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'A FEW GOOD MEN' ARE WOMEN

PARRIS ISLAND, S.C. — PARRIS ISLAND, S.C. -- In the hours before dawn, Terri Howard arrives at the swampy military boot camp known as Parris Island, S.C.

Bleary-eyed and bone-tired from a journey that started 21 hours before, she's here to be transformed from a scared Pasadena teen-ager into a United States Marine.

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Within minutes, she meets the enemy -- a female drill instructor whose scowling face is only inches from hers. "YOU'RE NOT GOING TO MAKE IT!" she barks at Ms. Howard, 18, who is accidentally filling out the wrong recruit form. "Get that crappy look off your face. You've GOT to be here. . . . You're not going anywhere."

For the next three months, she won't leave this training ground the Marines have nicknamed "the land that God forgot," unless she tries to escape -- as several recruits routinely do -- or asks to leave, as four female newcomers will in the next 48 hours.

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But Ms. Howard, a blond tomboy who signed up in January after realizing she couldn't afford college and didn't want a dead-end job, is "locked and cocked" -- Marine slang for someone ready to meet the challenge ahead.

"This is my life," she says, several days before leaving. "I don't want to work at McDonald's. . . . I want to live an adventure and do something that makes me feel proud."

She faces an even tougher training regimen than the one endured by women before her. This month the Marines implemented a new program for women that more closely parallels the men's training and better prepares women to come under fire.

Although they still train apart from the men, women are for the first time being instructed in hand grenades, chemical warfare and basic combat training.

Tested in many ways

Before Ms. Howard leaves, she'll be tested in nearly every conceivable way.

She'll be put in a tear-gas chamber with her gas mask and emerge stumbling, coughing up phlegm and rubbing her burning eyes.

She'll swim in 20 pounds of wet clothes and gear.

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She'll fire an M-60 machine gun, navigate obstacle courses and crawl on her belly through the mud and brush.

(Physical requirements are still less stringent; women, for example, must run 1 1/2 miles in 15 minutes, while men have to do three miles in 28 minutes.)

Although women are restricted from participating in ground combat, the incident last week in which one of the Navy's first female combat pilots plunged to her death in a fighter accident shows that the risk for women is high.

If Ms. Howard makes it -- and last year more than 19 percent of the female candidates didn't -- she will become part of a select few: Women make up fewer than 5 percent of the 174,000 Marines today.

A Catholic who rarely attends church, she has rediscovered God, particularly since finding out that the chapel is the one place where drill instructors aren't allowed.

Weeks before leaving, she began glancing at the crucifix in her bedroom and for the first time in years prayed.

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"It never hurts," she says. "I ask God to keep my family and friends safe, and to help keep me strong and my head up."

Being sent to Haiti, Cuba or Kuwait one day concerns but doesn't overwhelm her, she says.

"I could get killed crossing the street," she says. "My friends think I'm crazy, but I say, 'If I'm going to die, I'd rather die doing something for my country, doing something I'll be remembered for.' "

How it starts

Her journey begins with a knock on the door at 5 a.m.

Marine recruiter Sgt. Robert E. Russman has come to escort her to a processing station in Baltimore.

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Ms. Howard's mother, Linda Shanks, has spent the morning crying and smoking cigarettes, steadily losing hold of the denial she's been in about having her only daughter in the service.

"Go away," she says to the unopened door. "We didn't turn on the front light so you'd think nobody was home."

Ms. Howard moves quickly once Sergeant Russman arrives. She hasn't cried about leaving her mother and stepfather Doug, but if she lingers now she may lose her already fragile composure.

"We keep saying we're not going to do this breakdown stuff and have Terri all upset on the plane, but it's not gonna work," says Ms. Shanks who sobs as she hugs her daughter goodbye.

"Mom, cut it out," says Ms. Howard, who hasn't talked to her own father in years. "I'm not going to the electric chair."

Between interviews, physicals and paperwork, she'll spend the next 10 hours mostly waiting for her new life to begin, with little more than daytime talk shows and 6-year-old issues of Time magazine to entertain her.

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During this lull, some recruits already experience doubts.

"We've had them cry, throw up," says Gunnery Sgt. Brenda Wolfe, the operations chief of the Marine recruiting station in Baltimore. "We afford them one last call home if they want to talk to their parents one last time."

A Marine for 13 years, she's confident Ms. Howard will make it.

To instill confidence

"She's quiet, but she has a vision and a goal," she says. "One time I told her, 'You can smile. It's OK.'

"I think boot camp will give her confidence. She'll learn to speak up for herself."

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While there is little interest in small talk today, she and two other female recruits update Gunnery Sergeant Wolfe on their lives.

"When I told people I was going to be a Marine, the first thing some of them said to me was, 'Oh, she must like girls.' I've even had friends tell me that," says Kristen McElroy, 18, of Alexandria, Va.

Vicki Wagner, 19, also of Alexandria, can relate: "I already have three guys who want to pick fights with me when I get home."

But Ms. Howard believes the job has little to do with gender.

"When you have that title, you're a Marine," she tells them. "You're not male or female."

Although a career in the service always intrigued her, she considered other professions, including interior design and photography, before focusing on the military two years ago.

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"People in the service have always been idols to me," says Ms. Howard, who has dated several servicemen. "They're so respectable. They remind me of what it's like to have power."

Although she talked to the Air Force and Army, she was most enamored of the Marines and signed up several months before graduating from Northeast High School in Pasadena. An unmotivated student, she quit her part-time job at a restaurant when her grades threatened her chances to become a Marine.

During her final days of freedom, Ms. Howard cut loose at home. She and her stepfather went four-wheeling and fishing. She took it as a good sign that she made the biggest catch of her life: a 9-pound rockfish.

She bought and wrapped her Christmas presents and spent her last Friday night with friends -- who first met as "mall rats" -- eating, bowling and listening to Nirvana.

"It's upsetting to see her go," says her best friend, Becky Buchholz, 18, a freshman at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

"I feel as if she's going to change, and I don't want her to. Right now, we're laid-back. We can do anything and not make a big deal about it. I'm afraid she's going to get uptight."

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Her other close friend, Shannon Casper, 17, says: "We still play around but when we mention the Marines she gets real serious. She stops laughing, and all she starts talking about is that."

For her former boyfriend, Kory Hartl, the change has been most difficult of all.

Several weeks ago, she ended their 1 1/2 -year relationship. "I want to live my life without someone at home waiting for me. I don't want that burden," she says.

"I'm proud of her, but I'm not too happy about this," says Mr. Hartl, 19, an auto mechanic who lives in Millersville. "We were together every day. Now . . . I'm staying and she's going. I wanted to try and work things out."

In small ways, friends have witnessed the subtle changes in Ms. Howard. Since January, she has been attending Marine recruit meetings. She got her shoulder-length hair cut short and slapped a Semper Fi bumper sticker on her station wagon. ("Semper Fidelis" is the Marine Corps motto: Always faithful.) For weeks, she slept with her Marine guidebook by her bed and memorized parts before drifting off to sleep.

Exhaustion

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During her 35th hour without sleep, Ms. Howard stands at attention in a dim warehouse shed, barely fending off exhaustion.

Sand fleas have bitten her neck, her eyes are blood-red slits and her complexion has turned a greasy ashen gray. Not that she notices, but the other female recruits in Platoon 4036 look equally broken.

So far, it has been a rocky transition: Breakfast was "nasty rice TTC and eggs," which she couldn't stomach. Then she almost passed out getting her blood drawn during her physical.

For nearly two hours, she and 49 young women gather and inspect the gas masks, cartridge belts, canteens, sleeping bags and other gear needed for basic training. Altogether, the equipment weighs 60 pounds, exactly half of Ms. Howard's weight.

While they fumble with zippers and straps, their male counterparts arrive at the warehouse, gather their supplies and finish before them, an event that does little to boost the women's morale.

In the chow hall later, fatigue wins out over hunger. Ms. Howard and many others fail to finish their chicken, mashed potatoes and cauliflower.

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"STOP PICKING AT YOUR FOOD!" yells Sgt. Tangie Norris, a drill instructor. "Stop acting like a baby because you think you're going to throw up. You're going to eat. You haven't eaten all day."

Life here has been even worse than Ms. Howard expected. The dominant emotion so far has been "that scared feeling of not knowing what's going to happen next."

During a few minutes away from the crowd, she lets the tears stream down her face.

"This is what I wanted," she says, wiping them away before her instructor notices. "I'm just tired, really tired. . . . The only great part now is knowing that if I stick with it, in three months I'll be a Marine."

At 7:30 p.m., Terri Howard goes to sleep in a barracks that resembles an old-fashioned infirmary.

It can't compare to her heated water bed at home, but she hardly notices, 38 hours after her journey began.

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New 'best friend'

By the second day, four female recruits have already asked to head home, and rumors abound that others will soon depart.

For Ms. Howard, though, eight hours of sleep and the prospect of getting her M-16 rifle, four magazines of ammunition, a carrying sling and cleaning gear sustain her.

Her drill instructor asks for help handing out the supplies, and four women rush to the front.

"Where are you, Howard?" asks Sergeant Norris. "You NEVER volunteer for anything!"

In her camouflage uniform -- or "cammies" as Marines call it -- Ms. Howard already is growing more indistinguishable from the others.

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The rhythm of her life is becoming set:

Training days that begin at 5 a.m. and end at 9 p.m. There will be no TV, no newspaper, no Ozzy Osbourne music she loves so much.

Halfway through training, she'll be allowed one phone call. And if she's like some women before her, stress and exercise will cause her to stop menstruating temporarily before training ends.

After filling out a custody card, she receives what some Marines call their "best friend," an M-16. She'll sleep with it locked to her bunk and learn to fire it by day and night. Only now it seems an unfamiliar thing and she cradles it more like her cat Smoky and less like the killing machine it is.

"This is my favorite part," she says of her trip to the armory, smiling for the first time in almost two days.

While the other women get their weapons, she stands silently in line. A group of male recruits, who have finished training, march to a warehouse for final alterations on their graduation uniforms. Chins up, chests out, they look like the few, the proud.

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Ms. Howard steals a glance and allows herself to imagine that future.

For now, though, it's only a daydream. If sheer determination counts, though, Terri Howard has a fighting chance.

"It's what I want," she says, "so I won't give up -- no matter how hard it is."


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