Drillin’ It In
Larry Smith writes the book on the best and the brightest.


Smith: Marines are devoted to courage, honor and commitment. A Marine is squared away, which means he (or she) is focused, looks good and cares for the most part about the man on the left and the man on the right. Jacklyn Lucas, who received the Medal of Honor, for jumping on a grenade on Iwo Jima to save his buddies around him, is a Marine’s Marine.

Lopez: What’s so special about Marine basic training?

Smith: The Marines combine extremely arduous physical training with mental challenge (learning the history of the Corps, the name of the Commandant, the parts of your rifle) and spiritual inspiration (being part of something larger than yourself) in such a way as to leave an imprint that stays with recruits for life.

Lopez: What’s Parris Island like?

Smith: For a recruit, Paris Island on the Atlantic Coast in South Carolina is surrounded by loud, scary, rugged drill instructors, it is stultifying hot and ridden with voracious, nasty sand fleas that cannot be touched while a recruit is in formation. For a civilian, it’s rather nice. Everyone calls you “Sir,” even Colonels.

Lopez: What’s so special about a Marine drill sergeant?

Smith: Drill instructors are a special breed. They are intensely dedicated, they work 100 hour weeks, they demand adherence to standards and they put on a show which the recruit begins to comprehend, about halfway through basic, by which I mean he begins to understand that the drill instructor is there for him and not vice versa. Drill instructors may not get sick; they get no days off. They work in teams of three and someone is with the recruit platoon, which may number 70, from start to finish, all twelve weeks.

Lopez: What are Marines’ favorite Marine movie?

Smith: I think they like Full Metal Jacket with R. Lee Ermey as the drill instructor and I think they like A Few Good Men — even though it’s a downer for the Corps — because of the scenes with the Silent Drill Team and the Stephen Lang-Jack Nicholson speech: “The truth? You can’t handle the truth!”

Lopez: What’s an important lesson from drill instructors we could all afford to consider?

Smith: Self-discipline is the key to success in the Marine Corps and success in life.

Why did you focus on drill instructors?

Smith: Drill instructors embody the essence the Marine Corps. They are the best and the brightest, wholly dedicated to the task of making Marines who will carry on what they consider a glorious tradition.

Lopez: How are the Marines doing in Iraq, as they tell the story?

Smith: The numbers speak for themselves. Marines made up 17 percent of the force invading Iraq and the sustained 30 percent of the casualties, because they went to the hard places. The young Marines, from all reports, are doing an excellent job. The Old Breed would be proud of the New Breed. As for news reports involving charges of improper conduct, the numbers, especially in relation to all those in service, are minuscule.

Lopez: John McCain’s youngest son is joining the Marines. Is that something that happens frequently a) sons of join b) politicians’ sons join?

Smith: Yes. American tradition reflects fathers-to-sons enlisting. The father of Bill Paxton, in Chapter 3 of The Few and The Proud, died at Iwo Jima, as did Bill’s uncle. The grandfather of Christine Henning, who is featured in Chapter 22, fought at Iwo Jima.

I can’t answer for the politicians.

Lopez: Where does he go first for training?

Smith: McCain’s son, if he is raised out West, will go to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego for recruit training. Roughly speaking, most of those from east of the Mississippi are sent to Parris Island.

Lopez: How much harder will it be than his brother who is in the Navy had to face?

Smith: It will be a lot harder but at least he won’t have to deal with the sand fleas of Parris Island.

Lopez: If we could know only one story from your book, is there one that encompasses them all? The Marine spirit?

Iron Mike Mervosh, whose story is told in Chapter 2, was one of 31 men left out of a company of 240 to walk off Iwo Jima under their own power after the battle had ended. He also fought in Korea and Vietnam. He retired after 35 years then tried to come back fight in the Gulf War. He served two tours as a drill instructor. At Parris Island today, they have this brutal exercise run called The Iron Mike; at Camp Pendleton in California, the Iron Mike Room is dedicated to him at the Staff NCO Club. His parting words invariably are: “Keep charging!”

Do you wish you had enlisted?

Smith: I could never deal with authority.

<title>The Few and the Proud, by Larry Smith</title>