CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — The United States Marine Corps calls it The Crucible.
"This is a pivotal moment in every Marine's career.. in their life, that they will never forget," said company commander Cpt. John McNabb.
We're standing high on a hill in the middle of Camp Pendleton, Calif., shortly before sunrise. Fog still shrouds the hills, and we can barely glimpse the Pacific Ocean in the distance.
As six platoons of Marine recruits crest The Crucible's final hill, known as "The Reaper," they literally and figuratively pass the pinnacle of their boot camp training. Many are marching double-time, and several stumble from exhaustion as their drill instructors hustle around the recruits barking at them to keep marching until the end of the drill.
"It's the hardest thing I've ever done physically and mentally, sir," Private First Class Ryan Plautz told me. The newly-minted Marine from Cedar City has caught his breath, but he's only slept a few hours in three days.
The Crucible is a grueling, three-day event, the greatest challenge of boot camp and a culmination of the physical and mental skills the Marine recruits have learned over the last three months. The event simulates battle conditions and tests the recruits' knowledge, physical fitness and overall stamina. It's an emotional event that few civilians ever see. It turns recruits into Marines, and leaves them exhausted, but exhilarated.
You can sense the raw emotion just by looking in their eyes.
–Cpt. John McNabb
The Crucible is the final right of passage of boot camp that earns the recruits the right to be called Marines and wear the Marine emblem: the eagle, globe and anchor.
"You can sense the raw emotion just by looking in their eyes," McNabb said.
"You focus on the mission, and getting through the day," Plautz told me.
Over 54 hours, they march 55 miles. They carry 40-pound backpacks and their M-16s.
"They are only sleeping about two to three hours a night," McNabb said. "They eat one MRE (meals ready-to-eat) per day."
They must complete physical and mental challenges at 24 stations in the harsh terrain of Camp Pendleton.
"The individuality goes away; it's all based on teamwork," Plautz said.
The Cedar City Marine said clear communication is the biggest challenge to problem-solving and getting along during the ordeal.
"You have to work together," he said, "and realize you can't do it by yourself."
They succeed or fail as a team.
"You worry about each other before you worry about yourself," Plautz explained.
A few recruits are so exhausted they collapse. Their comrades rush to help them up, and keep them marching. They've completed obstacle courses, assault courses, and other battlefield tests.
"It simulates combat: the constant operations," said Private First Class Havier Martell of Chicago. "It's really challenging."
Once all 300 recruits complete The Crucible, they are no longer recruits. The company commander gathers the troops around and gives them a spirited speech of congratulations.
"You've accomplished what few dare to try. You've earned the title United States Marine," he shouted at the young men.
Drill instructors give the new Marines the pin displaying an eagle, globe and anchor — the official emblem of the U.S. Marine Corps.
"It's truly an honor to have that opportunity to be able to break them down, and build them up to be a Marine," McNabb told me. "We want them to be great Marines. But we also want them to be great Americans."
These Marines endured a lot of hardship together.
"All the PT (physical training), the constant movement, the drilling, the crucible. But, we made it," Martell said.
Plautz said he's grown up a lot in the last three months, and bonded with his new brothers.
"It's been a dream since I was a kid," he said. "Here I am, 21-years-old, finally finished."
One week after The Crucible, the Marines graduate. The young Marine from Cedar City is already at combat school, the next chapter in his new career.