Among Marines, there’s an internal battle over who had it worse at boot camp: recruits at Parris Island or recruits at San Diego.

Stepping out onto yellow footprints, living meal to meal, and being called names highlighting your deepest insecurities are all part of Marine Corps recruits’ 13-week journey through Marine Corps Recruit Training.

Recruits from the western side of the country report to Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego. Those from the other side do their training at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island in South Carolina.

Marines who graduate in San Diego are often called ‘West Coast Marines,’ or more derisively, ‘Hollywood Marines’ but, ironically, most movies and other media depictions of Marine boot camp are through the eyes of recruits at Parris Island. One of the most famous examples is the 1987 film, “Full Metal Jacket” which depicts Parris Island recruits undergoing constant abuse and hazing from a sadistic drill instructor, a reputation that the Marine Corps has worked hard to reverse

In 2022, Task & Purpose interviewed Lance Cpl. Kylie Hathaway who had the unique experience of training at both boot camps. Hathaway began her recruit training at MCRD San Diego. She was two weeks away from graduating when she fractured the tibia bone in her leg. As she recovered, the Marines gave her two options: go home or finish her training in a  medical recovery unit for female recruits at Parris Island. She chose the latter.

“I feel like San Diego pushes you more physically while Parris Island tries to push you more mentally,” she said.

Trapped on an Island

While MCRD San Diego is near the city’s airport and other military bases, Parris Island is isolated in the swampy South Carolina “low country” — a remoteness that puts many recruits off balance.  

“I remember the drill instructor telling us if we wanted to leave the direction to go, but we have to get through like two miles of swamps and they’re filled with alligators,” said Tucker Gentry, 37, a former heavy equipment operator in the Marine Corps.

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Gentry said that Parris Island’s remoteness made recruits feel as if drill instructors might get away with harsh behavioral and verbal taunting towards recruits. One night drill sergeants knocked over a trash can and made a recruit “eat out of it and squeal like a pig,” he said.

“I’m sure it happens in San Diego,” he said. “But I just think that potentially some of the stuff that they were able to get away with in Paris Island is greater than San Diego.”

The Crucible and the Reaper

The final event at both bases is the Crucible – a last 54-hour field event filled with exhaustion, hunger, and physical stamina challenges. The Crucible was incorporated into recruit training by Gen. Charles Krulak in 1996 to train potential Marines around realistic combat training scenarios. Recruits are issued two and a half MREs to sustain them for the nearly sleepless two-and-a-half-day challenge.

Marine boot camp
U.S. Marine Corps recruits with Charlie Company, 1st Recruit Training Battalion, run up the final hill of the Reaper, a Crucible event, at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, Nov. 21, 2023. The Reaper is the final portion of The Crucible which marks the transformation of recruits to Marines. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Alexander O. Devereux)

The Crucibles are similar at Parris Island and San Diego, but not identical. At both bases, the Crucible culminates with a nine-mile march which begins in the middle of the night. The amount of gear recruits carry depends on the season. During the winter, their packs can weigh up to 75 lbs. For San Diego recruits, the hike involves scaling a 700-foot hill with a steep incline known as “the Reaper” at nearby Camp Pendleton.

Master Sgt. Lael Rockwell, a motor transport maintenance chief who’s currently based at Camp Pendleton said the San Diego Crucible was rough and demanding.

“You’re just go, go, go all the time,” Rockwell said. “It’s very physically and emotionally demanding and then you’ve got guys in your platoon that can’t carry their gear. I remember on one hike, I was carrying two rifles at one time. One of the recruits fell out so I grabbed his gear and was carrying it for him, that kind of stuff.” 

Before the night march, recruits have eight other physically demanding exercises that involve resupply and combat assault missions, firing and reaction courses, night infiltration scenarios, pugil sticks, and body sparring activities.

“You couldn’t build a fire. You couldn’t get warm. That sucked, like being cold just sucks,” he said. “For me, the crucible was in January. In California, it was super cold.”

The weather and the sand fleas

For Parris Island recruits, Gentry said, the colder the better.

“If I could give anybody advice, I’d tell them to go in the wintertime,” Gentry said. “I don’t remember there being as many sand fleas in February and I don’t know if there’s any truth to that but they’re bad. It’s awful.”

Gentry enlisted in the Marine Corps in 2006 and separated in the summer of 2014. training began as a recruit at Parris Island in February and he graduated in May. “That just is another level of humidity,” he said.

Beyond the sand fleas, drill instructors would make recruits PT in the pits. Within minutes or even seconds, recruits would be caked in sand. 

“If you’re not already sweating, you’re gonna be sweating and then because you’re in a sand pit, you’re then covered in sand that sticks to you,” Gentry said. “You come out looking like a sugar cookie.”

Kate Mannion, 37, was a Marine Corps military police officer who went to boot camp in March 2008 when Parris Island was the only option for female Marine recruits. “I didn’t know anything about the military but I knew the Marines seemed like the biggest kick in the ass,” she said. She soon found out she was right.

Recruits live meal to meal, she said. On the weekends, the chow hall served hamburgers and hot dogs. “That’s how we based our calendar,” Mannion said. “We knew that that was a Saturday.”

While Mannion maintains that the so-called ‘Hollywood Marines’ had it easier with the pleasant weather in California, Rockwell said the two boot camps are just different. San Diego has hills, making it more physically challenging and Parris Island has the bugs and humidity, causing more mental strife, he said.

“The Marine Corps has done a good job of making them equally as hard, just in a different way,” Rockwell said. “If you got dropped off in the desert and you had to survive or you got dropped off in the Alaskan tundra somewhere to survive – it would be hard either way but it’s just different.”

Rockwell said he had an easier time at boot camp than a lot of his peers. He was injured during training which meant extra weeks at bootcamp spent in a medical unit. But the hardest thing, he said, was being away from his family with little to no contact. 

“Physically, it was easy. But mentally, it was really hard,” he said. “I went to boot camp in October. So I missed Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, I missed all those holidays.”

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