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The measure of success

At Quantico, fired-up Marine recruits struggle to meet expectations that seem impossibly high

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.


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By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 30, 2009

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.

But the stopwatch doesn't play along with the future that's supposed to unfold. He checks, then checks again to make sure he hasn't misread the clock, which reads, inconceivably: 18:01.

'It's awesome'

One week in, Martin writes home: "I have never met madder people than the instructors." But he handles them as if they were menacing dogs: "If you show confidence, they back off and move on."

Week two, and his spirits are still high. "It's awesome," he says, although he slept just a few hours the night before.

Week three, some candidates begin to crack, even a platoon-mate who stealthily crosses off the days remaining before Marine rules permit him to quit.

But Martin writes to his parents with childlike enthusiasm: "The stamina course is cool. It was a mile and a half of obstacles in the woods. We had to go up hills, through a swamp, crawl under barbed wire, climb walls and other stuff while carrying our rifles, the kind of stuff I was excited to do here."

The display of confidence is designed to assure his family he's okay. But his never-let-'em-see-you-sweat attitude is also meant to convince himself he can't be broken.

The Marines have other plans. "We will find your weakness," says Maj. Brad Kroll, operations officer at the school. That's what Quantico is all about -- pushing, pushing, pushing until the fissures show. It's a matter of physics: The human body and mind can only take so much. The sergeant instructors always win.

The Marines have designed exercises to be virtually impossible. Four candidates, carrying three eight-foot planks, have 10 minutes to cross a 12-foot-wide body of water.

Failure is not only inevitable: Failure is the point. Failure is how the Marines determine who can become an officer. Those who hold it together, those who fail with composure and dignity, ultimately make the best leaders.

Martin doesn't realize it, but he must fail to succeed.

To stay or to go

The Marines boast that if not a single candidate is up to their standards, they'll fail the whole class and start over. But the truth is, they want candidates to persevere.

Which is why, at the end of the third week, the candidates are rewarded with a field trip to the National Museum of the Marine Corps near the base. It's a well-timed reprieve designed to make those considering quitting think twice.

Without the sergeant instructors on their backs, they soak in the museum's stories about Iwo Jima and Belleau Wood. If candidates still aren't motivated to stick around, the Marines have another tool: a small band of recruiters.

"Where do you see yourself next Friday?" Lt. Rick Earley asks a candidate who wants to drop.

"Chicago," the candidate says.

"You're sold? You're going home?"

He's tired, worn out. Done. The military is not for him, the candidate says. "I don't want to be there bringing down the platoon."

"Let me stop you right there," Earley says. "What do they call the candidate who finishes last?"

Earley pauses, eyebrows raised, waiting to deliver his punch line. The candidate stares ahead blankly, not playing along.

"They call him, 'Sir.' " You're almost there, Earley says.

It's a good effort, but the candidate's mind is made up. Within a week, he's Chicago-bound.

Fighting fatigue

The museum exhibits stir Martin, reaffirming his passion to become a Marine. But a few nights later, he's ordered to stand fire watch. That means that in addition to studying for exams and preparing gear for the next day, he will spend an hour of his night patrolling the barracks. He'll be lucky to get three hours of sleep.

In the morning, the sergeant instructor notices an almost imperceptible smattering of dirt on the floor and orders everyone who had fire watch the night before to repeat the duty.

At lights-out the next night, Tyler naps from 9 to 10 p.m. Then he gets up to prepare his uniform for inspection -- a single loose thread can lead to what seems like the apocalypse. He cleans his boots, re-stencils his gear. His turn on fire watch lasts from 2 to 3 a.m., and then he sleeps again.

But he's up about an hour later to help clean the barracks, lest any more dirt be found and the candidates be ordered on fire watch again.

So, on a night of getting three hours of sleep and after a day of more physical activity than most Americans endure in a month, Martin sleeps two hours and 15 minutes -- and not all at once.

Still, he refuses to show any weakness. His eyes are bloodshot, and his speech is slow and slightly slurred. But he tries to mask it under a confident smile, like a drunk driver evincing sobriety. His boots are clean, his creases crisp, his posture perfect.

But one small detail reveals Martin's utter exhaustion.

The name stenciled on his canteen reads: "KARTIN."

A couple of nights later, Martin pops out of bed, certain that it's 5 a.m. and that the instructors are waking the platoon for reveille. He shakes his rackmate awake, and the two stand at attention in the darkness for several minutes, in complete silence, too afraid to move.

Finally, in their half-sleep, they realize they're the only ones standing. The sergeant instructors are nowhere in sight.

It's only 3 a.m., two hours before reveille. Two more hours to dream of the instructors, who were now everywhere, inescapable, pervading even the dark recesses of sleep, ready to pounce on any candidate who fails to see that accepting limitations is a necessary hurdle on the road to success.

Tuesday: Spurning the safe path.