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Behind the Quantico series: Covering the Corps

John Updike
(Photo by Lance Cpl. John T. Kennicutt)

I’ve had the privilege of embedding twice with Army units, but I have to say that the Marine Corps is my favorite branch of the services to write about. Not just because they fashion themselves as the most elite, but because, in my experience, their bravado often means they are more willing to open themselves up to the media. They feel like they have nothing to hide.

Which is how—after some negotiating with the staff at Quantico’s Officer Candidates School—videographer Matthew Hashiguchi and I were allowed to witness and document the Corps ritual known as “pickup.” We had to stay off to the side, and couldn’t get too close (though we were close enough that at times I caught myself standing at attention, lest the sergeant instructors berate me). But we were there last summer to witness a platoon of Officer Candidates meet their sergeant instructors for the very first time, which means you can, too. (I’m sorry but these video clips are simply awesome, if I don’t say so myself.)

It was one of many instances where the Corps opened up their doors and allowed us to capture something very few civilians ever get to see up close: the making of a Marine Corps officer. Like Tom Ricks, who followed a platoon through bootcamp at Parris Island a decade ago for his book "Making the Corps," we wanted to chronicle the experiences of several candidates as they navigated the Corps’ gauntlet. The series began Sunday and ended yesterday.

The Marines at OCS weren’t always open to everything; there were several instances when we had to fight to get access to certain aspects of the training regimen (we weren’t allowed to witness the very beginning of pickup, for example, when the sergeant instructors dump the candidates' duffel bags on the floor). And there were bits of information we had to pull out of them with pliers—with help from some of the best public affairs officials I’ve very worked with. But on the whole, they were welcoming and put up with our endless questions and requests.

The military looks at the media skeptically. I understand that. They think we’re too interested in sensational, negative news—blaring Abu Ghraib while neglecting the valor American service members display everyday. They think we don’t understand their culture and ethos. And to an extent, they’re right. Ignorance about the military is pervasive in today’s America.

But journalists aren’t driven by malice—or shouldn’t be. And the military could help by doing a better job of opening its doors and telling its story, in good times and bad.

By Christian Davenport  | December 2, 2009; 12:48 PM ET
Categories:  How I got that story  
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