At Quantico: 'It's supposed to be hard'

For six weeks this summer, dozens of young men and women at the Officer Candidates School at Quantico Marine Base in Virginia had their minds and bodies pushed to the limit. At the end, a graduation ceremony returned them to the ease of civilian life.
By Christian Davenport
Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Arthur Colby arrives at Quantico Marine Base by way of Groton boarding school and Dickinson College -- exclusive, private institutions that aren't exactly pipelines to the military. Officer Candidates School, he knows, will be unlike anything he's faced in his young life.

At 20, Colby has a résumé crammed with hallmarks of the young and ambitious -- president of Dickinson's freshman class, internships with the Bush and McCain campaigns, a stint with a high-powered Washington consulting firm. He'd be well on his way to a bright future without the Marines.

Instead, he's expecting six hellish weeks. Predawn hikes, obstacle courses, push-ups, sit-ups, all on very little sleep. But perhaps the biggest challenge he faces at Quantico is not so much physical as cultural.

"There's a guy here with an M-16 tattooed to his chest," he says soon after arriving to join the second-largest OCS class since the Vietnam War. "I never even picked up an M-16 before I got here."

The military was never on Colby's radar until he started to think about what he wanted to do after college. Some members of his family have served -- an uncle was a Marine, and his grandfather, William Colby, director of the CIA in the 1970s, earned a Silver Star in World War II.

Colby, like many of his college classmates, easily could have spent last summer on Wall Street or K Street in air-conditioned comfort. He knows just a handful of people who have veered away from the comfortable path that leads from college to grad school to jobs starting in the six-figure range.

But Colby is at Quantico because he thinks it's his duty to serve. "There will always be time for cocktail parties and seeing your friends," he said. "But in the grand scheme of things, what's the most worthwhile thing you can do? . . . I want it to be hellish. The point is that it's supposed to be hard."

Not a popular decision

Back at Dickinson, in Carlisle, Pa., Colby is a policy management major who served as Sigma Alpha Epsilon's rush chairman. A smiling redhead, he campaigned for class president with promises of widespread wireless Internet access and a fix for the scourge of a campus printing problem.

When Colby invited the Marine recruiter to the campus cafe so he could fill out the enrollment paperwork, his fellow students stared at the man in uniform as if he were an intruder, and at Colby as if he were crazy.

Undeterred, Colby signed up. But he couldn't help feeling that his decision was "almost looked down upon." Close friends were supportive, but others were dumbfounded. One confronted him, demanding to know why he would join, as if Colby had been brainwashed.

Yes, the Marine Corps was an unconventional choice, especially at an elite college. But wasn't it noble to want to serve? The country was at war. Was that really so hard to understand?

The answer, as Colby discovered, is yes. Rarely has the American public been so divorced from its military and so untouched by the wars it is fighting. Without a draft, less than 1 percent of the U.S. population serves in the armed forces.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company