First public Parris Island graduation since pandemic, just in time for Mother’s Day

·3 min read

It had been an exhausting 13 weeks.

On Feb. 12, 2021, Lima Company recruits arrived at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island to begin the rigorous process of becoming Marines — a process that starts with learning how to stand at attention on yellow-painted footprints and ends with a rigorous 54-hour training exercise called “The Crucible.”

And on Friday, they participated, however unwittingly, in a watershed moment in Parris Island and Beaufort County’s COVID-19 pandemic recovery — boot camp’s first public graduation in 14 months.

In March 2020, the Marine Corps shut the base — an economic powerhouse and source of pride in Northern Beaufort County — down to the public to combat the spread of COVID-19.

Since then, the base has held 41 closed graduations, which occur almost every week. On April 12, the base announced it would allow a limited number of visitors to attend graduations as “part of a gradual approach to reopen the depot completely to visitors.” Each Marine is now allowed to invite two family members to graduation.

Parris Island spokesperson Gunnery Sgt. Tyler Hlavac said 383 recruits became Marines on Friday.

New Marines march in parade formation during Parris Island graduation May 7, 2021.
New Marines march in parade formation during Parris Island graduation May 7, 2021.

They join a fraternity of more than a million Marines who, since 1891, have completed boot camp at Parris Island, where “We Make Marines” is written on the water tower.

Marching in crisp form around the parade deck, the Marines wore white hats, blue slacks, tan shirts and the Corps’ Eagle, Globe and Anchor emblem. They were cheered on by roughly 800 guests, who rushed onto the parade deck with signs and flags when the ceremony was over.

The ceremony was particularly moving for families because of its proximity to Mother’s Day on Sunday.

New Marines reunite with loved ones after 13 weeks apart following their final dismissal from recruit training at Parris Island May 7, 2021.
New Marines reunite with loved ones after 13 weeks apart following their final dismissal from recruit training at Parris Island May 7, 2021.

“I only get today [to spend with my son],” said Francis Williams, of Pembroke, Ga., whose son Jacob became a Marine on Friday. “I’m just here to stare at him.”

Pvt. Edwin Villedaperez’s mother and cousin attended his graduation. Mother Anabel Perez said the past three months have been hard being separated from him. The family has lived on Hilton Head Island for 22 years.

“The separation was difficult, but the pain was worth it,” Perez said in Spanish.

Pvt. Edwin Villedaperez and his mother, Anabel Perez, of Hilton Head Island at Parris Island graduation May 7, 2021.
Pvt. Edwin Villedaperez and his mother, Anabel Perez, of Hilton Head Island at Parris Island graduation May 7, 2021.

Villedaperez, 20, is headed to Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C., for further training. He’ll then go to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri to train for the military police, he said.

Kelly Swingle of Savannah said, “it took every ounce of restraint for me not to jump out of that bleacher,” when she finally could embrace her 19-year-old son, Paul Purcell, a new Marine.

Handling the lifestyle changes, like “getting yelled at a lot,” was among the most difficult adjustments, Paul Purcell said.

A new Marine reunites with a loved one in the stands at Parris Island graduation May 7, 2021.
A new Marine reunites with a loved one in the stands at Parris Island graduation May 7, 2021.

Lt. Col. Michael Sandstrom addressed the graduates at the ceremony, reminding them that this was only the beginning.

“It is not about you,” he said. “It is about the Marines that will always be to your left and your right.”

The Marines had met the challenges of drill instructors who would remain etched in their minds forever, and overcame grueling tests of their mental, moral and physical fortitude, “all leading to this moment,” Sandstrom said.

“Maintain that spirit and discipline,” he said, “and you will defeat any challenge.”