PARRIS ISLAND, S.C.
Thursday, April 23, 1330 hours
One, Two, Three, Four! United States Marine Corps!"
Shouting as their boots slap the wet asphalt, a platoon of marine recruits trudges down an abandoned runway as a midafternoon cloudburst drenches this pine-forested island.
With M-16 rifles and 50 pounds of gear slung over their backs, the group at first glance could be straight out of Hollywood: Barking drill instructors and mud-splattered troops tromping past the backdrop of a towering obstacle course.
But as the platoon reaches shelter in a cluster of wooden sea-huts on the boot camp's edge, any resemblance to movie-screen marines - slick, impervious, overdramatized - disappears.
The recruits hang their M-16s on bunks, drop to the floor, and start rubbing blistered feet. Camouflaged caps come off, revealing braids and ponytails. And a teen just out of high school asks the question on everybody's mind: "Can we have something to eat, ma'am?"
For these young women - and tens of thousands of others who have joined the Marines since the late 1940s - Parris Island is the shared point of entry, the place where romantic civilian myths of "the few and the proud" give way to rough-at-the-edges reality. Indeed, as the sole US training base for female marines, the island has long evoked mixed feelings among the women stationed here.
An idyllic, 8,000-acre expanse of evergreens and wetlands off South Carolina's coast, the historic island has served since World War I as a prime Marine training facility. Today, some 2,500 women and 15,500 men graduate from the boot camp each year.
But ever since female recruits began arriving in 1949, Parris Island has also been the place where women encounter firsthand male hostility to their integration in the Marine Corps. In past decades, women here have faced systematic gender discrimination, sexual harassment, and unfounded accusations of lesbianism, according to official reports, legal experts, and Marine sources.
Today, the Marine base is the only US military facility where women are still segregated for basic training and have all-female instructors. Marine Corps officials say the policy prevents sexual distractions at a formative time; opponents claim it exacerbates gender inequalities. Women drop out of boot camp here at double the rate
Yet despite such controversies, Parris Island remains the first, vital proving ground for women marines. For many recruits, it is the place where identities are molded, where youthful indiscretion meets the firm hand of discipline, and where physical and mental hardship breed strength and pride.
As they undergo the "Crucible" - the final, gruelling trial of a 12-week boot camp - many of the muddy young women sitting cross-legged on the sea-hut floor speak of joining the Marines as a decisive, life-transforming event.
"Back home, this recruit was daddy's little girl and she couldn't do nothin'," says Lucia Torres, a soft-spoken teen from Dallas and the daughter of Mexican immigrants. "But she always had a dream to become a marine, to be independent." (Like all recruits, Ms. Torres must refer to herself in the third person.)
For Jamie Ronan, who grew up in a tough Italian neighborhood near the railroad yards of Newark, N.J., the Marine Corps offers a road to self-respect. "This recruit has given up on a lot of things. She hated this about herself," Ms. Ronan says. "She joined the Marines because she wanted to start something and finish it all the way through."
Tabitha Tate, from Owosso, Mich., says she was "partying" too much and slipping in college. She looked to the Marines for purpose. "It was a spur-of-the-moment decision," she says, "to do something with my life."
Drill instructor Lillian Diaz, an 11-year veteran, listens quietly as her 18 recruits finish telling their stories.
"So now we all know each other," she says, getting to her feet. "But none of that matters, does it? It doesn't matter where we came from. All that matters is that we're here now. And we're going to accomplish something. Right?"
"AYE, MA'AM!" the recruits shout back.
As the late afternoon sun casts shadows from their rifles, Sergeant Diaz marches her recruits across a soggy field, stopping in front of a huge, 15-feet-wide, 100-feet-tall vertical wooden ladder.
Known as the Stairway to Heaven, the ladder is one of 29 obstacles that recruits must tackle during the Crucible, a 54-hour ordeal that Diaz's team embarked on at 2 a.m this morning.
The Marine Corps launched the Crucible in late 1996 as a modern-day "rite of passage," an exercise in character-building and stamina that all recruits - male and female - must complete to become marines. During the 54 hours, recruits are deprived of sleep and food, marched a total of 40 miles, and put through a gamut of problem-solving drills to promote selflessness and teamwork.
At the Stairway, a mock radio-relay site, the mission is to hoist two 50-pound metal ammunition crates to the top of the ladder and down again. The problem: Sections of the ladder, as well as its circular base, are booby-trapped. With a 2-by-4 plank and ropes as gear, the recruits have 30 minutes to complete the task.
"Hey, let's go! Get those helmets on!" yells Sgt. Pamela Harris, another drill instructor and Diaz's partner. The women move quickly to lower the plank to the bottom rung of the ladder, making a bridge over the booby-trapped area. But they get bogged down trying to decide how to use the ropes to lift the crates.
"Start climbing or something," says one recruit.
"Yeah, do something!" urges another.
"This is messed up!" exclaims Tiffany Taylor, team leader for the exercise.
The stocky Ms. Tate volunteers to carry a rope up the ladder. But she can't see which areas are booby-trapped - painted red.
"Which way?" she yells.
"To the left!" the others shout. "Bear hug it!"
"This recruit is too short!!" Tate cries in exasperation. By the time she makes it half way up, the time runs out.
Down below, Sgt. Demitrius Cassellas, one of the men clocking the Crucible, shakes his head. His view - one expressed by several enlisted men here - is that women chronically fail to complete exercises, largely because they talk too much. "This happens all the time," he says. Men, he says, accomplish the mission more often.
"The females will sit there and talk about it and the males will attack it," agrees Sgt. Robert Youngblood. He and other male supervisors laughed, watching the women struggle at different events.
But Harris, Diaz, and other female drill instructors don't dwell on their success or failure. They encourage their recruits to draw lessons from how they worked together - the true test of the Crucible.
"The fact that some men are still saying that we shouldn't be here - I just ignore it," says Gunnery Sgt. Arlene Carian.
Friday, April 24, 0800 hours
In a soft morning light, Tate, Ronan, and their group gather in a clearing in the pine forest and fasten their helmets for another "warrior station" drill. By now, most of the women have circles under their eyes; many are yawning.
At midnight, they finished a 1-1/2-hour "hump," or night march. Reveille was four hours later at 4 a.m. And with only 2-1/2 MREs (meals-ready-to-eat) for the entire Crucible, everyone is exceedingly hungry.
Still, the stronger ones urge the stragglers on, belting out the Marine rallying cry, "OOH-RAH!"
Group cohesion is crucial for the complex maneuvers at the warrior stations. These include scaling high walls, squeezing through webs of rope, and wearing gas masks while shuffling down a path with large wooden beams held onto the feet.
This morning, recruits are trying to swing from one wooden platform to another along a string of suspended tires. But only a few women make it. Others fall off or lose momentum and hang, frustrated, in midair.
"We could do it recruits - if we had about an hour longer!" says Tate, swatting away a sand flea.
The stations teach more than physical prowess, though. With names like Laville's Duty, Timmerman's Tank, and Garcia's Leap, each one commemorates a heroic act by a marine, many of whom became martyrs. By telling these stories, drill instructors seek to instill good ethics, commitment, and courage.
At Garcia's Leap, for example, Harris watches as Veronica Connolly, a New Yorker and aspiring officer, hesitates before jumping off a stump to grab a high metal bar.
"You overcame your fear, Connolly," Harris observes afterward.
"Yes, ma'am," says Ms. Connolly.
"And you would do it again?" Harris asks.
"You would overcome your fear," Harris repeats, "just like Private Garcia did when he threw himself on that hand grenade."
No one says a word.
"Ma'am, is it still morning?" Tate asks, her cheeks streaked by dirt and sweat.
Sitting on benches in a green canvas "core values" tent, Tate and the other women look dazed as they sip strawberry juice from canteens and eat dry MREs from silver pouches.
While providing for a brief rest, the tents are also discussion sites used by the Marine Corps to promote character, mutual respect, and bonding among recruits on the Crucible. Acting as mentors, Harris and Diaz encourage the women to air problems relating to sensitive topics such as racism, drug abuse, and sexism.
"In the early 1960s, my father was a Marine Corps officer at Camp Lejeune [N.C.]," begins Harris, who is black. "He went to a diner with a Caucasian and ordered sodas. But when they brought my father's soda, they put it on the table upside down - upside down," she repeats.
The story strikes a chord with Connolly, from New York. "My grandmother is Italian, and she doesn't like black children," she says. "She calls me and my siblings 'nigger kids,' and I'm darker than the rest."
Soon, all the women are listening intently as one after another they tell of stinging discrimination, troubled families, and personal anguish.
"This recruit's grandfather was a marine in Vietnam," Tate says slowly. "But he was a family humiliation. He was such an alcoholic that we used to have to pick him up from bars. He ended up drinking alcohol they used to clean out engine parts - it killed him immediately." She pauses.
"All I remember is him with a bottle."
With bright green smoke billowing and staccato bursts of machine-gun fire simulating a battle, Tate crawls stomach down along a 150-yard. obstacle course on a mission to resupply ammunition to the front line.
"I'm up! They see me! I'm down!" she yells as she rushes a few yards brandishing her M-16 and then falls flat again as if under enemy fire.
Leaping over walled mounds of grass into "tank ditches" and scraping under barbed wire, the women make rapid progress until one of them, Shayna O'Neal, is designated a casualty.
Tate, Taylor, Sonia Lee, and Khristina Tew go to the rescue. Dragging Ms. O'Neal by her arms and legs, they lurch unsteadily down the course and into the woods.
"Let's rush!" shouts Ms. Lee.
"Go! Go! Go!" yells Tate.
"I'm up! They see me! I'm down!" all four cry as artillery explodes around them.
At last, they reach the end point. O'Neal lies motionless on the ground, her eyes still closed. "Oh, thank you, Lord, thank you, Lord," she murmurs.
"We saved you, O'Neal," whispers Tate.
Saturday, April 25, 0630 hours
"I used to drive a Cadillac..." the recruits chant, echoing Harris's rich voice as they march over wetlands at sunrise.
"... Now I'm humping with a pack."
As a pink dawn heralds the end of the last, nine-mile march of the Crucible, no one remembers the bickering and complaints of yesterday. Instead, all minds are focused on one thing: survival.
With her oversized helmet still sliding down her forehead, Elisa Pina stumbles along the road, her hands tightly clutching the butt pack of the tall, stringy recruit named Boothe in front of her.
Gina Salazar, a single mother from Phoenix, is limping.
Finally, at 0750 hours, the platoon rounds the corner into the main base and lines up at a replica of the Iwo Jima Memorial.
A recruit from Atlanta, Julie Taylor, is shaking as she stands at attention. Then, as the flag rises to the strains of "The Star Spangled Banner," O'Neal faints and crumples to the ground.
"You have done an awesome job on your Crucible!" booms an instructor, as paramedics hover over O'Neal. "You now know what teamwork can accomplish!"
From the loudspeaker, Lee Greenwood begins crooning the sentimental, pop tune "God Bless the USA." Diaz moves slowly down the line of recruits, shaking hands. Tears stream down Tate's face as Diaz hands her the Marines' coveted emblem, the Anchor, Globe, and Eagle.
"After my grandfather, my family all looked down on the Marine Corps," Tate says afterwards. "But I've already proved them wrong. Now, they say they are proud of me," she beams. "This is the best moment in my life."