As the white Marine Corps school buses cross the mile-long State Route 170 bridge over the Broad River, about 15 minutes from Parris Island, South Carolina, they tell the recruits to lower their heads.
The reason, Marines tell each other, is so the newbies can’t figure out how to escape from boot camp.
Heads-down arrival makes that moment when a drill instructor like Sgt. Simone Dennis steps onto the bus screaming “Get Out! Get Out! Get Moving!” even more of a shock.
As recruits stumble out, three more drill instructors bellow orders to form up on yellow footprints painted on the pavement, to keep heels together and feet 45 degrees apart. And that there are only three things a recruit can say: “Aye, sir.” “No, sir.” “I don’t understand.”
Then Staff Sgt. Evelyn Esquinal, in the role of “heavy hat” (No. 2 on a typical team of four or five platoon drill instructors) has “recruits” (actually teachers from across Virginia and Tennessee) half-running a few steps before she’s yelling:
“Stop. Go Back.”
“Eyeballs!” meaning look at her.
The teachers are participating in a Marine Corps outreach program to give educators a taste of what recruits around them are undergoing, so they can tell students what it involves.
The drill instructors are part of it — and over the next few days, so is listening as other D.I.s set real recruits off on pre-dawn runs and push them through daunting obstacle courses. They’ll get some of the same briefings recruits do for the firing range and other combat skills training that are part of Parris Island’s 13 weeks of training.
Now, for the teachers, just arrived at Parris Island, South Carolina, and in a formation already falling apart, Esquinal is barking rapid-fire orders again:
“Move!” And seconds later: “Stop … Go Back!” And again. And again. And again. At the same time, Dennis and fellow drill instructor Sgt. Matthew McGill run circles around the group hollering directions.
“Get better, get better. Go! Go! Go!” Dennis shouts. It’s what they do with each new busload of recruits, she said.
Marine Corps boot camp hasn’t changed much in 130 years, says Col. Bradley Ward, commander of Parris Island’s Recruit Training Regiment.
But it has changed some. Four years ago, the Marines launched a unique mentorship program for the final two weeks of basic training that the Navy just adopted. The first sailors to experience it could be arriving in Norfolk, Virginia, as early as this summer.
Even so, arriving at Parris Island, South Carolina, is everything you’ve imagined about Marine basic training: the same kind of hard-as-nails Marine sergeants who stormed the beach at Iwo Jima, Japan, yelling at recruits.
“I’m a finance tech — really an accountant,” Dennis said.
D.I.s must lead recruits to take on previously unimaginable feats — such as easing themselves down a rope from a 47-foot tower.
With D.I. McGill’s last platoon, he, rather than one of the specialist basic combat training instructors, demonstrated the rope descent — then held the bottom of the rope, as his recruits tried the frightening descent. That second role is standard practice.
“We have their drill instructors down there because they are the one person on Parris Island that the recruits really trust,” said Sgt. Scott Loveall, who runs the rappelling tower.
The first question Loveall asks recruits as they line up at the tower is if any are afraid of heights, or even a bit nervous. He then asks them to turn their shirts (the Marines say blouses) inside out, so he and his instructors know to give them special attention.
Encouraging his recruits not to be scared of really scary challenges — and watching them closely with shouted instructions and how to use their right hands and feet to slow their rope descent — is part of what’s typically a 3:30 am to sometime well after the official 8 p.m. day — and that’s when a D.I. doesn’t pull overnight duty, McGill said.
The role is demanding — Marine Corps drill instructors don’t usually spend all their time hollering.
“Sometimes, you just need to step away, as the senior drill instructor to take over for a while,” McGill said.
The tower was the worst part of boot camp for Pvt. Christian Dunphy, in his dress blues for graduation, after shaking hands and joking with Staff Sgt. Ty Clark, his senior drill instructor through the 13 weeks.
“It’s really about building trust, trust in your team, trust in your drill instructor,” Dunphy said.
One thing that the Corps has tweaked is to launch its “Phase 4″ mentoring program in late 2017. Phase 4 takes up the final two weeks of boot camp.
It comes after “the crucible” — a 54-hour simulated war scenario that features 30 miles of maneuvering with full packs, rifles and gear through Parris Island’s pine woods and marsh, something like four hours of sleep, lots of obstacles and several scenarios of tactical problems for small fire teams of four to five Marines to solve.
“That was the best part of boot camp for me,” Dennis said.
It was up to her and her fire team to figure out what to do and how to do it — no drill instructor to holler directions, the basic mission in the first four weeks of boot camp, the easing back to focus on correcting mistakes in next three weeks, and basically, the watchful backstop of recruits pretty much doing what they need to on their own.
The crucible tests recruits’ ability to operate as a small team, in which each is ready to step up and act like a leader.
Dennis remembers one challenge in particular — a tower with three platforms that her fire team and another had to get a heavy load of gear and equipment up and over.
“Normally, I might have just put my pack on and climbed,” she said. “But instead we decided to send some of us up to each platform and pass everything up.”
“It’s really about thinking like a team, — each of us capable of being a leader.”
Laying the foundation for a mission for all Marines — the Corps calls it small group leadership — starts in boot camp, when a senior D.I. designates recruits as leaders of smaller squads.
“At first, you look for anyone who maybe had JROTC. You look at how they carry themselves — straight up, not slouched and nervous,” said Esquinal, whose normal job is that senior D.I. post. “Then, once they’re a success, you fire them, to give someone else the chance.”
Pfc. Connor Patton, who served as “guide” overseeing the three squad leaders in his platoon, said he and they would become the ones responsible when one of their fellow recruits was lagging. Sometimes, the answer was a demonstration, sometimes a helping hand, sometimes some harsh words.
“But as guide, I don’t look to punish a recruit for doing something wrong. It’s the squad leader who gets that. It’s their job that was done wrong,” he said a few days before graduation.
“You’re learning selflessness. ... You’re learning accountability,” he added., “And being fast. We eat fast, we move fast. We sleep fast. I can fall asleep right away.”
When the crucible is over, recruits who passed the test get the globe-and-anchor device that says they are Marines, and that’s where Phase 4 begins — that the Navy implemented at the start of this year.
At Parris Island, South Carolina, drill instructors deliberately take off their broad-brimmed campaign hats — the ones that look like what old-time Boy Scouts wore — and tell new Marines to drag their footlockers into a circle to talk.
“It’s Marine to Marine,” said Cpl. Joswald Bastita, on a ground crew at nearby Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, remembering his boot camp Phase 4 two years earlier. “It’s mostly tips — we talk about things like setting up a bank account, some of these kids, they don’t learn things like that in high school.”
It’s actually a bit more.
‘It’s really all mental’
Ward, the colonel, said Phase 4 is a chance to drive home some of the “core values” classes that are a central feature of the first weeks of boot camp — the classes that outsiders, unsettled by those shouting drill instructors, can miss.
“We’re really about teaching,” he said.
When drill instructors set aside their campaign hats, conversations turn to tough topics, too — including sexual harassment and assaults, extremism and racial prejudice. Addressing these is a priority across the military; spring 2021, for instance, the Navy conducted a 60-day stand-down to make sure sailors and civilians understood the damaging effects of extremism and to work on more effective ways to eradicate its impact.
Some of what senior Navy leaders heard during stand-down sessions from sailors affected by extremism and prejudice wasn’t easy to hear, they’ve said. But they believe what they learned will make the Navy better.
At Parris Island, South Carolina, Phase 4 can tackle issues such as dealing with sexual harassment. Learning how to respond to fellow Marines dealing with depression or suicidal thoughts, for instance, are priorities.
“We talk about everything, what’s going on in the world, what our responsibilities are as Marines,” said Esquinal, whose usual job is to act as a senior drill instructor.
Sometimes, it involves working through a scenario. Sometimes, it’s just basic advice — the bank account tip that Bastita mentioned, or to avoid triple-digit-interest rate payday loans, or how to deal with the bureaucracy of moving to a new post or the challenges of fitting in with a team of Marines when you get there.
But it is not as if mentoring is something new at Paris Island. Capt. Stephen Sigmon, who went through boot camp a decade ago — before Phase 4 — and served four years as an enlisted radio specialist before earning a commission, still remembers the time his senior drill instructor pulled him aside for a one-on-one.
“He must’ve spotted something. But I told him things I’d never told anybody, not even family,” Sigmon said. “My father left when I was 8 or 9 and I think I kind of latched on to my drill instructor like a father figure ... we still talk to this very day.”
What drill instructors teach is a lot more than close order drill and what they do involves much more than yelling and “I.T.” — incentive training, Marine-speak for extra pushups or situps for recruits who aren’t keeping up with the training pace.
Taking a break from leading a “grass week” marksmanship class, going over the four basic safety rules and the four basic weapons conditions, Sgt Chase Day says the call and response approach he used was not really how those rules are are taught. The platoon drill instructors have been teaching the rules for the six weeks before grass week.
His call-and-response session is about making basic safety steps — checking the safety, looking to see if the chamber is empty, keeping index finger off the trigger when carrying a rifle — as automatic as possible.
And, as a platoon of Phase 2 recruits — they’re the ones wearing desert camo uniforms — come marching out of the mess hall heading for the firing range simulator, it’s the four safety rules they’d chanting as cadence.
“I talk to the platoon drill instructor before they come over,” Day said. “I want to get a sense of who’s comfortable with firearms and who’s maybe not.”
That comfort goes a long way to ensuring recruits are safe as they learn marksmanship. It’s when Day learns from a drill instructor that a recruit has never fired a rife so that he takes special care in the simulator — demonstrating how to tuck the butt of an M-16 into the shoulder, where to lay your cheekbone by the stock.
With nervous recruits in a properly braced position in the simulator, he’ll tap just hard enough on the front sight post give them a feel for the way an M-16 will recoil. The idea is to make sure recruits don’t let rifle buck upward because they’re shocked by the recoil, which could make the next shot endanger a nearby Marine.
“We’re not doing a lot of shouting in PMI (primary marksmanship instruction),” Day said. “We don’t want them always looking over their shoulder because they’re afraid they’re going to be yelled at.”
“When I first had a rifle, I was shaking like this,” Dennis, the D.I., remembers, swinging her fingers in nearly foot-long arcs. “I’d never fired a gun before.”
The pool is another no stress zone — with signs posted every few feet on the walls as a reminder. Recruits have to be able swim 25 meters, jump from a 10-foot platform to simulate getting safely off a sinking ship and shed heavy gear while underwater. They do all this in their utility uniforms, while wearing boots.
That was the scariest moment in boot camp for Dennis.
“But I learned to swim in three days,” she said.
“It’s really not a physical thing at all,” said Pvt. Lyric Manley after graduation with Fox Company this month before he and his family headed back home to Norfolk after a boot camp that kept him and nearly 300 others on Parris Island through the holidays.
“It’s really all mental.”