Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

President Ronald Reagan probably said it best when he uttered these words in 1985: “Some people spend an entire lifetime wondering if they made a difference. The Marines don’t have that problem.”

That quote is emblazoned on a display with the Marines’ insignia of Eagle, Globe and Anchor in the museum on Parris Island, S.C., the Marine Corps Recruit Depot synonymous with turning raw recruits into Marines.

As part of the Marines’ Educator Workshop, I was among the media who joined a group of teachers from Alabama and Louisiana to the island to get a glimpse of how the drill instructors instill discipline and pride in the recruit, transforming from an in-your-case, on-your-case antagonist to a mentor filled with a sense of accomplishment.

Following the path of each new batch of recruits, the workshop participants stepped off the bus and into formation atop the famous yellow footprints. As the drill instructors screamed instructions that we, as civilians, found difficult to comprehend, we soon understood that after each blast from the drill instructor’s mouth that an “Aye, Sir” was expected in return. And not just any “Aye, Sir,” but one shouted from the top of our lungs.

Capt. Lee Stuckey, Executive Officer of the Marine Recruiting Station in Montgomery, invited me to join the workshop after being introduced at the Wounded Veterans’ Deer Hunt outside Montgomery last fall. Stuckey and several of his fellow Marines who live and hunt in Alabama brought in 25 Marines who had suffered wounds during combat and allowed them to enjoy the outstanding hunting available in our state with the help of several other landowners.

Alabama is a military friendly state when it comes to sharing the great outdoors. U.S. military personnel and certain family members stationed in Alabama on active duty are deemed residents for the purpose of purchasing a hunting license, freshwater fishing license or saltwater fishing license. For those of us who have the freedom to hunt and fish, we can thank our armed forces for preserving those privileges.

For the Marine recruiters like Capt. Stuckey, a Montgomery native, the educators’ workshops give those teachers and counselors a greater understanding of the options available for student career counseling.

“The educators’ workshop is so important for the fact that we want the educators to understand that it’s our best interest to take care of these young men and women that they’ve invested all this time and effort into training, teaching and mentoring,” Stuckey said. “We want to take over that role after they’re done with them to guide them to be successful citizens, whether they come in four years and leave or whether they make the Marine Corps their career. They can serve their country proudly and develop leadership skills they don’t even know they have. We’ve been doing this well over 200 years. We’ve got the leadership aspect down, whether you’re an infantryman or lawyer in the Marine Corps. When somebody looks at your resume and sees United States Marine, they see leadership. We build leaders and discipline.”

As intimidating as it was to those of us without military experience, this was like vacation for the drill instructors assigned to the workshop. Drill instructors, replete with their distinctive “Smokey Bear” hat, will spend an average of 120 hours a week with the recruits, telling them how and when to apply shaving cream to their faces to how to navigate through the razor wire during the Crucible – the torture test that determines whether a recruit has what it takes to become a U.S. Marine.

Col. Eric Mellinger, Commanding Officer of the Recruit Training Regiment, said the technique used to mold the new recruits is modeling – modeling of the drill instructors.

“That is why we hold our drill instructors to such high standards,” Mellinger said. “They will spend more time with these young Americans than their families or (teachers) have in a very long time. They will be with them pretty much every hour of every day. This is the longest boot camp in the Department of Defense, and these drill instructors will represent what it is to be a United States Marine.

“The characteristic that separates a Marine from the rest of our species is discipline. That discipline is instilled here. And it is ruthlessly evaluated by drill instructors. Without that discipline, that Marine will let down our legacy, our tradition, our reputation.”

Staff Sgt. Kevin Brock, the drill instructor assigned to the Montgomery group, explained that the commitment to be a drill instructor is not taken lightly and sometimes takes a toll.

“It’s hard on families,” Brock said. “A lot of times when I get home, it’s after my family has gone to bed and then I get up at 3 a.m. to get back to the depot before the recruits get up. Sometimes it’s hard to turn it off. I came home one time and started yelling for the kids to put their toys up, and my wife pointed her finger at me and yelled ‘Stop.’ Now I have a 20-minute drive home that allows me to wind down, but sometimes my wife wants to know who recruit so-and-so is because I’m giving orders in my sleep.”

Brig. Gen. Frank Padilla, Commanding General at Parris Island, said the Marine Corps is a values-based organization that is not defined by any fighting platform like ships for the Navy or aircraft for the Air Force.

“We are about the individual Marine and the Marine who serves on their left and their right,” Padilla said. “In a Marine there is no better friend and no worse enemy. We instill in them what it means to be a Marine. The main part of that is our core values – honor, service and commitment. We make them understand they are a member of a team.”

While many bemoan the state of today’s younger generations, Padilla said there is still a great deal of hope, especially because of the ones who choose to serve the country.

“There’s nothing wrong with them,” he said. “If you could see what they’re accomplishing under the most difficult circumstances day and in and day out, you’d be surprised. I know I am, and I’ve seen it over and over again. Here’s just a snapshot of what they do. They’re building houses. They’re handing out food. They’re training local security forces that are from a different culture and speak a different language. And they’re hunting down a determined enemy, all in the same areas and same time frames – all of that with cameras on them all the time. It doesn’t get any harder than that.”

Stuckey said he realized what it means to be a Marine last Christmas when he visited with his brother, Tyre Stuckey, a former Marine. Although he was a very successful Marine, Tyre opted to serve four years and then enter the business world with Zoe’s Kitchen, where he is now vice president and part owner.

“Tyre came in this past Christmas and we were sitting there spending time together because I hadn’t seen him in a while,” Lee said. “He kind of teared up and looked at me and said, ‘I love my job and everything I do, but the biggest mistake I ever made in my life was leaving the Marine Corps. I love the Marine Corps. I loved being a Marine and the honor, respect and commitment of the Marine Corps. To this day, I regret it.’

“I kind of looked at him in disbelief. I said, ‘Tyre, you’re a millionaire now. How could you be upset?’ He said that what I do as a Marine and recruiter, there’s no price you can put on that.”

That Marine pride was on display when the workshop participants got to witness the Graduation Ceremony for 330 recruits-turned-Marines, who marched around the parade field in tight formation.

“The pride these young men and women feel when they step off that parade deck into the arms of their family is a defining moment,” Brig. Gen. Padilla said. “It’s something all Americans should be grateful for – that we have these young men and women who are willing to step up and serve. As long as we do, we’ll be in good shape.”

And Parris Island will be the place where those young people will come to have their lives transformed.

“It is the one place where you can take one person who might have a little bit of doubt about themselves or their future and you can turn them into a decisive, goal-oriented individual in the shortest amount of time – a little less than 13 weeks,” Stuckey said. “I’ve had the privilege to serve with a lot of Marines and mentoring young men when they’re 18 years old and seeing them come back from combat and seeing them go from young boys to men. This, without a doubt, is the most elite fighting force in the world.”

PHOTOS: (By David Rainer) During the Crucible, recruits are taught discipline, endurance, perseverance and teamwork to make it through the last hurdle en route to becoming a U.S. Marine. The obstacle course puts those attributes to the test as two recruits serve as guards while another finds a way to traverse the high bar. In one segment of the Crucible, recruits must crawl through a razor-wire barrier while dragging either a water container or ammo box, as well as their M16 rifle. Should the recruit release the box or container for more than a few seconds, the drill instructor grabs it and the recruits start the drill over from scratch. Staff Sgt. Kevin Brock explains, in very demonstrative ways, his role as drill instructor to mold the recruits into Marines in a little more than 12 weeks on Parris Island.