13 weeks. 70 training days. Almost 75,000 minutes working to get into the best shape possible, both mentally and physically. That is how long a Marine recruit will spend to become part of our nation’s greatest fighting force. To most, those are just numbers on a page or a screen. For a Marine recruit, those numbers are all too real

Members of the Rivalry Series team traveled to Parris Island, S.C. last week as part of an educator workshop, a program designed for advertisers and educators to get an inside look at a Marine’s lifestyle while on base. While on Parris Island, they participated in a number of activities, from conquering obstacles at the confidence course, taking part in the receiving phase, being yelled at and pushed by a drill instructor, to even tackling part of The Crucible, the culminating event for a recruit to become a Marine. However, the most impactful activity of the week came at the most unlikely place, the chow hall.

Certain recruits were handpicked to eat in a special area away from the rest of their platoon. They were given a unique opportunity to eat and talk with us. We were lucky to sit down with a recruit named Cole St. Peter, and from our initial handshake, you could tell he was nervous. At this point, we were his first contact with the outside world in over 10 weeks. As we asked him questions, a “yes sir” or “no sir” would follow. His back was straight, his head was looking at attention; this was his norm and was hesitant to break it. As we continued to talk, we learned he was a firefighter in the small town of Colchester, Vermont who liked to fish and hunt. His dad had attempted to become a Marine but dropped out. This is what drove Cole to finish; he didn’t want to feel the same regret his father does.

More questions came and went, and more simple responses followed. But then, Michael Leonard, a senior event director with the Rivalry Series, made the comment to him, that living on the base sounds like prison. Cole’s response, “Prison is better. In prison, you get to watch tv and don’t have to respond to everything that is said to you,” he said with a smile. This was the first we saw his smile, the first time he felt relaxed, the first time he could distract himself from his surroundings, the first time he could be normal and “talk to the boys.” From there, the stories from his time at Parris Island got crazier, funnier, and weirder.

Cole didn’t know the exact date, but he did know it was Wednesday, because church was “three sleeps ago.” The only current event he knew about was the “shooting in Florida.” Also, it was the first time he referred to himself as “I” in months and mentioned how his friends would pack toothpaste into paper towels from chow to simulate having a dip in. We ask him how different this was from a normal chow. “This is the most relaxed I’ve eaten since I got here,” he said. “We can’t look at each other while we eat, and we get yelled at if our cups are touching, just little things like that. We’ve learned if we take crackers and drink through them if softens them up and they are faster to eat. We don’t have much time at all.” He continued by saying that recruits would stick their fingers through the cracks in the bathroom walls to see if the sun was touching two of their fingers. If it was, it was almost time for afternoon chow.

As we continued to talk with him about what we did and why we were there, our time with Cole came to an end. However, his journey to finish what he promised his dad was about to begin. At 2 a.m. the next morning, Cole and his fellow platoon would embark on The Crucible, a 54-hour culminating event to earn the title, United States Marine. At 9 a.m. on Saturday, they received their Eagle, Globe, and Anchors. To his parents Robyn and Larry, you have an amazing son who you should be very proud of. This is probably the first picture you’ve seen of your son since he’s been gone. We hope this story finds you, someway, somehow. To Cole, in just two weeks, the Golden Corral buffet you’ve been craving will be in front of you. We wish we could be there to enjoy it with you.