PARRIS ISLAND, S.C. _ Here in Beaufort County, we make Marines.
We're better known for making memorable vacations, houses, food, art and golf courses. But the most important thing we make by far are Marines.
More than 1 million Americans have come to Beaufort County as wide-eyed kids and left as Marines.
They come to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot on Parris Island, an intriguing place rich with history and open to the public. Locals joke that it was Beaufort County's first gated community. The Marine Corps says it's "where the difference begins." Call it what you will, but what takes place on a Lowcountry island that's half marsh and half sand gnats changes forever all who encounter it. It also has been known to change families, cities _ and world history.
All female Marine Corps recruits are sent here for 12 weeks of basic training, and all the men east of the Mississippi River _ about 25,000 a year in all.
Almost every Friday morning, brand new United States Marines march crisply across the parade deck, an astounding, heart-pumping sight for parents who thought they couldn't even clean up their rooms. They're cheered for finishing the difficult training. And they're challenged point blank to honor America's high expectations of "The few. The proud."
This Friday, we made 376 Marines _ five platoons from Company K of the 3rd Battalion and two platoons of women from Company P of the 4th Battalion.
More than 1,400 people signed in as guests to witness the graduation.
They came in wheelchairs and strollers. They came with broken arms and tattoos. A baby cried into his little T-shirt with "Ooorah" on the back. A toddler bawled because an ant got between his toes. And a mother wept because a lost son had found a purpose in life.
Some nibbled Froot Loops while others held up posters, swished hand fans, or waved to their stoic family members.
Cars were decorated for the occasion. And no one left without a group shot in front of the Iwo Jima Monument _ the coated plaster version that was used to raise money for the larger bronze monument in the nation's capital.
Everybody also wanted a picture with Hummer, the white and brown bulldog that looks more cuddly than a "devil dog," but does a fine job as the Parris Island mascot.
Teenagers held aloft cell phone cameras, and parents squinted to record every distant move on video recorders.
The crowd cheered loudest when the Parris Island Marine Band played "God Bless America," but they also liked the band's sassy slow march to "Carolina in the Morning."
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