was also the beginning.
They finally had permission to feel something other than the punishing weight of their gear, the blisters on their feet, the weariness of their muscles and the pain in their bones.
They were still Marine recruits, though, so no one dared break formation to wipe a wet eye.
“What a great journey we have made since the yellow footprints ...,” the chaplain, Lt. J.G. Solomon Han, began his invocation just as the sun rose Oct. 7.
Most weeks throughout the year, an average of 350 new Marines graduate from the United States Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island.
Friends and family members board flights or pack up their cars to come and celebrate the occasion. There are hugs, dinners, parties and gifts. On that day, their sons and daughters have become Marines.
What many might not know, though, is that these young men and women actually became Marines nearly a week earlier at sunrise in a private and emotional ceremony with their fellow platoon members, drill instructors and company leaders by their sides.
In this ceremony, recruits are awarded their Eagle, Globe and Anchor emblem and, for the first time, are referred to as “Marine.”
The emblem -- which they consider sacred -- marks the completion of their final test.
That test is called the Crucible.
Sgt. Jennifer Schubert of Indiana is barely 5 feet tall. She is 21, though she looks younger and acts older.
She answers questions politely but with few words.
“I over-prepared myself (for the Crucible),” she told me as we headed out to Page Field on Oct. 6, a Tuesday afternoon. “So it wasn’t bad. I was just tired and hungry.”
Would you do it again?, I asked.
Since 1996, every male and female recruit at Parris Island who has earned a place in the Marine Corps has had to complete the grueling 54-hour endurance course at Page Field, a wet and buggy patch of former airfield on the southeast corner of the depot.
The Crucible takes the training that recruits received in the previous 11 weeks and puts it to the test in conditions meant to simulate war.
The word “crucible” can denote the place of a tough test or trial, or describe something new that emerges from a confluence of events.
At Parris Island, the Crucible means both of these things.
Throughout the test, recruits are shown that honor, courage and commitment -- the Marines’ core values -- are not merely abstractions, but real actions and habits that save lives and preserve freedom.
On the field, recruits are deprived of sleep, are only strategically fed and march a total of 35 miles as they complete six events that put them through the mental and physical rigors of battle and force them to solve problems as a team.
By the time they hike from Page Field to the Iwo Jima statue where they receive their Eagle, Globe and Anchor emblem, they are hobbled and humbled.
Then, and only then, do they become Marines.
Days before my visit to the Crucible course, a historic storm had swept through South Carolina, sparing much of Beaufort County but leaving standing water in its wake, which made Page Field even more wet, even more buggy.
We were visiting the course about 36 hours into the test for Charlie Company, 1st Recruit Training Battalion, and Oscar Company, 4th Recruit Training Battalion.
As we rounded a corner, we could see a platoon of recruits sitting on the ground, their faces covered in camouflage makeup, elbows on their knees, boots and socks off.
They had gotten little rest since they hiked from the depot to Page Field at 2 a.m. the day before. A few snacked out of bags marked MRE: meals-ready-to-eat.
From a distance, they looked as though they were being detained.
Up close they just seemed tired.
Above: A Marine recruit works through the Day Movement portion of the Crucible on Sept. 25, 2015. Delayna Earleyemail@example.com
A C130 cut across the sky and seemed mere inches from the tops of our heads. The crew was practicing their flight path for the next night’s mosquito spraying.
It was a harsh and loud sound, perfect for a war zone.
“I’ve never seen them fly this low,” Schubert said.
A recruit raised his hand. A field instructor called on him.
“On our 10 days leave,” the recruit asked, “how do we keep from being such a hot shot?”
The field instructor paused and answered thoughtfully, as a teacher would.
“You got to be humble about who you are,” he told the group. “Not everyone can do what you do. ... You don’t have to brag, though.”
A short distance away, a platoon from Oscar Company completed their body sparring event.
The women, equipped with head guards, mouth guards and boxing gloves, wore carapace-like chest protectors. They formed two lines under a large, open shelter.
Two by two they met on either side of a pit, where they held their hands aloft and yelled “Ar-ar-ar-ar-ar-ar” in a curious manner before pummeling each other.
“It’s like a warrior cry,” Staff Sgt. Gregory Thomas told me later. “But it also allows the DIs to check if their gear and their gloves are on right. Everything we do has a reason behind it. There are so many pieces to (the training).”
Drill and field instructors surrounded the pit and yelled instruction and encouragement to keep the fights even. The women were matched by weight.
“Fight back! Fight back!”
“Left, right, left, right!”
“OPEN. YOUR. EYES.”
“Get up. Get up. Get up.”
When each set of battlers cleared out after their 30-second fight ended, a new set quickly and efficiently replaced them.
The women who lost their fights, and those who sneaked in illegal punches to the head, were made to plank on the sidelines.
“Thank you. I love it,” two recruits shouted in unison to their drill instructor after they finished their punishment.
Over at the Battle Warrior Training course, the Day Movement event was underway. Battle scenes from “Saving Private Ryan” blared out of large speakers anchored in the trees. A field instructor held a remote that powered air machine-guns in the distance.
He had a heavy thumb and, combined with the chaotic sounds of Steven Spielberg’s World War II, the effect was stressful and deafening.
Fire teams of four checked for booby traps and worked their way slowly, silently and meticulously over walls and under barbed wire, constantly keeping watch for the enemy. Their drill instructor gave tips on how to get through every step of the way.
Above: Day Movement exercises during the Crucible on Sept. 25, 2015. Delayna Earleyfirstname.lastname@example.org
“DIs can make it as hard as they want to,” said Christian Matlock, who became a Marine in 2009 and is now studying information and computer technology at Eastern Carolina University in Greenville, N.C.
Matlock said during the Crucible his drill instructor would throw pine cones onto the ground and say, “It’s a grenade.”
Recruits would have to jump on the pine cone to save their platoon.
“It sounds funny now, but it wasn’t at the time. We would take turns being casualties and have to carry each other.”
Dead men finally get to rest, though, right?
Not a chance.
“You think, ‘Oh. It’s a break (to be carried)‘,” he said. “But it’s actually a lot less comfortable than it looks. It’s all bony shoulders and gear.”
As Schubert and I made our way toward a team-building activity involving a platform and some wooden bars, we stepped around a group of four recruits who were securing the perimeter.
One lay belly-down in the mud, his left leg cocked to the side, his M16A4 trained on the scene in front of him.
It was the classic combat pose.
I stood in cool, ankle-deep water and watched him breathe for a moment. The only movement came from his torso. Out, then in, again and again.
He was alive. He was a person, someone’s child. Not a toy. Not an avatar in a video game. Not an actor in a movie.
One day soon, I thought, he could very well find himself in this situation -- prone, on the edge of a war zone and in the line of fire.
I was silent for a few beats too long.
“Your mind is blown right now, isn’t it?” Schubert asked before taking me farther into the swamp.
Above: Enduring the Crucible, Sept. 25, 2015. Delayna Earleyemail@example.com
During the Crucible, drill instructors begin their transition from disciplinarians to mentors.
In between events, they share experiences from their deployments. They offer personal stories on what it has meant to them to be a Marine.
It’s a drastic change in the recruit-and-drill instructor relationship, something Matlock remembers as one of the better moments of becoming a Marine.
“They actually see you as a person,” he said. “It was pretty cool.”
Sgt. John Eversley is a senior drill instructor. Good Marines, he says, go outside their comfort zones and get to know those they work with in the field.
“You’ve spent a lot of time with people you probably avoided before,” he told a small group of recruits kneeling before him Tuesday during a history lesson. “How do you prevent going back to the cliques when you get out of here? The segregation? ... if you make it out of here.”
He called on a recruit who wanted to share his example of what Eversley was talking about. The recruit stood and pointed to another a few feet away.
“Yes, sir. He’s a country boy, sir, and I’m a punk rock kid. We’re now close friends, sir.”
Eversley nodded then asked the group: “Had anyone here not been around someone of an opposite race before coming here?”
One person raised his hand.
“It’s probably a culture shock?” Eversley asked the recruit.
“I bet you live five miles from your nearest neighbor, right?” Eversley said.
The recruit gave a small laugh.
After the Eagle, Globe and Anchor ceremony, the recruits eat what’s called a warriors’ breakfast. It’s during this meal that drill instructors break bread with their new Marines for the first time.
It’s an all-you-can-eat affair that features foods the Marines can choose for themselves and that they were not offered as recruits, such as steak and eggs.
“You might have gotten, say, potatoes before,” Capt. Dan Goguen joked after the ceremony. “But now you get chopped up peppers and onions in them.”
The new Marines are starving, and the smell of bacon can be overpowering. They are warned not to stuff themselves.
If you gorge yourself, they’re told, you will get sick.
“Nobody listens,” Schubert told me.
Like other Marines I talked to, Eversley said the Crucible was the most challenging and rewarding goal he had ever accomplished at that point in his life, but it wasn’t hell.
He was ready for it. That’s what all the training is for.
“People have this perception,” he said, “that recruits are being destroyed out there (in the Crucible). But the Crucible is the time when we let them apply everything they’ve learned. People think you’re just going to die doing it. But (the recruits) actually show their passion as Marines during it.”
THE EAGLE, GLOBE AND ANCHOR CEREMONY
Early Oct. 7, the men and women of Charlie and Oscar companies made their way from Page Field to the staging area where they would become Marines.
The hike back was nine miles. They moved in a quick march, most of them slightly bent forward because of their gear. They carried 50-pound rucksacks and their weapons. Toward the backs of the platoons, recruits helped those who struggled to keep pace.
At their final resting spot before the last leg of the march, they got a piece of fruit and some Gatorade.
For many recruits, this is when reality sets in.
“You knew this was it,” Matlock said. “There was a huge sense of joy.”
As they drew closer to where the ceremony would be held, drill instructors began to lead their platoons in cadence.
“Yeah, they’re hurting,” Sgt. Harvy Caleroperez told me later. “They’re hurting. You keep that formation tight. This is the last thing. This is all you got.”
That moment was a particularly special one for him. It was his first Crucible since finishing drill instructor school in December. He had started with a company earlier this year but was taken off duty because of an injury to his knee, something that scared him.
There was a moment when he thought he might not be able to do the thing he had set out to do.
This was a new thought for him.
“I was broken. I’ve never been broken before,” he said.
When it came time to lead his first recruits to their Eagle, Globe and Anchor ceremony, he knew exactly how he wanted to do it.
“I started with the first cadence my drill instructor had done for us during my Crucible,” he said, launching into a raspy rendition. “’Mama, mama can’t you see, what this Corps has done for me ...’”
Before the sun rose that morning, I stood by the staging grounds with Staff Sgt. Gregory Thomas. He told me how the ceremony would go. First the recruits would come from that direction, then they would do this, then this other thing would happen.
War is messy and imperfect, but preparing for it is not.
Everything happened as he said it would.
After staging their gear and refilling their canteens, the six platoons of young men and two platoons of young women -- many limping, at least one in a sling -- stood in a horseshoe formation around the Iwo Jima statue.
“You’re not going to die on me?” one drill instructor said to a recruit standing on the edge of his platoon.
Before the ceremony began, many recruits wordlessly and without being told to straightened the collars, shoulder seams and hats of the person in front of them. If they had done this anywhere else, there might have been words exchanged.
Their postures were precise despite how their bodies felt. They stunk of swamp water and sweat. Their tan boots were blackened from two full days of slogging through mud.
“I still get goose bumps,” Thomas said of watching recruits become Marines.
Behind the scenes, drill instructors opened wooden boxes of the Eagle, Globe and Anchor emblems, counted them and checked them for imperfections.
After a flag-raising, the prayer and messages from their company leaders, the sniffling recruits were instructed to stand at ease, their hands folded behind them, as their drill instructors handed out the emblem, the tangible symbol of their achievement.
A loud, slow, weeping instrumental version of the Marine’s Hymn played over the loudspeaker while the drill instructors moved through the rows and one by one placed emblems in the recruits’ palms, shook their hands and said “Good job, Marine.”
In many ways, the exchange was as sacred as taking communion. Past sins were forgiven and forgotten. And, for some, this new identity as a Marine would be their salvation.
Each new Marine, tears streaking the dirt on their faces and what was left of their camouflage paint, again stood at ease, hands folded behind them, their fingers moving slowly and purposefully over the eagle’s wings, the rope, the anchor.
From the top of the bleachers, Thomas and I spotted a recruit without an emblem.
Two drill instructors had entered that recruit’s row at the same time and from either ends. They had both stopped short of him.
The recruit had nothing.
The recruit said nothing.
When Caleroperez noticed the extra emblem in his box, he retraced his steps, scanned for empty hands and quietly asked a few recruits, “Did you get yours? Did you get yours?”
The idea of not receiving an emblem during the ceremony was unthinkable, he said later.
“It’s one of the things you cherish. If I hadn’t gotten it ...” he considered it for a moment. “You become a Marine that day (with or without the emblem) ... but it’s special. If you didn’t get it ...” he shook his head.
Soon Caleroperez found the recruit and gave him his emblem.
“Oh, he was bawling,” Caleroperez told me. “Snot all over. I don’t know why he didn’t say anything. I wish he had said something.”
The recruit happened to be one Caleroperez knew well from training.
“It meant a lot to be able to do that,” he said. “I’m Colombian. First in my family to serve in the military. His background’s the same.
“At first, his confidence just wasn’t there. He had a little attitude. But during the second and third phase (of training) he became a special recruit.
“I said to him ‘Good job, Marine. I set an example for my family, and you will, too.’”
Above: A Marine holds the Eagle, Globe and Anchor emblem after emerging from The Crucible at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island. MCRDPI