This week, following my last stint ever of reserve duty at Quantico, I decided to make one final trip to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island, South Carolina. I wanted to revisit what was a meaningful place for me one last time before my retirement on 1 June. The nine-hour drive was smooth enough, but still… nine hours. I arrived about 1730 in the evening and drove around town for a bit while I still had some light.
The surrounding communities of Beaufort and Port Royal had grown appreciably since I was here last, in May of 1992, when I relinquished command of India Company, Third Recruit Training Battalion. On that same day, I also graduated my final Recruit Company and executed PCS orders. Driving around I noticed there are many more restaurants now, and shopping centers, recreational activities… all the things that one would come to expect from a mid-sized and modern community. There were far more amenities than existed twenty-odd years ago. It was, as many have experienced visiting old duty stations, a bittersweet walk back in time… seeing places where I once lived, old haunts…. scenes not taken in for more than twenty years. My objective, however, was not to drive and walk around the community. I came to see the Recruit Depot at Parris Island, the place where I’d spent so many thousands of hours, in a job that was both challenging and immensely rewarding. I also wanted to have a look at what changed, what hadn’t, and to do some reflecting on my time there, and my time since. So… fairly early this morning, I climbed into a set of Charlies and headed aboard.
What awaited me was entirely and thoroughly unexpected. In fact, it was quite a jolt, one which set me on my heels. The first place I wanted to see after crossing the causeway was Third Recruit Training Battalion. It was there that I served as a Series Commander and commanded India Company. As I approached the Battalion area, I immediately noticed something was amiss. No recruits anywhere. No anybody. I drove past the old barracks, triple-decker squad bays… I passed the Battalion HQ. NOTHING. So, I pulled my car in and got out. To my absolute shock and inexpressible sadness, the entire of the Battalion Area was abandoned… derelict.
Here was this place that I had thought of countless times — remembered hundreds and thousands of hours on the drill deck, the PT field, and next-door, the Close Combat area. I expected to see recruits marching, to hear Drill Instructors correcting and yelling, to hear cadence being called and platoons sounding off. Yet, there was not a soul around. Just… a thunderous, deafening silence. Here was a place where so much sweat and so much emotion had been expended by many thousands of recruits since the barracks were built in the 1950s. Here was a place where the sharp commands of the Drill Instructors echoed off the brickwork, readying Marines for three wars. Here was a place that was profoundly formative in so many a young life. And now it was EMPTY.
I saw my old Series and Company Offices. The paint was peeling and bits of debris and old equipment lay scattered about. The “grinder” had grass and weeds growing from the cracked pavement. The Chow Hall was overgrown, with crumbling steps and windows dislodged. I ventured around, feeling a deep sadness that here, where I expected to find continuity, I instead encountered a very stark and sad reminder of the passage of time. I wandered into the abandoned squad bays, ignoring the signs warning me to keep out. When I stood there, it was if I could still hear the voices of hundreds of Drill Instructors and thousands of recruits, barking commands and sounding off in the rhythm that is unmistakably Marine Boot Camp. My mind’s eye pictured images I saw a thousand times… of recruits executing the manual of arms in front of their racks, or mountain-climbing on the quarterdeck for some boneheaded infraction. But they were only in my imagination, my memory. Outside, the sand “motivation pits” where recruits once did incentive PT in the South Carolina heat, were now overgrown with grass and weeds, edged by rotting logs.
In a place such as this, where so many young lives had so many defining moments, there remains an aura of those raw emotions that is almost palpable. Those powerful emotions of fear and anger, excitement and resolve, mixed with the rightful pride of accomplishment, seems to float in the damp air still, nearly two years after the last recruit series called these squad bays home.
Around the side of the last squad bays, I met with yet another unpleasant surprise. The Close Combat area, which had been immediately adjacent to Third Battalion, was also gone. The pugil stick pits, which I helped build…gone. Our “thunderdome” area and the shed where the Close Combat Instructors fought thousands of rounds had been replaced by base housing and a fire station. The Confidence Course was gone also. An empty field stood in its place.
As I stood remembering and taking pictures, I had to ask myself… Why such a powerful reaction? Why was I seemingly close to tears? My emotions were all my own, all personal. I expected to come back and find the place eminently recognizable, something which would perhaps make me consider that 22 years was not quite so long ago. But it is so long ago, especially when the recruits are just 18 or 19 years old, and some of the Drill Instructors themselves only in their mid-twenties.
I eventually got back in my car and drove around the base some more. A good deal of the infrastructure was new, including a massive Instructional Training building. That beat the decrepit and cramped building I had occupied for the purpose (I was the OIC of Close Combat and Academics in between having a Series and Commanding India Company). No wooden squad bays remained, which is kind of too bad. The last of them was at the Rifle Range, replaced by brick structures about ten years ago.
The more I drove and walked around, the more I noticed that the tenor of the place had not changed very much at all. Parris Island is still a place that provides the mental and physical challenges to those who want to be Marines. The Drill Instructors still have the lean, hard, tired, uncompromising countenance. The recruits still snap to, pushed by their DIs, until they respond quickly and willingly; until they become basically-trained Marines. So, with further consideration, I realized that I did indeed find the continuity I was looking for.
I also eventually found the “new” Third Battalion. A brand-new row of triple-deck squad bays, grinder, Command Post, wash racks, and a new PT field had been built about 1,500 yards from the old Battalion Area. They were behind the rows of Spanish Moss-bedecked trees in the area that was once the island’s working farm. There were new “motivation pits” and the ubiquitous pull-up bars. I actually had a chance to see the “new” India Company area, and was pleased to meet the Officers and some of the Drill Instructors who are building today’s Marines. It was a good conversation. The hours are still incredibly long, the Drill Instructors still thoroughly professional and dedicated, and the pride of playing a part in the making of Marines is still very much in evidence. Semper Fidelis, Marines! And thanks for taking the time to talk to an old man who stood where you stand now (more or less) a quarter century ago.
H/T to DB for EDIT