LEARNING TO LEAD Pushed to the limit

At Quantico: The measure of success

At Officer Candidate School, prospective officers are tested, trained and evaluated over a grueling six-week period.
By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 30, 2009

Finally, it is here: Tyler Martin's first real step on the road to becoming a Marine. His debut comes in the form of a routine physical fitness test.

It's meant to get a base-line reading on candidates in last summer's Officer Candidates School at Quantico Marine Base in Virginia. But for Martin, any test is an opportunity to shine. A perfect score is 300. Anything less, in his mind, would be a failure.

Martin, a former baseball star at Mount Vernon High School in Fairfax County, powers through the sit-ups so quickly that the instructors have to stop him when he hits 100. Same with the pull-ups: He hits 20 and has to stop, although he has at least 10 more in him.

Martin, 22, arrived at Quantico in July, confident, ready. He had been preparing all year -- really, his whole life. There had never been any question: He was going to be a Marine. Unlike many others in his class, the second-largest at the base since Vietnam, he wasn't worried about whether he would survive the six weeks of training, but whether he'd finish at the top of his class.

The Marine Corps is expanding, hungry for officers to fill the ranks for the fights in Iraq and Afghanistan. But just because it needs more bodies doesn't mean that it's lowering its standards. If anything, the wars have made last summer's selection all the more important: In combat, bad officers get good Marines killed.

Martin grew up in a military family. A sign on the front door of his home, in the Alexandria part of Fairfax, reads "Land that I love"; one on the lawn says "Proud American." For a time, he lived on a Marine base, Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, where the men in uniform became his superheroes -- life-size action figures who carried rifles, drove tanks and flew the fighter jets that blazed through the blue skies of his childhood.

His mom and dad served in the Navy. Three grandparents served, too. It was simply Tyler's turn.

Not that he was coerced. His parents wanted him to make his own decision -- and go to college. But the military was always there, a fixed point on the horizon. By the time he arrived at Quantico, Martin looked and acted like a Marine: with dirty-blond hair cropped to regulation, shoulders-back posture and fluency in corps lingo, in which walls are "bulkheads" and doors, "hatches."

Seeking a perfect start

Time for the three-mile run. If Martin makes it in 18:00 flat, he'll get his 300 and be off to a perfect start. Should be no problem. He has been running all spring, preparing for this moment. He can do it in 17:30; with good legs, a few seconds better. He takes off confidently. He paces himself, knowing that he tends to start too fast, especially when he's amped up, as he is now.

One mile down, he feels good. Two, even better. It's a little tricky, because the Marines don't let candidates wear watches, so he can't mark time. But he's rolling, motoring toward the perfect 300 and a future that has always been waiting for him and that is now, finally, just beyond the finish line.

With a few hundred yards left, he squints to view the clock in the distance -- looks like 17:35. Although he could walk the rest of the way and still finish with enough time to pass, he breaks into a full-on sprint, determined to make 18:00. His chest heaves, his legs burn as he crosses the finish line.

He looks up, expecting to see something like 17:58. That would be a personal disappointment, not nearly what he's capable of, but good enough for 300 and the perfect start to his military career.

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