Staff Sgt. Mindo Estrella prepares his platoon for their battalion commander's inspection at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C. Estrella earned a Purple Heart for actions in Iraq in 2005. (Lance Cpl. Katherine Keleher / Marine Corps)
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PARRIS ISLAND, S.C. — Even today, Staff Sgt. Alex Ayala lives with the burden of Operation Phantom Fury.
A senior drill instructor at the recruit depot here, Ayala, 25, was a corporal and squad leader with 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, out of Marine Corps Base Hawaii, when it took part in the epic November 2004 assault on Fallujah, Iraq.
The violence he encountered there profoundly affected the course of his life, he said. Ayala earned the Bronze Star with "V" device for braving machine gun fire to retrieve two mortally wounded lance corporals — David Branning, 21, and Brian Medina, 20 — from a bloody firefight inside an Iraqi home. He is now teaching his seventh 70-day boot camp cycle, an idea he latched onto rather than leaving the Corps and a decision that has allowed him to shape the lives of thousands of Marine recruits.
"They always end up asking, and they're very persistent about it," Ayala said of the "V" device he wears on his chest. "I always end up telling them, but it's not something I just offer up. I tell them, ‘You're going to hit rock bottom. You've got to be ready.' … I tell them that Lance Corporal Medina and Lance Corporal Branning are the reasons I'm here."
Ayala is among a growing trend in the service: DIs who have lived modern history and have firsthand combat experiences to impart to future Marines, who stand a good chance of experiencing the rigors of war for themselves in the very near future.
The influx of such experience at boot camp affects recruit training in ways large and small. Some drill instructors share their stories regularly with recruits, especially in the latter stages of their training. Others keep their stories quiet, but draw personal motivation from their pasts as they reflect on the importance and significance of adeptly teaching the basics of being a Marine.
And while the fundamentals of drill, discipline and physical fitness are largely the same as they were decades ago, boot camp has undeniably evolved on the strength of its DIs' combat experience. Not since the Vietnam War have recruits' lessons included so many first-person tales of hardship and perseverance forged on a contemporary battlefield. Today's DIs don't need to wax poetic about history; they've lived and breathed it themselves — and they have the ribbon racks to prove it.
A change in perspective
Combat veterans leading recruits through the woods at Parris Island is nothing new. It occurred after previous wars and took place in small numbers following operations during the 1990s in places like Kosovo and Somalia.
Still, finding a combat-hardened DI a decade ago was rare. They are now nearly ubiquitous, to the point that when a class of Marines graduates from drill instructor school, "it sticks out" to see one who hasn't deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, said Col. Eric Mellinger, commander of Parris Island's Recruit Training Regiment.
"I would offer that just a couple of years ago, there was always a percentage that hadn't deployed yet," he said. "Whether someone worked out of a [forward operating base] or was on patrol every day or flew on a helicopter as a door gunner or crew chief, I think it's important that a recruit hear those experiences from every different aspect of a combat tour."
The Corps doesn't track how many combat veterans it has in its estimated 1,400-member DI corps, but there are currently three recipients of the Bronze Star with "V" device in its ranks, said Maj. Shawn Haney, a spokeswoman for Manpower & Reserve Affairs. Since 2006, at least three other Marines have been awarded the Navy Cross, the nation's second-highest award for valor, while serving as DIs.
Recognizing the potential value this experience affords the Corps, Marine leadership introduced changes to the drill instructor schools at Parris Island and MCRD San Diego in 2007, incorporating lessons to teach DIs how they can communicate their stories to recruits as part of ethical discussions, said 2nd Lt. Brian Villiard, a former DI and spokesman for Training and Education Command, which oversees the DI schools.
"They had all these great experiences, but they were never taught how to share that," Villiard said. "They had to build their discussion abilities, build their communication skills."
Said Mellinger: "You can go to a VFW and hear war stories, and a lot of them are filled with valor. But that's not what a recruit needs. A recruit needs to hear, ‘This is the Marine Corps values system, and this is how it's being manifested and demonstrated on the battlefield.' If you're just looking for war stories, you can put on ‘Saving Private Ryan.'Ÿ"
Changes at DI schools
In recent years, prospective DIs also have been treated with more respect at the DI schools, said 1st Sgt. Rafael Rodriguez, the first sergeant at Parris Island's DI school. While it was not the Corps' intent to treat students as recruits, that did happen on occasion, Marine officials said.
"The drill instructors nowadays are taken care of more," said Rodriguez, who served as a DI in a previous Parris Island tour. "I'm not saying they weren't before, but now there's more emphasis on making sure they're well trained, that they're taken care of, that their families are taken care of."
Combat-hardened DIs also have played a role in planning for Corps-wide policy changes, such as the development of the Combat Fitness Test.
In 2007, after Commandant Gen. James Conway called for TECom to develop a test that measured combat readiness, officials assembled a panel of officers and enlisted Marines to weigh options and collect feedback, including some combat veterans and drill instructors, said Brian McGuire, TECom's physical readiness programs analyst.
Recruits are currently taking the CFT for score, but it is not yet a boot camp requirement, he said.
Drawing on the past
For Ayala, serving as a DI offers more than a chance to fill a B-billet career requirement. It's a chance to find purpose in life, to give back to the Corps after an experience that nearly drove him out of the service.
"I came very close to getting out, especially after Operation Phantom Fury in Iraq," he said. "I was faced with a decision: Do I get out, or do I stay in and help out the Marines with my experience, which a lot of Marines at that time didn't have? I made the decision to come down here to Parris Island because I knew I had the right values, and I knew I had the experience to pass on to the recruits."
Before his squad kicked in the gate of the house where Branning and Medina were killed, Ayala's automatic rifleman asked to go in first with his M249 squad automatic weapon, which would have broken infantry protocol. Ayala refused to make any changes in the squad's formation — and then the two guys in front of him were killed.
"That moment changed everything," he said. "The way I talk to Marines. The way I view life every day. I have a 1-year-old daughter, and a lot of people don't want to change diapers late at night. I'm thankful I can do that. … I don't want a pat on the back. I just want to pass on the information I have to recruits who might find themselves in the same situation."
Ayala and other combat veterans say they relate their own stories sparingly, but use their experiences to challenge recruits with hypothetical situations they might encounter.
Staff Sgt. Michael Chambers, another DI who received a Bronze Star with "V" device, said going through difficult combat situations makes him more appreciative of the chance to interact with recruits. A platoon sergeant in 2004, his Marines in Charlie Company, 1/3, were caught in an ambush in an open field in Fallujah the same day Ayala's squad lost Medina and Branning.
Chambers declined to discuss the ambush, but a 2005 Marine Corps news release said he and his platoon commander, Gunnery Sgt. Ralph Scott, braved small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades in a kill zone to retrieve two Marines, one of whom was severely wounded.
"It's the end product," Chambers said. "You see kids who come here [to boot camp] who can't make a rack, can't stand up straight." He described a recent recruit he said came from a background as a "thug," but left boot camp squared away and said he considered Chambers a father figure.
"It's things like that they say to you that [make] me want to do this," he said. "You might have blisters on your feet, but you take a Tylenol and keep going."