Pvt. Maria Gonzalez stood on the parade deck and faced the stands full of friends and family.
Gonzalez, a Los Angeles native, had flown into Savannah, 13 weeks ago, then made the trip to Parris Island. During the flight she’d looked out the window at the earth below.
This is actually happening, she thought to herself.
It was her first flight.
She’d been away from family before, on church trips. But she had never been this far from home.
Now, on the parade deck at Recruit Depot Parris Island, Gonzalez awaited her senior drill instructor’s final order.
The order came: Platoon 4011 of Company N, Fourth Recruit Training Battalion, was dismissed. Friday’s graduation ceremony was over. Gonzalez and 508 other Marines from seven platoons could leave The Island.
Most of them would go home with friends and family. But a few, like Gonzalez, had no loved ones at Friday’s ceremony. This is the case at most graduations, according to Renee Kitts, a volunteer with Beaufort’s Stand Alone Marine Project.
“SAM,” as Kitts calls it, was started 10 years ago by two women married to Parris Island drill instructors. Kitts and her crew of eight attend every graduation. If nothing else, they make sure Marines like Gonzalez go home with a handshake, a thank-you and a cookie.
“Fifteen?” Chick Dykeman said, counting the names on the list given to him by the corporal manning Fourth Battalion’s administrative office.
“Yes, sir,” the corporal said.
“They’re all (classified) ‘airport,'” Dykeman said, looking at the bus list of Marines who had no one to pick them up. “Now, all we gotta do is find them.”
Dykeman, cookie in hand, an Army hat on his head, walked out of the office. As he neared the sidewalk in front of Fourth Battalion’s headquarters, the SAM volunteer smiled.
“There’s two of ’em,” he said.
Gonzalez and another Marine stood on the sidewalk talking to Kitts and fellow volunteer Chris Mokan. Mokan handed out cookies. Homemade cookies — her “famous” cookies.
Graduation had ended minutes ago. The Marines had dropped their gear on the sidewalk. They waited for the bus.
Kitts and Mokan gave them bags full of gift cards, notes from schoolkids and snacks. On Thursday nights before graduations, SAM invites the friends and family of soon-to-graduate Marines to Gilligan’s Seafood Restaurant inBeaufort. And, for a couple of hours, they all make bags for folks like Gonzalez.
“We couldn’t do it without the donations, without these people volunteering their time,” Kitts said.
Dykeman watched as the women talked. It’s a good thing, he said, when there are fewer stand-alone Marines. (The numbers can range from two to 21 after a graduation, Kitts said. Sometimes there are none.)
“They really get nervous about flying,” he said, looking at the Marines. “A lot of them just haven’t flown much.”
Earlier Friday, on the parade deck, Gonzalez found herself surrounded by hundreds of friends and family members looking for their Marines.
Some carried signs — “JOSH,” one read. Others carried balloons. One Marine, who didn’t expect her family to attend graduation, was surprised to find her dad on the parade deck, Gonzalez said.
“I was looking at all the families, looking how proud they were of their children, of how we’ve come this far,” she said, standing in front of Fourth Battalion’s headquarters after graduation.
“The cheering — it’s like, ‘I’ve made it.'”
But she was also sad.
Her father, she said, couldn’t attend the ceremony — he works a lot. As she spoke, her eyes watered behind her glasses, and a tear slipped down her cheek.
“It’s nice to see someone care,” she said, referring to the SAM volunteers.
She joined the because she didn’t want to go to college, she said. She joined to make her family proud. She joined so she could help them financially.
She’s looking forward to hanging out with her mom. Going to see “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Eating tamales.
She’s excited to be able to treat her family to a meal at a restaurant.
She said she would land in Los Angeles close to midnight Friday, take a cab home.
She’d thought about surprising her family, just showing up, but she’d called them a few days ago.
She just couldn’t wait.
Wade Livingston: @WadeGLivingston
(c)2016 The Island Packet (Hilton Head, S.C.) at www.islandpacket.com
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