On any Thursday before a Friday recruit graduation at Marine Corps Recruit Depot (MCRD) Parris Island, S.C., families can be seen strolling with their new Marine along the sidewalks beneath sprawling branches of mighty Southern oaks draped with Spanish moss.
For generations, Thursday has traditionally been Family Day at Parris Island; now, a new program will extend that to include Wednesdays as the Parris Island staff reaches out to let families know they are an important part of the team.
“We want to welcome them to the Marine Corps family, educate them and most of all thank them for the trust they have placed in us with their sons and daughters,” said Colonel R. L. Grabowski, Chief of Staff, Eastern Recruiting Region (ERR) and MCRD Parris Island.
When the Commandant of the Marine Corps (CMC), General James F. Amos, assumed his post in 2010, he established four enduring priorities; one was to “keep faith with our Marines, our Sailors and our families.”
Leaders at Parris Island are taking that guidance to heart as they implement a new “Extended Family Day” structured to better communicate with and inform families of recruits. The “extended” part of that title is dual purpose; it refers to the extended day, but also to the extended family, not just moms and dads but brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, grandparents, cousins and in some cases spouses and children.
“We are offering a full day of education about the Marine Corps, about what their new Marine has experienced at Parris Island for 13 weeks and a look at what is in their future,” said retired Marine Col Joe Stewart, deputy director of Marine Corps Community Services-South Carolina (MCCS-SC), the base department that is coordinating and administering the new program.
The program includes a “Marine Corps 101” session where families learn about the core values, history and traditions of the Marine Corps, as well as services that are available for their new Marine. There also is a “Family Orientation Brief” featuring an overview of recruit training and what is next for their Marine, plus a question and answer period.
A 45-minute tour of the base takes families to places they might not normally see, like medical and dental facilities. To cap off the day, reservations are offered for Wednesday steak night at the on-base “Traditions” club. Another new event on Thursday evenings is a special meal at Traditions where families can interact with MCRD leadership and other Marines in an informal environment.
“They are full of questions, and this dinner gives them the chance to talk face to face with seasoned Marines to get firsthand answers,” noted Col Grabowski.
The program also provides families with several ways to stay informed after their Marine leaves Parris Island. This initiative has more than one focus.
“We wanted to follow CMC’s guidance on reaching out to touch the extended Marine Corps family,” said MCCS-SC Director Gary Cassevah. “We also wanted to develop communication channels to make sure families are getting information before graduation and that they can continue to stay in touch with their Marine’s career after graduation.”
The MCCS staff works with other departments at Parris Island to use e-mail, websites, a mailed “grad pack” of information and social media networks to let families know about the new offerings on Wednesdays.
“The word of mouth was getting out over those social media sources, and as we rolled it out, it just dramatically increased in numbers of attendees,” said Stewart. “We started in March with a total of about 800 family members who attended the Marine Corps 101 brief, tours and other events, and the numbers have steadily increased from there.”
Families on base in May for a graduation validated those claims.
Jim Gooch served honorably as a Marine in the 1980s and his 19-year-old son, Remy, was due to graduate with Platoon 3037 on Friday, May 11.
Early on Thursday morning the father donned his T-shirt with “Gooch Plt 3037” stamped on the back as he and his family waited for the “Mot Run” to come by. The Motivational Run is the first time they’d be able to catch a glimpse of their Marine when all graduating platoons ran by in formation.
“We knew exactly what was going on and when,” said the Magnolia, Del., resident who arrived at Parris Island on Tuesday, so he and his family could attend the orientation activities. Having been on active duty, he was very familiar with what Remy was experiencing, but all the advance information helped his wife understand.
“She wasn’t at all hesitant to support the decision for Remy to join,” he said with an irrepressible look of pride.
Barbara Schmitz was in from Fruitland, Md., with several other family members to watch her niece, Paige Curtis, 18, graduate from 4th Recruit Training Battalion, the Corps’ only recruit training battalion focused on training female Marines.
“We have been kept very well-informed from long before we got here and all the time we’ve been here,” she said enthusiastically. “It has been very impressive, everything is right on time, and everyone has been extremely courteous and helpful.” Paige’s mother, Theresa, and father, John, nod their agreement in the background.
“And the programs they’ve told us about, like the Single Marine Program and the one on how to handle their finances, will really help Paige stay on track,” Schmitz said, adding that the extra day helps slow down the pace. “We didn’t feel as rushed as if we’d come in on Thursday and had to leave Friday.”
Schmitz interjected that her daughter served in one of the other U.S. Armed Forces, “and her graduation was nothing like this,” she said emphatically. “We were never sure exactly what was happening or where we were supposed to be, and there was nobody around to ask. It was not a good experience.”
This embodies the essence of the new program’s intent.
“We have a special opportunity here to take the Commandant’s guidance and make it something real, because we have members of the extended family in one location at one point in time,” said Cassevah. “They get to know our staff on a first-name basis, and we let them know that they can call us anytime for help or information after they leave.”
Even families who didn’t take part in the extra day of orientation emphasized that it wasn’t because they didn’t know about it.
“We knew all about it, but just couldn’t get off work to be here early,” said Charlotte, N.C., resident Connie Stone, whose son, Jesse Thomas, 20, would graduate with Platoon 3032 and be bound for a life in the infantry. “We got the package of information in the mail, and it told us everything we needed to know. Plus, Jesse sent us a letter telling us the package was in the mail and gave us the base website to stay on top of things. You can’t say we weren’t informed.”
The genesis of the program goes back several years when Brigadier General Frederick M. Padilla was the commanding general of MCRD/ERR, but it came to fruition in March 2012 with the full support of current CG, BGen Loretta E. “Lori” Reynolds.
“Brigadier General Padilla was here when we began developing the concept, and Brigadier General Reynolds moved the idea forward and actually got this going,” said Cassevah, adding that BGen Reynolds has been tremendously supportive.
“The main focus that the commanding general would want people to take away from these programs is that it is not about the Marine Corps, it is about the families and thanking them for entrusting us with their most valuable asset,” Grabowski emphasized.
The program has been so successful that there are no plans for making major changes in the near future.
“We’ve been tweaking it as we go along, but this isn’t being run as a test bed, this is where we’re going,” said Cassevah. “So far, the reaction from the families, the positive feedback we’re getting, really points to this being a home run.”
With about 20,000 recruits graduating each year at Parris Island, the local Beaufort community is excited about the extra day as well. Local hotels, restaurants and businesses have reported that a majority of their Wednesday and Thursday business is from recruit families.
“I pre-briefed the Chamber of Commerce before we implemented this, and the feedback I’m getting is that their Tuesday night room rentals and other sales are up, so there is a positive impact to the community,” said Cassevah.
While staff at the Marine West Coast recruit depot in San Diego is aware of the new program, there are no immediate plans to amend the program there, according to MCRD San Diego spokesman and Marine veteran Marc Ayalin.
Editor’s note: The author, CWO-4 Randy Gaddo, USMC (Ret), was a combat correspondent as an enlisted Marine and later a public affairs officer. He retired from active duty in 1996 and now is a contributing editor for Leatherneck.