The Fewer and the Proud

Tuesday's World Events   —   Posted on April 19, 2005

(by John Dawson, PARRIS ISLAND, S.C.– For Andrew Burgess’s next feat, he’ll roll over a pyramid of logs. It’s the morning of March 10, and somehow the 19-year-old feels at home when he’s hurdling objects. He’s far from home, though, attending boot camp at the Parris Island Marine Corps Recruiting Depot.

The technique for making it over the logs is similar to how Mr. Burgess would have plowed through the line of scrimmage when he was a high-school running back, first in Richland, N.C., and then in Pelion, S.C. Speed is important, but so is balance.

“It’s pretty hard, but it’s still just training,” he says as he takes a breather from the Marine Corps Confidence Course, a series of ropes courses and obstacles that are designed to drag a recruit out of his comfort zone. About 20 yards away, recruits line up to jump off a tower onto a dangling rope. There’s a pad below and the recruits are tethered, but still one young man can’t seem to make the leap. “Jump onto my rope,” one drill instructor tells the hesitant recruit. “Jump,” says Mr. Burgess softly so almost no one can hear.

Four weeks before making his way over the pyramid of logs, Mr. Burgess was a private citizen. He had his newly minted high-school diploma, but not much else. He’d thought about joining the Marine Corps, but the catalyst for the decision came in the chorus of a Toby Keith song, “American Soldier.” [To watch the video, click here and if unsure what to choose, click on LOW next to AMERICAN SOLDIER.]  Just two weeks after the former high-school football star walked into the recruiter’s office, he was bound for boot camp.

Recruitment numbers for the Few and the Proud, however, have become slightly fewer, according to recent Marine Corps figures. In January–for the first time in a decade–the Marines missed their enlistment targets. In February–and again in March–the shortfall grew. Marine Corps recruiting spokesman Major David Griesmer argues that if the Marines’ enlistment numbers are down, it’s only slightly.

“So far year-to-date, we’re off 125 people,” he said before the March results were in–down 15,107 from a projected 15,232. Army recruiting was 32 percent below target in March; over 6 percent off for the year. Army Reserve numbers are 10 percent below target, and the Army National Guard is 25 percent down. The Marines–traditionally the stronger recruiter–are still shipping enough recruits to maintain the size of the corps, but now recruits are turned around more quickly. Mr. Burgess said it is like a revolving door: in the recruiter’s office and out to Parris Island.

Unlike his fellow recruits at Parris Island, Kevin Lamont Merriweather keeps smiling. Other recruits undergoing the transformation from citizen to soldier remain solidly stoic. Instead, Mr. Merriweather speaks easily in first-person just a few steps away from the same confidence course where he’ll soon return to drills. He says he knows who he is–and where he is. He’s at boot camp to make himself a better person.

As a 5-foot-11, 170-pound defensive back who played at Central-Merry High School in Jackson, Tenn., during the team’s 12-1 2002 season, Mr. Merriweather grew accustomed to success.

When he graduated last May, he took up a fast-food job cooking at Popeye’s and another job washing cars. “I started thinking about my future. I wanted to be something,” he says. His father, who served in the Army, had no apprehension about letting his son join the military. In fact, he said his dad suggested the Marine Corps. “He said it was the best.”

The 19-year-old recruit says another thing that sold him on joining the Marine Corps was his recruiter’s involvement in his life. “I live in a rough neighborhood and he’d come get me and take me out of there. We’d get some chow, go exercise.”

When it came time for the recruit to choose his Military Occupational Specialties (like a major in college), the teen chose legal administration–his recruiter’s MOS. Eventually, Mr. Merriweather says he wants to use his Marine training to become a paralegal or even go to law school.

But first he’ll have to finish boot camp. Meanwhile, how is his mom taking his enlistment? “She got over it,” he says.

The Marines are facing an attrition war they can’t afford to lose. In Iraq, Marines serve on the front lines–indeed the first to fight. That makes parents of potential recruits nervous.

The Marines face political enemies, too. Anti-war activists are seeking to end America’s involvement in Iraq by strangling the Armed Forces of recruits. While the Marines in Iraq struggle for the hearts and minds of the war-torn people, the Marines at home seem to be in a similar struggle for the hearts and minds of Americans.

Maj. Rob Fulford served in Iraq on a tour that lasted until July. Now he’s on the charm offensive. Maj. Fulford commands the Marine Corps recruiting efforts in Maryland and says that he sees firsthand how recruiting high-schoolers for the Marine Corps has become more difficult since the start of the war in Iraq.

He says he hasn’t seen a change in the attitudes of the kids walking into his recruiters’ offices. “They’re young and they still think they’re bulletproof,” he says. “But their parents . . . that’s something different.”

Maj. Fulford says parents have more sway now with their children, meaning recruiters don’t just have to sell a high-school graduate but also his mom and dad. He says his recruiters are spending time dispelling myths about joining up. One he hears often is that a recruit will be sent to boot camp and then directly to Iraq. Not true, Maj. Fulford says. There are at least nine to 12 months of training before a Marine would ever be shipped into a combat zone. “None of us knows what Iraq will look like one year from now.”

He says dealing with parents who grew up in the 1960s has also proved challenging. “The Vietnam era still serves as a factor in these people’s minds,” he says. “But the military of 1968 isn’t the military of today.”

There’s also another complicating factor: counter-recruiters. In Tucson, Ariz., Walt Staton, a 22-year-old activist, helped lead a group of six to a Tucson high school to hand out literature on March 16. The gist of the flier: The top five myths from military recruiters. After about 15 minutes, a school official approached, walkie-talkie in hand, and confronted Mr. Staton and his crew. After conferring over her radio, she told them they couldn’t solicit within 100 yards of the school and had to leave.

Activists like Mr. Staton, a web developer and recent University of Arizona graduate, are shadowing military recruiters, learning where they recruit and trying to reach the same students with a vastly different message: Don’t sign up.

Like other counter-recruiting groups, the Tucson Counter Recruiters is relatively new. “It’s totally an extension of the anti-war movement,” Mr. Staton admits, the same playbook from the 1960s and 1970s. For activists like Mr. Staton, the parallels with Vietnam are obvious.

Anti-military tactics aren’t working with 18-year-old Baltimore native Vincent Vasiliades. He wakes up before dawn to jog, do push-ups and crunches, and practice martial-arts moves. By 7 a.m. of his third Wednesday at boot camp, Mr. Vasiliades had already done more than he might during a whole day of summer vacation.

The young Baltimore recruit is in phase one of his boot-camp experiences. Since stepping off the bus that brought him from an airport in Savannah, Ga., and onto Panama Street, his initiation has focused on the Marine Corps’ history, values, customs, and traditions. Early morning runs and exercises are nothing compared other challenges. “It’s the obstacle courses–the ropes and bars,” he said, and “not knowing what to expect next.”

What’s next will be his first run on the “Confidence Course,” filled with its rope swings, log obstacles, and rappelling. By his fourth week at boot camp, Mr. Vasiliades and his fellow recruits will move indoors for training at the base pool, where he will have to learn to swim bearing heavy packs and rifles. Mr. Vasiliades will spend most of his seventh week learning to fire the M-16 rifle at targets usually ranging between 100 and 500 yards away. Then his boot-camp experience will wind down with the Crucible, a 54-hour “final exam” where recruits don face paint and hike across Parris Island over obstacles and under razor wire.

When he arrived at boot camp on a Tuesday night, he had everything taken from him except a Bible and an address book. They even took his identity. For the 12 weeks of training, Mr. Vasiliades, like many recruits, will have trouble speaking in the first person. But just like he was issued new pants, new socks, new shirts, new boots, and a pair of New Balance sneakers, he’ll be issued back a new identity–a Marine. That’s something Mr. Vasiliades says he’s comfortable with: “This recruit is thinking about 20 years in the Corps and then a pension.”
Reprinted here with permission from World Magazine.  Visit the website at