PARRIS ISLAND, S.C. -- In a game of word association, what pops into your head when you hear the name 'Parris Island?' Boot camp. Marines. Drill instructors. Sand fleas.

Indeed, Parris Island has all those things. But people familiar with this little corner of the South Carolina Lowcountry know that Parris Island can be a very pleasant place to hang out, unless you happen to be a Marine recruit.

Start with the island's location. From the southern tip of Parris Island, looking across Port Royal Sound, you see none other than Hilton Head Island. Yachts. Millionaires. Exclusive gated communities.

The same natural beauty which attracts the upper crust to Hilton Head is found in abundance on the Marine Corps' own exclusive gated community. Centuries-old live oaks bearded with Spanish moss line the high bluffs along the rivers. Dogwoods and azaleas explode with color in the spring. Wildlife abounds, and the winters are mild. If Parris Island were not a military base, it would likely be some of the most valuable resort property in the South. It's a developer's dream.

But it's not mansions and swanky condos being developed on Parris Island. It is warriors. Parris Island is one of two Marine Corps recruit training depots, the other located in San Diego.

Marine recruits have no time to relax and admire the live oaks. They're busy with some of the toughest training the military has to offer.

And by the way, on that southern tip of Parris Island, you would not be in the middle of a parade field or outside a barracks building. You'd be somewhere near the third tee of a splendid golf course.

Early arrivals

The Charlesfort monument marks the site of a 1562 French Huguenot settlement on Parris Island.

While Parris Island doesn't attract millionaires like its neighbor to the south, it did attract some of the first Europeans to visit North America. Spanish explorers first scouted Parris Island less than thirty years after Columbus landed in the New World. Frenchman Jean Ribaut started a colony called Charlesfort on Parris Island in 1562. Spaniard Menendez de Aviles founded Santa Elena on the same spot in 1567.

English colonists would not land in Jamestown until 1607.

Stately monuments mark the historic sites of the French and Spanish settlements, situated between the banks of the Beaufort River and the 8th hole of Parris Island's golf course. It's been a popular spot for archaeologists, history buffs, and golfers with a bad slice.

Fittingly, the island is named for a military man. An Englishman, Colonel Alexander Parris, purchased the island and eight small surrounding islands in 1715. Until the Civil War, the island was a thriving plantation.

The Marines landed in the Lowcountry in 1861, as part of the Union's occupation of nearby Port Royal. After the Civil War, the U.S. Government started buying land on Parris Island, and Marines were first stationed there in 1891. In 1915, Parris Island was officially designated a Marine Corps Recruit Depot, and the base saw massive buildups during World Wars I and II.

Today the base is home to four recruit training battalions which turn out about 17,000 new Marines each year. Parris Island is the only basic training site for female recruits.

Voluptuous latitude

Parris Island is located in Beaufort County, South Carolina, between the cities of Charleston and Savannah. Novelist Pat Conroy, who grew up and still lives in Beaufort, writes lovingly about this part of the world, calling it a 'voluptuous latitude of the planet, fringed with palms and green marshes.'

The rivers and tidal marshes which surround Parris Island not only add to its beauty, they make it difficult for recruits to go ' over the wall.' As wide-eyed recruits first arrive and pass through the base's main gate (the only gate), they travel down a long causeway connecting the island to the mainland. They hear dire warnings that if they get an urge to leave the premises, they'll have to negotiate alligator infested 'swamps' and shark infested rivers.

In fact, the strong tidal currents in the Beaufort River and Battery Creek pose a greater threat to swimmers than sharks, and you're more likely to run afoul of oyster shells in the marsh than gators, which tend to frequent the less salty inland ponds. But regardless of biological accuracy, the warning about predators seems to stick with the Marines who start their service here.

'We were told to stay out of the marshes because of the alligators,' said Sgt. Matt Roberson, a recruiter who went through basic training at Parris Island. 'I sure wouldn't go in there.'

Island living

The main business of Parris Island is training new Marines. Almost daily, recruits are brought in by the busload for 12 weeks of boot camp, later to be shipped off to the next phase of training at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

At any given time, there are about 4000 male recruits on the island, about 500 female recruits, and about 600 drill instructors.

As with all large U.S. military bases, permanent personnel and civilian employees keep things running. There are 1883 Marines stationed at Parris Island, most of whom are stationed there for three years. There is a civilian work force of 823.

What is life like for Marines stationed at Parris Island? Most say they could certainly do a lot worse.

Recreational facilities are similar to those found on large bases in Hampton Roads. Parris Island has a movie theater, bowling alley, a top notch golf course, a rod & gun club for sportsmen, swimming pools, restaurants, social clubs, and plenty of peaceful spots for picnics, fishing, and family fun.

There are MWR (Morale Welfare and Recreation) resources which are familiar to military families in Hampton Roads. There's an exchange (department store), a commissary (grocery store), and a nearby Naval hospital. There's also a base newspaper called The Boot.

Off base

Beaufort, S.C. is known for its natural beauty and rich history.

Base housing is available for military personnel, but some Marines choose to live off-base in Beaufort and Port Royal, where housing costs less than comparably sized homes in Hampton Roads.

In Beaufort, interstate highways and shopping malls are not to be found, but the picturesque town is rich in history and Southern charm, and attracts flocks of tourists each year. The beaches of Hunting Island State Park are within easy reach.

With the region's natural beauty and the many 'military amenities,' it's not surprising that the Beaufort area has become a magnet for retirees of all branches of the service.

In fact, while some Marines say they'd like to retire in the area, they're not so sure about being stationed at Parris Island while young and single. One lieutenant in his 20's said Beaufort had little to offer in the way of night life, and that nearby Savannah was a favorite side trip.

But other Marines, especially those with families, see Parris Island as a prime posting. 'I think most Marines, once they get here and get to know the area, really love it,' said Maj. Lee Helton, a California native who is executive officer of a recruit training battalion, and who lives in Beaufort.

Flying teeth

Parris Island is a bird-lover's paradise, home to dozens of species from majestic bald eagles to frilly snowy egrets. But it's another winged creature that is most often associated with Parris Island: the pestiferous sand flea.

Culicoides to scientists, these biting midges are known by most people as gnats, sand fleas, no-see-um's, and several other unprintable names. They breed in the thousands of acres of marsh surrounding the island. On cloudy days, they swarm by the hundreds of thousands in the still of morning and evening and leave their victims scratching and blotchy. There is no off-season for gnats in the Lowcountry. The minor league baseball team in Savannah has even adopted the sand flea as its mascot.

These bugs are more than just a nuisance. Staff Sgt. Joseflynn Rodel, an experienced drill instructor, says that for decades, gnats have been part of the training that goes into making Marines. 'We actually use them as a training tool. It takes discipline not to scratch and swat the bugs,' said Rodel.

They're also part of Parris Island lore. A 1957 Jack Webb movie called 'The D.I.' depicted a Parris Island drill instructor ordering his platoon to dig a large hole to bury a 'murdered sand flea.'

Ask Parris Island alumni what they remember about boot camp, and the answer is likely to be their drill instructor, and the gnats.

Many drill instructors repel gnats with the same secret weapon Lowcountry residents have used for years. These very tough Marines use a product with a not-so-tough sounding name: 'Skin So Soft,' a perfumed moisturizing lotion made by Avon.

'It works much better than any of the regular bug sprays,' said Sgt. Roberson.

Ya'll come

On 'Family Day,' recruits receive the Marine Corps emblem to pin onto their uniform, and are reunited with their family for the first time as Marines.

Parris Island is one of the most visited military bases in the world.

From all over the Eastern U.S., family members flock to South Carolina each week to see loved ones graduate from boot camp, making Parris Island one of the most visited military bases in the world. The Marines have made sure there's plenty for their guests to do while visiting the depot. There's a visitor's center and a museum, and guided tours are given on 'family days.'

But perhaps the most impressive sight for visitors is the graduation ceremony itself, with resplendent color guards and the sensational Parris Island Marine Band providing the Corps' unique brand of pomp and circumstance. Many visitors find it hard to suppress the goose bumps when the parading band plays Sousa's ' Semper Fidelis.'

Typically, family members see 'their recruit' one day before graduation, after an emotional event called the Eagle Globe and Anchor Ceremony, in which recruits pin a Marine Corps emblem onto their uniform, and for the first time are called Marines.

Recruits are then given liberty to spend several hours with their family on base, and many take the opportunity to show their guests around the island. All around the barracks, rifle range, and other areas near the battalions, families can be seen clustering around newly minted Marines, who are no doubt regaling them with stories about the rigors of boot camp.

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