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At Quantico, the ultimate test

Fighting two wars, Marines hold new leaders to higher standard

There is no yelling. No invective. No spittle-laced derision.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/11/27/AR2009112701374.html

Video
Learning to Lead

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/metro/quantico/video.html

Photos:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/gallery/2009/11/27/GA2009112701626.html

By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 27, 2009; 8:53 AM

Instead, there is a soft, warm welcome for the dozens of young men and women reporting to Officer Candidates School at Quantico Marine Base in Virginia.

Arriving in polos and khakis, they check in at their leisure, anytime between 8 a.m. and 11:59 p.m., filing off buses or dropped off by well-wishing parents at what could just as well be the first day of college.

This is no Parris Island, the legendary boot camp in South Carolina where the drill instructors' ferocity explodes almost the instant that recruits arrive. But for the next six weeks, as Col. Rick Mancini told the candidates in his orientation speech, "every part of your body, your mind, your spirit will be tested. . . . Your world will be rocked."

For the U.S. Marine Corps, this season's crop of candidates is vitally important. Marines are leading the way in Afghanistan and continuing the fight in Iraq, with increased numbers to satisfy the demands of the two simultaneous wars. The Marines need more young men and women who are willing to face combat while most of their peers stay home.

And so last summer, the deadliest since the war in Afghanistan began, Quantico welcomed its second-largest officer candidate class since the Vietnam War.

Despite the surprisingly easy start in July, this will be a grueling, sleep-deprived test for the 310 members of India Company. Those who pass can return next summer for another round of training toward becoming officers in the Corps. But 15 to 30 percent of the candidates usually wash out, which is fine with the Marines, who know that not everyone is right for the rigorous lifestyle.

On the eve of leaving for OCS, Jacob Lovelady, 21, pronounces himself "very nervous." Other candidates arrive with their hair preemptively sheared, but Lovelady, who grew up near Frederick, shows up with a thick mop of brown curls, as if holding on to the last vestiges of civilian life. He has wide eyes and is thin and fit, but he's not a natural athlete; he spent his high school years performing in dramas such as "The Glass Menagerie."

Tyler Martin, 22, of Alexandria is eager to take the next step toward his childhood dream of becoming one of the few and the proud. Martin, a star high school baseball and football player and son of a Navy Corpsman, spent part of his childhood at Camp Lejeune, a sprawling Marine base in North Carolina.

Arthur Colby, 20, of Washington reached Quantico after a life in elite private schools, drawn by a sense of duty and patriotism that many of his peers consider antiquated, even strange.

Three young men, just weeks removed from college, emerge from dense Virginia woods onto a barren parade ground, about to be shorn, outfitted and processed, rendered virtually indistinguishable from 307 other would-be officers.

Not all of them will make the cut.

Hurry up and fret

The ease of the first day at OCS takes Lovelady by surprise, but even more unnerving is that the quiet cordiality continues the next day as the candidates spend hours picking up gear, getting haircuts and filling out forms.

This can't last, he knows. At some point, the sergeant instructors -- Quantico's name for drill instructors -- will unleash their fury.

But when? Anticipation turns to anxiety, then fear. By the third day, even Lovelady, as nervous as he is about what's in store, just wants the training to begin in earnest. This is a special kind of torture: hell delayed.

It's the Corps' way of telling candidates they are no longer in control of their lives. Although they don't realize it, they are already learning their first lesson. The agonizing wait is a small-scale version of what it's like on the eve of combat. The enemy is coming. Be vigilant.

Then it comes.

"Shut up! SHUT UP! Shut your whole face," a sergeant instructor screams at a candidate who wasn't talking in the first place. Leaning in closer so their faces are inches apart, the instructor screams in rapid-fire, staccato bursts: "You didn't friggin' shave. You have a beard for a face. You're disgusting."

The sergeant instructors shout at every misstep, real or perceived, in a primal, almost orchestral pitch while the candidates stand at attention by their bunks. It's a decades-old ritual called pickup.

"Hiroshima," is how one staff member describes it.

Another sergeant instructor prowls up and down the middle of the squad bay, looking for someone to pick on.

He finds a candidate at the end of the line and orders him to "scream at the top of your lungs!"

The candidate could take a quick moment to check the instructor's uniform to get his rank right. But a split-second delay would invite more screaming and perhaps give the instructor cause to rip him for "eyeballing." Better to keep his gaze focused straight ahead and guess.

"Aye, aye, gunnery sergeant!" the candidate yells.

He guesses wrong.

"It's STAFF SERGEANT!" the instructor yells, angry as ever. "Scream: 'staff sergeant.' "

"Aye, aye, staff sergeant!"

"HUH?" the instructor says.

"Aye, aye, staff sergeant!" the hapless candidate yells, louder this time.

"There you go again with that sweet mouth. OPEN IT UP AND SCREAM!"

"AYE, AYE, STAFF SERGEANT!"

The volume finally satisfies the instructor, who prowls back up the line looking for his next victim.

"This is it," Lovelady thinks. He can't help but let slip a surreptitious smile, not because he's amused -- there's nothing funny about this -- but because at long last, reality has set in.

A sergeant instructor screams, "FASTER, FASTER, FASTER," as Lovelady rummages through his gear, trying to find his padlock. Now he'll finally know whether he's cut out for this.

A brother's example

Much as he wanted to become a Marine, Lovelady always wondered whether he had what it took. But he had to try. At 21, his life was, he thought, utterly ordinary. He was shy, even awkward, and felt more comfortable with his science fiction novels and hiking in the woods than at parties.

Lovelady, a mediocre student at Boonsboro High School, near Frederick, spent two years at Hagerstown Community College before raising his grades to get into the University of Maryland. He had hoped college would help him figure out not only what he wanted to do with his life, but also who he was.

Much as he wanted to become a Marine, Lovelady always wondered whether he had what it took. But he had to try. At 21, his life was, he thought, utterly ordinary. He was shy, even awkward, and felt more comfortable with his science fiction novels and hiking in the woods than at parties.

Lovelady, a mediocre student at Boonsboro High School, near Frederick, spent two years at Hagerstown Community College before raising his grades to get into the University of Maryland. He had hoped college would help him figure out not only what he wanted to do with his life, but also who he was.

But Lovelady said he felt as if he didn't fit in on campus. Instead of going to football games and frat parties, he found himself going home to Frederick every weekend to be with high school friends and his family. College was a road to "a soulless nine-to-five job," he said, a clich├ęd existence. "Go to work, come home, kiss the wife, watch TV."

His older brother had enlisted in the Army, a decision Lovelady thought at the time was rash. But that move later came to seem brave, extraordinary and, above all, original -- especially when his brother came home after a year in Iraq, talking not just of combat patrols but also of volunteering in a burn clinic.

His were the sort of stories you don't always see on the news, inspiring Lovelady to think that, like his brother, maybe he could do some good.

Why not join the military? As the thought morphed from idle speculation into serious consideration, Lovelady took it another step. Why not the Marines? They were tougher, he thought, more elite. And why not become an officer? Make that college education, a prerequisite for the officer corps, really mean something.

Now, at Quantico, Lovelady was ready to live an extraordinary life. But the mere act of volunteering offered no guarantees. Not only was he being indoctrinated into Marine culture; he was also being evaluated to see whether he was worthy of its vaunted heritage.

The next six weeks would be an elaborate, excruciating job interview.

Exposing weakness


Nothing is ever fast enough. Nothing is good enough. The instructors find fault in everything, although all they do at first is run the candidates through the most basic of chores that, without the constant screaming and exhortation, would be kindergarten-simple: Put your boots under your rack. Hang your poncho in your wall locker. Get out your toiletries.

The yelling lasts all day, sergeant instructors working in relentless shifts. The top-of-their-lungs screaming wrecks their vocal chords and forces them to yell from the diaphragm, which produces an unnatural, guttural growl that's almost incomprehensible but always intimidating.

Their job is to expose weakness -- not show their own, which requires a little sleight of hand. They steal away backstage to sip hot water and honey, pound Red Bull and pop Excedrin for their throbbing heads and Motrin ("Vitamin M") for their aching bodies.

The candidates never see this, of course, just as they never see instructors eat, sleep or perform any basic human function besides breathing. In front of the candidates, the instructors are always in character: invincible, imperious, almost inhuman models of strength, their authority absolute and unquestioned.

Hour after high-decibel hour, the commands roll on, even through meals, when instructors have success where perhaps the candidates' mothers did not: "YOU WILL EAT SALAD."

'I want my freedom'

It takes less than three weeks before Lovelady thinks about quitting.

Hardly any sleep. Five-mile runs. Twelve-mile humps. More pull-ups, push-ups, crunches than he can count. And the academic exams on Marine history, general military studies, weapons, land navigation. His already skeletal body grows more gaunt; his eyes are misty and vacant, making him seem years older.

"Starting to crack just a little today," Lovelady writes in his journal. "It's hard to remember why I'm here. What all of this [stuff] is for. . . . I want to go home so badly. . . . I want my freedom. I want to go to Borders + sit + read for as long as I want. I want to drive around with windows down, music on, sunglasses, sipping a diet coke."

Knowing this day would come, because it comes for nearly everyone, his recruiter had had Lovelady write himself a letter on the day he left for OCS. "Take it out when you're starting to hurt during the third week," he had said.

Lovelady reaches into his wallet and pulls out a folded sheet.

"Jacob. Don't give out now. You know you can accomplish this. . . . Push through the pain and earn what you have been fighting for."

Lovelady folds it back up, determined, at least for now, to continue. He can't help but think there was no way the person who wrote that letter could possibly foresee the pain of the past three weeks.

If the next three weeks are anywhere near as tough, he's going to need more than encouraging words.

Next: The necessity of failure.


Much as he wanted to become a Marine, Lovelady always wondered whether he had what it took. But he had to try. At 21, his life was, he thought, utterly ordinary. He was shy, even awkward, and felt more comfortable with his science fiction novels and hiking in the woods than at parties.

Lovelady, a mediocre student at Boonsboro High School, near Frederick, spent two years at Hagerstown Community College before raising his grades to get into the University of Maryland. He had hoped college would help him figure out not only what he wanted to do with his life, but also who he was.