By Alice C. Elwell
Two soldiers appear out of the dense pine-brush undergrowth, their faces covered in war paint, their uniforms caked with mud.
Their movements are silent, covert, potentially deadly. Leaves barely rustle in the stifling heat.
These recruits have come to Parris Island, S.C., to become Marines, to learn how to kill — and their training is reaching its climax.
Two of them are Kyle Taylor, 18, and Brandon Doherty, 19, buddies since fourth grade growing up in Abington. They joined the Marines in August.
Now, it's October and they are in the midst of the Crucible, a 54-hour endurance test in which new Marine recruits survive on just three meals and four hours of sleep. The few hours of sleep they get are beneath the stars or in the "thunder dome," a structure to protect recruits from lightning storms, at a closed WWII-era airport.
With M16A2 rifles slung over their shoulders, these warriors-in-training enter a simulated war zone. Machine guns are firing, grenades are exploding and battle cries can be heard in the distance. Barbed wire is everywhere, and as Doherty runs amid the steady rat-tat-tat of machine guns, one thought keeps coming back to him: "This isn't a video game, this is the real thing."
Taylor and Doherty are no longer the same teens who left Abington to join the Marines. Both have lost weight, studied terrorism and learned to use bayonets and follow orders.
They learned those things at Parris Island, on the South Carolina coast, one of two Marine boot camps in the country. Every male recruit east of the Mississippi and all female recruits train on Parris Island.
The recruits spend three months in boot camp. They learn how to drill and practice marksmanship, engage in combat and live the Marine Corps' customs, courtesies and core values.
The culmination of their 13 weeks at boot camp, the Crucible is the ultimate test of the recruits' endurance and fortitude. They don't run it alone, but as a team, helping each through the barricades, solving problems and encouraging each other to survive.
"The whole time you're thinking, 'I won't make it,'" said Louis Bonitto III, 19, of Brockton. "When you do, it's a sense of accomplishment, it gives you confidence."
On a steamy day last October, some recruits doing their Crucible were on silent patrol, communicating with hand signals. Using their rifles, they lifted razor wire and crawled under, then scaled walls.
Dampness thickened the air as they ran by, sand flies swarmed and fire ants bit as the oppressive humidity bore down on them. The sweltering temperature is even more intense inside their Marine uniforms, made of a special fabric that holds in the heat to make them harder to detect by thermal imaging.
Crawling through sand, mud and rocks, they huddle next to logs, behind trees and in bunkers. Bugs crawl all over them, but they're trained not to swat. One false move could alert the enemy to their presence. They work together, one pulling his buddy over a wall by grabbing on to his belt, another giving a hand over an obstacle.
A platoon comes to a parallel pair of four-by-four timbers suspended by a single rope, like a swing. The goal is to climb over one timber, then the next, while the contraption sways. The recruits gather, murmuring among themselves. The first climbs up, and stretches a hand out for the next recruit. The timbers swing as one recruit climbs on another's knee to reach the next timber. It's hard. The timbers swing. The recruits are tired, hungry, hot and hurting. One person slips, but no one jeers. Taunting each other was in another life. As Marines, they've become a team, each only as good as the other.
The drill instructors, or DIs, of Parris Island have turned these recruits into lethal fighting machines. They move with the recruits, reminding them of their lessons, coaching them.
"We've never lost a battle, we've never lost a war," one barks. As they cross an obstacle, the DI reminds them, "Slow is smooth, smooth is fast, for any type of tactics, any type of mission."
The recruits run on a mock battle field, armed with bayonets that have a slight depression called a "blood well," designed to pull blood and guts out of the victim.
Tired and exhausted after more than two straight days in the Crucible, the recruits now have to run a "nine-mile hump" back to base. That part was the hardest for Doherty, at least until the DIs started calling cadences. At that point, he said, "we realized we were about to become Marines. It was a motivating rally."
At the end of the Crucible, the recruits are bone tired and hungry but so jazzed up they probably could have done it again. The test ends with a "warrior's breakfast" — the best food Doherty tasted during his entire stay on Parris Island.
These new warriors will soon graduate from boot camp and depart for more training elsewhere. Generally, recruits who have completed their training are deployed in seven months, some to Iraq.
They say they are ready for wherever the Marines Corps takes them.
And make no mistake, they know a war is raging in Iraq. About 130,000 American troops were in Iraq, including 23,000 Marines, before Bush announced he was sending 21,500 more as part of his new war strategy.
Some of those troops could be new Marines from Brockton or Taunton, Middleboro or Pembroke, East Bridgewater or Plymouth.
"I want to go to Iraq, I want to go and fight for my country," said Taylor, of Abington.