A FINAL REPORT FROM PARRIS ISLAND
Downstairs in the bar, the National Guard captain is singing Toby Kieth’s “Taliban Song” on the karaoke machine.
Two weeks ago he wore his dress blues to the funeral of one of his men, a guy he took to war a few years ago, a 20-something who ate his shotgun when the world got dark.
“I’m not f---ed up,” the captain says. “I’m getting through.”
This morning, when we watch Marine Corps graduation at Parris Island, he’s organized a bunch of other visiting school teachers to adopt three young men who won’t have families there to celebrate with them. He’s gathered gifts and is going to wrap them, and will probably take them out to lunch.
That’s the family aspect of it.
Not just of the Marine Corps, but of the Armed Forces in general. This school teacher, with more than 20 years of full and part time military service, came on a tour meant to promote Marine recruiting, to explain the Corps. He learned, but nothing new.
On this base, it’s only new to the young men and women striving to earn the right to wear their nation’s uniform.
“It’s been an incredible experience,” Harley Anderson says, standing in sandy mud a third of the way through a 54-hour battle exercise. “It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.”
He’s a 19-year-old from Romulus, New York, who wanted to go into the Army. But when the Army recruiter came to his school, he was chewing tobacco, and using foul language, and Harley wanted none of that.
A varsity soccer player since the eighth-grade, he earned a phone call home for qualifying Expert on the M 16, something he attributes to boyhood shooting with his grandfather. He says boot camp has made him spiritually and religiously better. His mother sends him Bible verses, and he shares them with the other young men in the nightly devotionals they’ve organized.
Eric Wheatley turned 18 a couple of months ago. He kept it from the drill instructors, so they wouldn’t jack him up, but his family timed the cards perfectly and they arrived on his birthday. His sister is in veterinary school at Cornell, and his dad teaches at a Catholic school in Geneva, New York.
“I always wanted to be a Marine,” he says. “The few, the proud – I really believe in that. Doing this will really set me apart from people who can’t.”
He’s going to be an aviation mechanic. He could have played French horn in a Marine band, but wanted something different.
If he completes the Crucible, a two-and-a-half day test of endurance and ability, he will graduate a week from today. The day after that will be the first anniversary of when he and his girlfriend started dating.
Monroe Community College is well represented in the current batch of Marine trainees.
David Makowski of Kendall spent a year there, Jeffrey Wong of Greece spent three years there, and Nathan Sisk did a year.
“I chose the Marines because I didn’t want a boring life,” Nathan says. He is 20 and his dad is an electrician. His mother teaches nursing at St. John Fisher.
“I joined the Marines to see the world, and I always want a story to tell,” the Churchville native says.
“A way of living, the way you’re supposed to live, that’s what the Marine Corps does for you,” he says. Asked about the pin he will receive early Saturday morning, bearing the eagle, globe and anchor insignia of the Marine Corps, Nathan says, “It will mean the start of my life in the Marine Corps, and a new page for my life. I’ll have something to stand up for. My parents have helped me, now I will have to do it myself.”
He’s smiling as he says it.
Just like David Makowski is smiling when asked if he will be proud to become a Marine.
“More than you can imagine,” the 21-year-old says.
He came in after a year of accounting study didn’t do anything for him. He wanted to get a Marine skill that he could bring home after he’s discharged – that’s why he’s going to train as a military policeman.
He was homesick the first couple of weeks, but in the end, that wasn’t a bad thing.
“The day you leave home is the day you grow up and start your life. I’ve gained so much discipline here. It changes you for the better.”
Jeffrey Wong is 22, a big tall kid who, like the others, has camouflaged his face and is holding a rifle. He is a reservist, and will continue his training to become a Marine infantryman. He is the second of six children. His dad was born in Singapore and his mom was born in Mexico.
“Greece is a good town,” he says, “and I want to protect it, and this country.
“I want to give something back to the U.S., to the country that’s been so good to me. I love this country and I want to pay it back.
“The feeling that you can keep people safe, help someone sleep better at night, that just means the world to me.”
This morning a new batch of Marines will graduate on Parris Island. They will march onto the same parade floor where yesterday 15 of their number raised their arm to the square and swore the oath of U.S. citizenship.
It will be the second time in recent months John and Maria Martens of Rochester have come south for a graduation.
Last fall, it was their son, Alex, who is now a lance corporal in Okinawa.
With them on that trip was their daughter, Melissa, Alex’s older sister.
Watching the ceremony, feeling the spirit of the place and the people, seeing the growth in her brother, Melissa decided to enlist.
And today is her turn.
After the ceremony, the Marine Corps will send our group of teachers and reporters home.
My impressions have been good.
Mine is an Army family, and I didn’t buy any Marine memorabilia to take home, but my love and respect for the men, women and history of the United States Marine Corps has only grown by this visit.
These are good people, engaged in an honorable cause, in a system that generally betters and ennobles them. They have a spirit of belonging and family that is defining to most of them, and of great value to the Republic.
Marines are great warriors and citizens, and those are two things essential to a free people.
Would I trust a Marine recruiter? Yes. Do I respect Marine training? Absolutely. Do good things happen at Parris Island? Without doubt.
What would I say to a young person thinking of serving in the Marine Corps?
Go for it, God bless you, and thank you.
- by Bob Lonsberry © 2015