A week at Parris Island comes to a close too soon

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 16, 2014

Editor’s note: David Freeze of Rowan County and several educators just completed a week at Parris Island for a hands-on introduction to Marine boot camp. He filed this report Saturday.

We learned quickly that every Marine is a rifleman, but they are much more than that.
Yes, it is impressive that the conductor of the Marine band and the commanding general are excellent marksmen. It is much more impressive to me that they love their jobs and exude excitement and energy about them. I will return to more about this later.
The educator platoon, actually the Educators Workshop, had one more morning on the base when we awoke Friday. I had already heard Gen. Reynolds tell us that we probably wouldn’t want to leave and I think many of the education professionals were not in a hurry to leave at all. I certainly was not.
We were up early again, in fact much earlier than usual for most days back home. Breakfast started at 5 a.m., and we were usually on the buses headed somewhere by 6:15. My early morning runs began at just after 4, a common thing around the base. On Friday, our departure was set at 7 a.m. as we headed over to the Colors Ceremony, and then to graduation. Over the years, I have seen lots of great events and been part of a few, but I imagined something special here.
It was the coldest morning of our trip, but the dawn was set for a clear sky. A large viewing stand is placed near the large flagpole in a central part of the base, and we had reserved seats down front. A very formal flag-raising ceremony started with a moving performance by the Parris Island Marine Band. Their renditions of “Amazing Grace,” “This is God’s Country,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “God Bless America” were unbelievable. I have never heard them done better. As the flag rose to the “Star Spangled Banner,” there were lots of tears as we all realized that there was no better place to be on this beautiful morning.
Gen. Reynolds said, “This flag will be here, well taken care of by our Marines, long after you have gone today, and are at home in your beds. So it will be in many places around the world.”
A rousing rendition of the Marine’s Hymn closed out the ceremony. This was a “Wow” moment! The educators around me agreed. Seeing the ceremony left us all bursting with pride for our country and our armed services.
Next was the formal picture to commemorate the week. We quickly formed up, per Sgt. Derosa’s orders. Gen. Reynolds stood next to me as photographers took a series of photos and it was quickly over. The next most popular photo was with Sgt. Derosa, our drill instructor during while on the base. Originally he was hard on us, pushed us to get the drill right, and was stern and tough. But as we moved through the different events, he softened and began to tell us what to expect at the next stop. It was good to see him smile. No matter what, Sgt. Derosa took care of us. I’m sure it has been much the same with the new Marine recruits, though as Gen. Reynolds reminded us later, the difference is a meaningful discipline. In his photo with me, Sgt. Derosa had no trouble looking very stern as I probably would have required more of the meaningful discipline than most.
Our final ceremony was the graduation of two companies of new Marines, 381 in all. We moved to preferred seating at the parade deck, a large outdoor asphalt area complete with a reviewing stand. Once again the Marine Band opened the ceremony with amazing precision as they marched and played their wonderful music. I was amazed at the precision exhibited also by the graduating platoons as they entered the parade deck one by one. Honor graduates were recognized and platoon flags were retired. Finally for all of these young and now official Marines, the platoons received the most welcome order they had heard to this point. “Companies Dismissed” had only sounded seconds before the families rushed the field to find their loved ones who were already congratulating their brethren. Boot camp was over, and after a 10- day leave, each Marine would then continue on his or her own journey for future training.
The last scheduled event for the Educator’s Workshop was a final address and debriefing from Gen. Reynolds at the Recruit Chapel. She thanked the educators for coming, asked for their ideas on how to improve the dynamics of the workshop, and asked them to go out and spread the word about the real Marine Corps. Clearly we had been exposed to much information during our time on the base, and realized now that the young recruits are going through a transformation that will benefit them and our country for years to come.
For me, it was a sad but very enlightened walk out of the Recruit Chapel as we headed for our bus that would take us off the base for the last time. An assistant principal from High Point and I both wondered aloud if we could have made it through the 70 days of training. Later, I heard that one of the young teachers was seriously considering the possibility of enlistment.
To close out our week, the North Carolina group headed for lunch, then boarded a charter bus back to Raleigh. Richard Taylor from Cleveland, Larry Sullivan from Mint Hill, and I ended up riding by bus and van almost eight hours home that afternoon and night. We were glad to be home, but I wouldn’t have changed a thing about the week.
The theme, “I wouldn’t have changed a thing”, was something we heard many times during the week from the Marines on the base. They were universally glad that they had taken the steps to join the United States Marine Corps. Some would stay in service for four years, and quite a few intended to make a career of the Corps. Lt. Jean Durham, a public affairs director and my media chaperone for the time on the base, said, “I plan to stay, but the Marines are performance driven. We all have to be the best at our jobs for the Marines to continue to want us.” Clearly, the Marines that we met are some of America’s best and brightest. Often we heard from Marines that they had the best job on the base, yet they had plans to strive for more. These were bright, extremely fit, and very professional people who retained the ability to be themselves in the Marine Corps way. It was fantastic to hear the positive “Good morning, sir and good morning, ma’am” all week from bright eyed recruits and Marines alike.
In my opinion, Marine Corps recruiting is in good hands, the process is sound, as is our reliance on the Marines to be “First called upon, First to arrive, and First to fight”.
When Richard and I left on Monday afternoon, we expected an adventure, but were not sure what thoughts we would leave the week with. The Marines gave us an open book, vowing to be transparent to us. They did exactly that. The 40 educators on the trip were never told we couldn’t ask any question. Even pictures were allowed in nearly all areas. Lt. Durham arranged great interviews for me with young recruits in the middle of their training. I had no limitations on questions.
But what happened to our education platoon was worth mentioning too. On the trip were 20 educators and me out of the Raleigh recruiting region, and 20 educators and a TV reporter out of the Richmond, Virginia recruiting area. Small groups of educators knew each other previously, but we had no choice but to develop a working relationship together as we proceeded through drills, marksmanship, repelling, obstacles, and much more. All along we came to appreciate what one million Marines had done before us at Parris Island. A competition developed between us and the Virginia group, and in the words of Sgt. Dwight Henderson, “It wasn’t really a competition, but we were the clear winners.” Well, yes it was a competition.
Amanda French, a teacher from the Guilford County Schools, said, “We all came back changed people.” There is no doubt that we did. Better for the experience, but better for the appreciation of what the United States Marine Corps is all about.
Gen. Reynolds said that she had often been asked why she had stayed in the Marine Corps for so long. Her answer was just simply, “I love being around Marines!” It is easy to see why. Marines like Sgt. Derosa, Sgt. Lanham, and General Reynolds and so many more have the situation well in hand.
I love being around Marines too.
Post script: Janice Perry of Salisbury let us know that her grandson, Nicholas Perry, of Bumpass, Va., is currently in training as a recruit at Parris Island. His dad, Brian Dale Perry, was a Marine for 33 years. With the help of Lt. Durham, we were able to track him down, but could not get access to him because he couldn’t be taken away from his training.

I hope to keep tabs on Nicholas and have a follow-up story on him after his graduation.