Cover Story

The fewer and the proud

Anxious parents, wartime funk, and anti-war counter-recruiters may lower the numbers, but at boot camp the recruits are raring to go to war

Issue: "The fewer and the proud," April 23, 2005

PARRIS ISLAND, S.C.-For Andrew Burgess's next feat, he'll roll over a pyramid of logs. It's the morning of March 10, and somehow the 19-year-old feels at home when he's hurdling objects. He's far from home, though, attending boot camp at the Parris Island Marine Corps Recruiting Depot.

The technique for making it over the logs is similar to how Mr. Burgess would have plowed through the line of scrimmage when he was a high-school running back, first in Richland, N.C., and then in Pelion, S.C. Speed is important, but so is balance.

"It's pretty hard, but it's still just training," he says as he takes a breather from the Marine Corps Confidence Course, a series of ropes courses and obstacles that are designed to drag a recruit out of his comfort zone. About 20 yards away, recruits line up to jump off a tower onto a dangling rope. There's a pad below and the recruits are tethered, but still one young man can't seem to make the leap. "Jump onto my rope," one drill instructor tells the hesitant recruit. "Jump," says Mr. Burgess softly so almost no one can hear.

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Four weeks before making his way over the pyramid of logs, Mr. Burgess was a private citizen. He had his newly minted high-school diploma, but not much else. He'd thought about joining the Marine Corps, but the catalyst for the decision came in the chorus of a Toby

Keith song, "American Soldier." Just two weeks after the former high-school football star walked into the recruiter's office, he was bound for boot camp.

Recruitment numbers for the Few and the Proud, however, have become slightly fewer, according to recent Marine Corps figures. In January-for the first time in a decade-the Marines missed their enlistment targets. In February-and again in March-the shortfall grew. Marine Corps recruiting spokesman Major David Griesmer argues that if the Marines' enlistment numbers are down, it's only slightly.

"So far year-to-date, we're off 125 people," he said before the March results were in-down 15,107 from a projected 15,232. Army recruiting was 32 percent below target in March; over 6 percent off for the year. Army Reserve numbers are 10 percent below target, and the Army National Guard is 25 percent down. The Marines-traditionally the stronger recruiter-are still shipping enough recruits to maintain the size of the corps, but now recruits are turned around more quickly. Mr. Burgess said it is like a revolving door: in the recruiter's office and out to Parris Island.

Unlike his fellow recruits at Parris Island, Kevin Lamont Merriweather keeps smiling. Other recruits undergoing the transformation from citizen to soldier remain solidly stoic. Instead, Mr. Merriweather speaks easily in first-person just a few steps away from the same confidence course where he'll soon return to drills. He says he knows who he is-and where he is. He's at boot camp to make himself a better person.

As a 5-foot-11, 170-pound defensive back who played at Central-Merry High School in Jackson, Tenn., during the team's 12-1 2002 season, Mr. Merriweather grew accustomed to success.

When he graduated last May, he took up a fast-food job cooking at Popeye's and another job washing cars. "I started thinking about my future. I wanted to be something," he says. His father, who served in the Army, had no apprehension about letting his son join the military. In fact, he said his dad suggested the Marine Corps. "He said it was the best."

The 19-year-old recruit says another thing that sold him on joining the Marine Corps was his recruiter's involvement in his life. "I live in a rough neighborhood and he'd come get me and take me out of there. We'd get some chow, go exercise."

When it came time for the recruit to choose his Military Occupational Specialties (like a major in college), the teen chose legal administration-his recruiter's MOS. Eventually, Mr. Merriweather says he wants to use his Marine training to become a paralegal or even go to law school.

But first he'll have to finish boot camp. Meanwhile, how is his mom taking his enlistment? "She got over it," he says.

The Marines are facing an attrition war they can't afford to lose. In Iraq, Marines serve on the front lines-indeed the first to fight. That makes parents of potential recruits nervous.

The Marines face political enemies, too. Anti-war activists are seeking to end America's involvement in Iraq by strangling the Armed Forces of recruits. While the Marines in Iraq struggle for the hearts and minds of the war-torn people, the Marines at home seem to be in a similar struggle for the hearts and minds of Americans.

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