Learning to lead A new crop of officers

Learning to lead: A new crop of officers

By Christian Davenport
Sunday, November 29, 2009

There is no yelling. No invective. No spittle-laced derision.

Instead, there is a soft, warm welcome for the dozens of young men and women reporting to Officer Candidates School at Quantico Marine Base in Virginia.

Arriving in polos and khakis, they check in at their leisure, anytime between 8 a.m. and 11:59 p.m., filing off buses or dropped off by well-wishing parents at what could just as well be the first day of college.

This is no Parris Island, the legendary boot camp in South Carolina where the drill instructors' ferocity explodes almost the instant recruits arrive. But for the next six weeks, as Col. Rick Mancini told the candidates in his orientation speech, "every part of your body, your mind, your spirit will be tested. . . . Your world will be rocked."

For the U.S. Marine Corps, this season's crop of candidates is vitally important. Marines are leading the way in Afghanistan and continuing the fight in Iraq, with increased numbers to satisfy the demands of the two simultaneous wars. The Marines need more young men and women who are willing to face combat while most of their peers stay home.

And so last summer, the deadliest since the war in Afghanistan began, Quantico welcomed its second-largest officer candidate class since the Vietnam War.

Despite the surprisingly easy start, this will be a grueling, sleep-deprived test for the 310 members of India Company. Those who pass can return next summer for another round of training toward becoming officers in the corps. But 15 to 30 percent of the candidates usually wash out, which is fine with the Marines, who know that not everyone is right for the rigorous lifestyle.

On the eve of leaving for OCS, Jacob Lovelady, 21, pronounces himself "very nervous." Other candidates arrive with their hair preemptively sheared, but Lovelady, who grew up near Frederick, shows up with a thick mop of brown curls, as if holding on to the last vestiges of civilian life. He has wide eyes and is thin and fit, but he's not a natural athlete; he spent his high school years performing in dramas including "The Glass Menagerie."

Tyler Martin, 22, of Mount Vernon is eager to take the next step toward his childhood dream of becoming one of the few and the proud. Martin, a star high school baseball and football player and son of a Navy Corpsman, spent part of his childhood at Camp Lejeune, a sprawling Marine base in North Carolina.

Arthur Colby, 20, of the District reached Quantico after a life in elite private schools, drawn by a sense of duty and patriotism that many of his peers consider antiquated, even strange.

Three young men, just weeks removed from college, emerge from dense Virginia woods onto a barren parade ground, about to be shorn, outfitted and processed, rendered virtually indistinguishable from 307 other would-be officers.

Not all of them will make the cut.

CONTINUED     1                 >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company