Deep in the South Carolina Lowcountry just south of historic Beaufort is a beautiful barrier island surrounded by white sandy beaches, winding creeks and pristine tidal marshes. But this slice of paradise is nothing like the neighboring resorts of Kiawah or Hilton Head Island.
This is Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, where Marines are made.
Each year, 20,000 young men and women come to the base to endure one of the most rigorous and challenging military training programs in the world. It is a methodical and time-tested 12-week process with one single purpose - to create a hardened Marine prepared for combat.
Made famous in the Stanley Kubrick film "Full Metal Jacket," Parris Island has become an iconic symbol of America's elite fighting force. Tens of thousands of people visit the base annually, lured by the mystique of the legendary Leatherneck.
Although access is limited, the public is welcome to take a self-guided tour of the 3,000-acre training center, play golf on the Legends of Parris Island, watch recruits train in non-restricted areas and visit the Parris Island Museum.
But it's the Friday graduations - held 40 of 52 weeks each year - that draw most visitors to the island. Family and friends of graduating Marines are extended a special invitation to attend the formal ceremony and parade and participate in Family Day, held the Thursday before graduation.
The festivities begin at 7 a.m. with a 2.7-mile "Motivational Run" around the base. Jogging in cadence, the new Marines arrive on Boulevard De France to throngs of cheering visitors wearing T-shirts proudly proclaiming they are the mother, father, brother, sister, cousin, fiancée ... of a U.S. Marine.
Two hours later, the crowd has regrouped in the All-Weather Training Facility for the Liberty Ceremony. After a brief presentation on the Marine Corps training program, the battalion marches into the building sending the audience to its feet in a roar of applause, whoops and whistles.
The Marines are then dismissed for five hours of on-base liberty. It is a joyous moment as families reunite for the first time in three months.
"It's so emotional to see my son and hug him again," said Florangel Rodriguez, who traveled from New York with her two other children to attend her son's graduation ceremony earlier this year. "They took my boy and turned him into a man."
To achieve the transformation from civilian to Marine, recruits are pushed to the breaking point - and then pushed some more.
"It's a lot of pain," her 22-year-old son, Marine Lenin Lopez Rodriguez, said. "What's toughest is the mental part. It's something like I've never experienced before. It changed me."
The intense training culminates with the Crucible, a staggering test of physical and mental strength. During the 54-hour event, the recruits will hike 48 miles carrying 45 pounds of gear, undergo 29 problem-solving exercises and navigate through an endless series of obstacles courses - with only four hours of sleep a night and three ready-to-eat meals.
In one simulated war scenario, the recruits must cross a water obstacle on a log keeping their rifles at the ready, crawl under concertina wire, slog through mud and drag a "wounded" soldier across a field with battle sounds blaring overhead and rapid-fire machine gun blasts coming at them from every direction.
While the Crucible exercises are not open to the public, visitors have the opportunity to see recruits marching and training in other outdoor areas of the base.
Since the recruit depot opened in 1915, more than a million men and women have earned the Eagle, Globe and Anchor - the official emblem and insignia of the United States Marine Corps.
Today, the base serves as the Marine training center for male recruits who live east of the Mississippi and all female recruits. The only other Marine Corps training facility is in San Diego.
If you visit Parris Island, your first stop should be the Douglas Visitors' Center. The Marines on staff can answer any questions you may have about the facility and the recruit training program.
From there, it's a short walk to the Parris Island Museum. One floor of the building is dedicated to Marine Corps history and includes uniforms, weapons, equipment and photographs from World War 1 to the Gulf wars. The other half of the museum showcases Parris Island's history dating back 10,000 years when prehistoric Native Americans occupied the land.
Be sure to catch the two short films on recruit training and the Crucible and pick up a guide to the Iron Mike History Tour, a 15-mile loop that takes you past some of Parris Island's most important buildings, training facilities and monuments, including the site of the 1500s French and Spanish colonies of Charlesfort and Santa Elena.
Visiting Parris Island
To enter the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, drivers must present a valid driver's license, vehicle registration and proof of automobile insurance.
The Parris Island museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Family and Graduation days. Admission is free.
Click here for more information or call the Douglas Visitors' Center at (843) 228-3650.