PARRIS ISLAND, S.C. -- In the hours before dawn, Terri Howard arrives at the swampy military boot camp known as Parris Island, S.C.
Bleary-eyed and bone-tired from a journey that started 21 hours before, she's here to be transformed from a scared Pasadena teen-ager into a United States Marine.
Within minutes, she meets the enemy -- a female drill instructor whose scowling face is only inches from hers. "YOU'RE NOT GOING TO MAKE IT!" she barks at Ms. Howard, 18, who is accidentally filling out the wrong recruit form. "Get that crappy look off your face. You've GOT to be here. . . . You're not going anywhere."
For the next three months, she won't leave this training ground the Marines have nicknamed "the land that God forgot," unless she tries to escape -- as several recruits routinely do -- or asks to leave, as four female newcomers will in the next 48 hours.
But Ms. Howard, a blond tomboy who signed up in January after realizing she couldn't afford college and didn't want a dead-end job, is "locked and cocked" -- Marine slang for someone ready to meet the challenge ahead.
"This is my life," she says, several days before leaving. "I don't want to work at McDonald's. . . . I want to live an adventure and do something that makes me feel proud."
She faces an even tougher training regimen than the one endured by women before her. This month the Marines implemented a new program for women that more closely parallels the men's training and better prepares women to come under fire.
Although they still train apart from the men, women are for the first time being instructed in hand grenades, chemical warfare and basic combat training.
Tested in many ways
Before Ms. Howard leaves, she'll be tested in nearly every conceivable way.
She'll be put in a tear-gas chamber with her gas mask and emerge stumbling, coughing up phlegm and rubbing her burning eyes.
She'll swim in 20 pounds of wet clothes and gear.
She'll fire an M-60 machine gun, navigate obstacle courses and crawl on her belly through the mud and brush.
(Physical requirements are still less stringent; women, for example, must run 1 1/2 miles in 15 minutes, while men have to do three miles in 28 minutes.)
Although women are restricted from participating in ground combat, the incident last week in which one of the Navy's first female combat pilots plunged to her death in a fighter accident shows that the risk for women is high.
If Ms. Howard makes it -- and last year more than 19 percent of the female candidates didn't -- she will become part of a select few: Women make up fewer than 5 percent of the 174,000 Marines today.
A Catholic who rarely attends church, she has rediscovered God, particularly since finding out that the chapel is the one place where drill instructors aren't allowed.
Weeks before leaving, she began glancing at the crucifix in her bedroom and for the first time in years prayed.
"It never hurts," she says. "I ask God to keep my family and friends safe, and to help keep me strong and my head up."
Being sent to Haiti, Cuba or Kuwait one day concerns but doesn't overwhelm her, she says.
"I could get killed crossing the street," she says. "My friends think I'm crazy, but I say, 'If I'm going to die, I'd rather die doing something for my country, doing something I'll be remembered for.' "
How it starts
Her journey begins with a knock on the door at 5 a.m.
Marine recruiter Sgt. Robert E. Russman has come to escort her to a processing station in Baltimore.
Ms. Howard's mother, Linda Shanks, has spent the morning crying and smoking cigarettes, steadily losing hold of the denial she's been in about having her only daughter in the service.
"Go away," she says to the unopened door. "We didn't turn on the front light so you'd think nobody was home."
Ms. Howard moves quickly once Sergeant Russman arrives. She hasn't cried about leaving her mother and stepfather Doug, but if she lingers now she may lose her already fragile composure.
"We keep saying we're not going to do this breakdown stuff and have Terri all upset on the plane, but it's not gonna work," says Ms. Shanks who sobs as she hugs her daughter goodbye.
"Mom, cut it out," says Ms. Howard, who hasn't talked to her own father in years. "I'm not going to the electric chair."
Between interviews, physicals and paperwork, she'll spend the next 10 hours mostly waiting for her new life to begin, with little more than daytime talk shows and 6-year-old issues of Time magazine to entertain her.
During this lull, some recruits already experience doubts.
"We've had them cry, throw up," says Gunnery Sgt. Brenda Wolfe, the operations chief of the Marine recruiting station in Baltimore. "We afford them one last call home if they want to talk to their parents one last time."
A Marine for 13 years, she's confident Ms. Howard will make it.
To instill confidence
"She's quiet, but she has a vision and a goal," she says. "One time I told her, 'You can smile. It's OK.'
"I think boot camp will give her confidence. She'll learn to speak up for herself."