REMINDER: The Memorial Day parade will be at 10 a.m. Monday, May 27, in Gainesville.
Three former Marines stepped onto the yellow footprints they knew in their youth at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot on Parris Island in South Carolina.
Upon arrival to the island, all new recruits are instructed by a drill sergeant to stand on the yellow footprints. It’s the first experience Marine recruits have in their service.
Retired Marine Sgt. Michael Bruce said he couldn’t help but think about all of the Marines who had stood where he stood and of the Marines yet to come.
“You can feel it on the island. You can feel all those that were there,” Bruce said. “They started training Marines in 1915. I think you just get that feeling that all those that were there, it’s a piece of history. You’re going through in that tradition.”
Bruce and his friends, Ron Brissey and Bob Gregory, decided to visit their old boot camp and see what has changed in the decades since they last were on the island. All three Marines rode their motorcycles the 300 miles from Gainesville back to the island in March. Bruce was trained on the island in 1968, Brissey in 1957 and Gregory in 1958.
This Memorial Day, the former Marines said they will be thinking a bit more about the brothers they knew and lost during their years of service and about the men and women who are still fighting for their country today.
Gregory said the feelings are difficult to talk about but this Sunday he will pick a church that’s honoring the men and women who have served and join them in their remembrance.
“It’s a tough feeling,” Gregory said. “But it’s tough in a good way. It really makes you feel good that you can’t forget your years of service and your dedication to the country.”
Gregory served for three years in the 8th and I drill platoon and often worked presidential guard duty for President Dwight D. Eisenhower and in the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy.
Gregory said the trip back to the island was “one of those trips of a lifetime.”
Touring the grounds and watching the young Marines during their final review and graduation march brought back a lot of memories and reaffirmed the brotherhood shared by Marines.
While touring the island, the men learned new recruits are being trained in more areas and with more intensity than when they were on the island. Brissey noted martial arts, firearms and rappelling activities have replaced mess hall duty.
Recruits’ training culminated in a final test called The Crucible. Recruits are tested under a variety of difficult circumstances with little sleep and food during three days.
“It amazes me not just of the skill and ability of the instructors but the people who are there going through this impressed me,” Bruce said. “It is difficult. It is very, very hard. Twelve weeks on Parris Island is one of the toughest things you’ll ever do in your life.”
The former Marines were welcomed to the island by the commanding general, chief of staff and Depot sergeant major.
Retired Marine Gunnery Sgt. Brissey said he and his friends were treated “like we were the president.”
The men were given front row seats at the graduation and flag ceremony.
“I saw a lot of higher-ranking officials sitting there behind us,” Brissey said. “I thought ‘Golly man, they’re really treating us nice you know.’ I think it was because we were survivors of the past.”
Brissey’s voice wavered as he described the feeling got from watching the young Marines and from being so well treated by the higher ranking officials on the island.
“It’s been so long ago,” Brissey said. “I got out in ’88 and completed my duty and everything and thought ‘Well, that’s it.’ But I think this was divine intervention. I taught ROTC in high school for 17 years after that and my wife would always say ‘The military’s not done with you yet.’ ... I just figured it was all done and then all of a sudden it was like ‘We haven’t forgotten you guys.’”
Brissey served in the corps for 26 years and “loved every minute of it with the exception of being deployed to Vietnam” in 1968.
Brissey recalled the daily fear he felt when he fought in the Tet Offensive in Vietnam.
While he lost people he cared for and was admittedly concerned about the possibility of his own end, he didn’t worry about death the way he worried about injury.
“Every day you’d hear about guys getting their legs and arms blown off and stuff like that,” Brissey said. “The old saying, it’s cliche, but they say you never hear the bullet that kills you. But we kind of ingrained our thinking like we weren’t going to worry about getting killed but God help me I don’t want to get maimed. That was my mindset.”
Understanding how fortunate he is to be alive with all of his limbs intact after the war gave Brissey an intense recognition of the sacrifices others have made and are still making in the line of duty.
His friends shared similar emotions as they look back.
“I can still hear the voices and see the faces of those guys I knew in boot camp,” Bruce said. “It’s their spirit you have in you. It’s a brotherhood.”
Whenever the men meet another Marine, they said they are instantly attached and filled with respect for one another.
“I would not dare put a slant that the Marines are better than the other branches,” Gregory said. “But I will say this, there is a camaraderie in the Marine Corps that is unequal to any other branch of service and the old slogan ‘Once a Marine, always a Marine’ is very true.”