CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. --
A good look at Master Sgt. Darian Hines is all one needs to know something is different about him. The sleeve rolls on his uniform are unusually tight. His posture is straight, his build lean and muscular. He has a penetrating look that leaves his face only when his stern features relax into a harsh but good-natured laugh.
Non-Marines probably would not be able to put a finger on exactly what separates the 38-year-old administration chief for Combat Logistics Regiment-27, 2nd Marine Logistics Group, from other squared-away Marines. However, anyone who has set foot on the yellow footprints of a Marine Corps Recruit Depot would probably have a suspicion, or even a tingle of apprehension.
“I had always wanted to be a drill instructor since the time I was a recruit,” Hines recalled. “I always wanted to do it because of one of my drill instructors. It was his command presence, professionalism, his leadership by example … at all times. he was amazing.”
According to Hines, the very traits which led him to become a DI do not leave a hat (as DIs are affectionately known) when he or she returns to the Fleet Marine Force. Most former DIs have at least three years experience transforming raw men and women into basically-trained Marines. It’s a job generally considered to be among the Corps’ toughest and most rewarding assignments.
This is a look at three former DIs and how their experiences making Marines relate to leading them in the Fleet.
The greenbelt from Guyana
As any Marine can attest, the Corps is a diverse community. Marines hail from every clime and nearly every place.
Staff Sgt. Pettal Ward, a platoon sergeant with Food Service Company, CLR-27, came to the United States from Guyana, South America, when she was 14 years old.
“From what I’d seen on TV back in [Guyana], I knew [the U.S. military] was something I wanted to be part of, but I didn’t know which branch,” she said.
Ward found herself drawn to the discipline of the Marine Corps. Her admiration of that trait would eventually lead her to become a DI at MCRD Parris Island, S.C., from July 2005 to July 2008.
“I’ve always been disciplined,” she explained. “I’ve always liked the whole discipline aspect of the Marine Corps. I think ever since I was a recruit I knew that’s what I was going to do.”
Ward already had basic leadership skills down when she first became a ‘green belt’, or junior DI. It was her experience at MCRD Parris Island that took her to another level, she said.
The advantage a former DI might have over other leaders is the experience of leading recruits. This translates to a superior grasp of time, people management and problem solving, she added.
“The problems you see [with recruits] are a hundred times bigger than the ones you’re going to see [in the Fleet],” she explained. “If you can manage those, it’s almost a piece of cake when you come back [to the Fleet].”
This is not experience that comes without cost, Ward discovered. With a family, including a 2-year-old son, in tow throughout her tour, a delicate juggling act ensued.
“[My son] had a hard time coping,” she said. “He went from seeing mom every day to seeing mom once a week, maybe once every other week.
“That’s one place where you have to learn to put your own problems aside, because it’s not about you. It’s about your team (of DIs) and those recruits.”
The balance of recruits and family is further complicated by the annual training demands placed on all Marines, she added.
“You have to go down there with the mindset: ‘I’m going to do it, and I’m going to do what it takes to make it work’.”
Doing what it takes for a DI is more than overcoming personal issues. Just as the human body is more than mind and spirit, DIs pay more than a mental price.
Old dog, new tricks
Most Marines heading to the drill field are probably in their 20s or early 30s and coming off their first or second enlistment. Master Sgt. Hines had a different experience.
“It’s a funny thing about the drill field,” the Peoria, Ill., native said with a smile. “They have an age limit.”
Hines was 35-years-old and 14 years into his career when he reported to MCRD Parris Island in October 2006. His age, six months past the maximum allowed for new DIs at the time, forced him to get a waiver.
Like any prospective DI checking into MCRD Parris Island or San Diego, Hines had to first get through drill instructor school. The Corps’ approach to training the Marines who make Marines is straightforward: put them through a version of what the recruits themselves experience. The result is a 12-week school that pushes DI students as hard as they will push recruits. The program includes every facet of recruit training: customs and history; water survival and obstacle courses; and, of course, drill, drill and more drill. If a recruit will learn it, a DI must learn to lead them through it.
Things did not get easier for Hines once he began training recruits. His days usually began at 3:30 a.m. and lasted well-past the night hours after his recruits had been sent to their racks.
“Physically, your body is taxed in ways you would never have imagined,” he recalled. “Toenails fall off, your feet form calluses, your throat is throbbing, and your head feels like it’s going to fall off.”
If Marines ever wonder why their DIs always seemed to be so loud, Hines may have an answer.
“You get headaches so extreme the only way to alleviate them is to scream,” he said.
The constant physical stress exacts a toll on DIs. When Hines reported to DI school he tipped the scales at 210 pounds. By the time his first platoon graduated six months later, he was literally a shell of his former self, weighing 155 pounds.
The job may take a lot out of a DI, but it is a struggle that must remain internal, because “a recruit is always watching,” Hines said.
The demands do have a silver lining. Tough duty makes tough leaders out of DIs, a trait their Marines in the Fleet often experience through harder unit physical training (PT), said 1st Lt. Mabel B. Annunziata, CLR-27 adjutant.
“For someone of his age to be able to do what he does is huge,” she said. “He’ll (physically) smoke the Marines, and then turn around and be able to talk to the colonel, and then turn around and go right to helping someone in the shop.”
The intensity a former DI brings to his or her next unit is useful, but must come in measured doses, said Hines.
“When you check in and everyone sees you have that (drill instructor) ribbon, they’re thinking ‘He’s part of that top 10 percent, he’s going to push the pace.’ But sometimes I have to take a step back and make sure [my Marines] aren’t getting too stressed.”
From Parris Island to the post office
Staff Sgt. Julia Arambula knows about stress; she served as a DI at MCRD Parris Island from April 2004 to July 2007. For those three years she served in a billet where tough love wasn’t the exception but the rule. Now she has a gentler role as assistant operations chief for Postal Section, CLR-27.
On a recent, sweltering morning, some of her Marines stood in a formation outside the base post office. When one appeared to sway on his feet, Arambula moved in.
“Are you tired?” she asked.
“Yes, staff sergeant,” came the reply.
Arambula fixed the Marine with an appraising stare as he explained a prescribed medication was making him so tired he was falling asleep on his feet.
Her decision was one a recruit probably would not have dreamed to hear.
“Go home,” she said.
One of the most important skills Arambula honed as a DI was the delicate art of handling the welfare of her Marines.
“The way you approach things are somewhat different compared to before you went,” the Merrillville, Ind., native explained. “Having to deal with so many different [recruits], it gave me a better way of mentoring Marines in my own way.
“You inspect what you expect. [If] that means you mentor Marines in a way that you reward them, then you reward them. But at times enforcing discipline is the way to love them as well.”
Arambula projects an image many might not associate with a former DI. She is soft-spoken, outwardly calm, and relatively relaxed when she speaks to her Marines. Still, the way she handles her Marines speaks to her DI experience. Her Marines see it too, and learn from it.
“[She’s] a great source of knowledge,” said Cpl. Konnon L. Webb, operations NCO for Postal Section. “If there’s a situation as far as dealing with a Marine and you can’t think of a solution, [she] knows it.”
While Arambula may find a gentler approach is generally the best way to deal with her Marines, she has another gear available to get the results she’s looking for.
“Normally, I like to think I handle them on a human-to-human basis,” she said. “Again, [an] escalation of force comes with ‘are they getting things done? Do I need to turn it up a notch?’ But I don’t do that often.”
The memory remains
Much as Hines said his drill instructors at MCRD San Diego helped inspire him to a successful career nearly 20 years ago, Ward continues to draw inspiration from her first, harshest mentors in the Corps.
“I still talk to my senior drill instructor,” she laughed. “I still check in with her from time to time and ask her ‘Ma’am, this is what I was thinking about doing, do you think it’s a good move?’
“It doesn’t matter if I’m a Marine for ten years or 20 years … that person will always have an impact on [your] life.”
Earning the title of drill instructor carries a pride beyond simply being a Marine. It is a feeling that lasts well past a military career, said Arambula.
“It’s a job that is so prestigious and you’re there doing it,” she reflected. “It makes me know there are limits that I thought I once had…they’re not limitations anymore.”
Hines has a more specific idea of how his three years at Parris Island and his memories of his DIs will remain with him.
“Life after the Marine Corps … ,” he mused, pausing for a moment before breaking into a grin. “I think PT will always stay with me.”