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|| News Item: Posted 2006-11-16

Boot Camp an Experience for Recruits and Photographer
By Megan Lovett, The Beaufort Gazette

Photo by Megan Lovett / The Beaufort Gazette

Photo by Megan Lovett / The Beaufort Gazette

Cindy Juarez, 18, of Long Island, N.Y., chokes back tears July 24 during receiving procedures on Parris Island. Following her short phone call home, Juarez had a hard time calming herself in this new, harsh environment.
At midnight during a July thunderstorm in South Carolina, I was getting cut down to size by an 18-year-old Long Islander on maybe the worst night of her life. She had enlisted in Marine Corps, had just been told she could no longer say "I" or "me," and most of her possessions had been taken from her. When she called her family for the final time before three months of boot camp hell, she heard her mom cry and say "I love you" and was not allowed to reciprocate. Except the crying -- she did a lot of that. And what did I do? Stood five feet away and took her picture.

Removed from her the drill instructors, the angry recruit snapped that I was making this grueling experience worse. She clearly hated me. I'd waited years for this, and only a few hours into it, I felt like I wanted to stop. Immediately, I had lost my observer status and become part of the story. This was way more hardcore than I expected when the idea of a female Marine recruits story first hatched in my brain.

The first thing I noticed about Beaufort, SC when I moved here three years ago was the coastal scenery, so photogenic that dozens of movies have been filmed here. The second thing was the Marines. F/A-18 jets buzz our homes with "the sound of freedom," rifle fire can be heard echoing at a local beach and half the cars on the road feature Marine Corps stickers, "support our troops" ribbons, etc. The Marines are a huge part of our economy and our culture and are impossible to ignore. But behind The Beaufort Gazette's consistent military coverage was a story that hadn't been told. It was the story of the young women of Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island.

Photo by Megan Lovett / The Beaufort Gazette

Photo by Megan Lovett / The Beaufort Gazette

From left, Marine recruits Catherine Lord, Lakeshia Montgomery and Erika Martinez work in silence during a Crucible tactical problem-solving exercise.
The Marine Corps splits its male enlisted recruits at the Mississippi River, sending eastern recruits here and western recruits to San Diego. But all enlisted women come to Parris Island. Female Marines are common enough, but the recruits were few and always just out of reach. They were like rare birds begging for documentation. How do they learn to stifle their emotions, endure the pain while keeping their hair pristinely groomed? How do they become 110-pound warriors?

I was fascinated by these questions, but the story went nowhere. The base wasn't cooperative and the newsroom was busy with other projects.

One big lesson in this is that things can change with patience. I finally reaped the benefits of staying at one paper while nearly all my coworkers jumped to the next opportunity. After more than a year of pitching the story, The Beaufort Gazette hired a new military reporter, Mizzou grad Lori Yount. I had underestimated how much could happen by teaming up with a female journalist. Lori immediately got the concept and was totally committed. My idea was suddenly being taken seriously.

Lori handled the bulk of the base negotiations, which was a huge job. It seems like you have to ask for everything at least three times and still won't always get it. We wanted to visit two or three times a week and experience a mix of training and personal time. The Marines' counter proposal was scaled back to one visit a week, with a rare second visit thrown in. Only one of our 18 visits would be on the recruits' personal time and it wouldn't come until they were two-thirds of the way through boot camp. And we were absolutely not to single out individuals repeatedly. Recruit training, we were told, was about breaking down the individual, not building up celebrities.

It was the opposite of insightful journalism, but it seemed wiser to make do than abandon the project. Lori and I added some wiggle room and tried not to be too pessimistic.

Photo by Megan Lovett / The Beaufort Gazette

Photo by Megan Lovett / The Beaufort Gazette

Here is the double truck from the third installment. Page designer was Jes Spivak.
And so it began on that rainy summer night, with crying teens and screaming drill instructors. And it went on for a few weeks, the recruits still out of reach and I was panicked and mad. We showed up at our pre-negotiated times (often a mind-crushing 6:30 a.m.), watched the training for a couple of hours and went home. During interviews, Lori would get stories of things we were not allowed to see: Friendships and conflicts blooming in the off-limits living quarters and challenges at events we weren't scheduled to witness. Injured recruits would just disappear, and we couldn't follow up with them. While Lori could tell the stories through the interviews, I felt completely shut out. I was trapped shooting a training manual with no personal insights.

Again, patience. I made a silent bond with the recruits through eye contact, an occasional shared joke or short greeting. I let them know we would not scold them for smiling. Lori teased out a narrative, and I would watch for evidence of these inner lives. The public affairs staff's fear that the women would become celebrities was offset by the fact that we held the stories until October, when the major events were over.

We stuck with about two-dozen recruits of the 60 in our platoon, watching for any little details that would illuminate their story. Our one and only "personal time" visit was awesome. Without a drill instructor barking orders, their full personalities emerged and they briefly stopped calling me "ma'am." We pieced together a lot of information that day to bolster our narrative.

I shot more than 3,000 images and we ran the story in a four-part series every Thursday in October. We had a section front and a double truck for each installment and what didn't run in the paper was put in web slideshows. I tried for sound, but unfortunately we're just not ready yet.

Photo by Megan Lovett / The Beaufort Gazette

Photo by Megan Lovett / The Beaufort Gazette

After enduring pain for about an hour, recruit Shannda Walton breaks down in tears over a broken bone in her finger she received during her victorious "beat down" in pugil sticks during the Crucible.
We called our project Sisters of the Corps. The name referenced the bonds they forged and their place within the Corps, but it easily could have summed up how I feel about them. I am protective and proud. These young women have graduated, not from some tough summer camp but from warrior training. But that means they'll be sent to war with guns.

With the same enthusiasm that I cheered their boot camp victories, I worry about their safety. Women aren't sent to the "front lines" of combat, but they do man security posts and drive convoy trucks. And they still have a minority status in a mostly male fleet, with dangers of harassment and the difficulties of having a family. I have many more questions, many more project ideas.

On graduation day, the crying recruit from our first day approached me. She'd finally seen our stories, and I was scared she'd rip into me again. But instead, she apologized for snapping at me. I apologized for embarrassing her. Both of us made it to the end.

(Megan Lovett is a staff photographer with the Beaufort Gazette. You can see her work at her member page:

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Lovett's member page

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