SAN DIEGO — It was the moment he had been waiting for.
United States Marine Corps recruit Sean Sieler, whose first day in the Marines was chronicled in The Times several months ago, had made it through 11 weeks of boot camp.
He had survived 5:30 a.m. reveilles, five-mile runs and barking drill instructors. He had mastered close-order drills, learned the art of spit-shining his shoes and conquered the obstacle course. He had thrown a hand grenade, earned an expert badge shooting the M-16 rifle, learned hand-to-hand combat and choked on tear gas in the gas chamber.
And now the 19-year-old from El Toro and 168 other members of Company L of the Third Recruit Training Battalion were awaiting the final command from their platoon drill instructors at the end of their graduation ceremony at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego.
"PLATOON DISMISSED!" the drill instructors barked.
With a roar, Sieler and his fellow Marines raised their arms in victory, broke ranks and, beaming as though they were front-line GIs who had just received word that the war was over, began slapping each other on the back and hugging one another.
Immediately, the hundreds of friends and relatives who had come to watch the graduation ceremony in late March swarmed out of the bleachers onto the parade deck to congratulate the young men.
Hug for Grandmother
"Hello, Grandma!" cried Sieler, giving his grandmother a hug as she and 14 other friends and family members surrounded the newly minted $573-a-month Marine Corps private.
"Who does your shoes? You didn't do them yourself? " joked one of Sieler's three sisters. "I want to see how you make a bed."
Another sister pulled off his garrison cap--that's a "cover" in Marine parlance--and revealed a half-inch growth of hair on top and close-cropped sides. "Oh, my God," she gasped, "you got a Mohawk. Cute!"
Working her way through the crowd, Sieler's mother, Jo Ann Beck, threw her arms around her son and, as they had done on that misty morning in January when they said goodby, mother and son quietly embraced one another.
"What an emotional day," said Beck, tears in her eyes, as she watched her son the Marine pose for an Instamatic-wielding relative. "I can't handle this. I'm so proud."
Sieler's stepfather, Bill Beck, said they received about one letter a week from Sean. In the beginning, he said, the letters were only several lines, no more than, "Hi Mom! I don't have much time. Goodby," and wound up running several pages long as the training progressed.
"He really enjoyed it," observed Jo Ann Beck. "You could tell he was homesick the first two or three weeks, and you could tell when he was succeeding--when he made rifle expert, his letters were uplifting."
The Becks, who had seen Sieler during Visitor's Day the Sunday before graduation, said they noticed a change in him.
"He's more disciplined," explained his mother. "He is a complete gentleman with the women. He escorted his mother around the entire base. They do make gentlemen out of them."
"He stands taller; he doesn't slouch," added her husband. "He's more toned down. He couldn't stand still before. He's a gentleman, and he loves the Marines."
"He seems more grown up," observed Sieler's girlfriend, Kecia Rostocil, a sophomore at Woodbridge High School in Irvine. And yes, she said with a smile, "I missed him."
Over a long-awaited beer, hamburger and French fries at a restaurant on the way home to El Toro, Sieler, a 1984 Woodbridge High School graduate, discussed his 73 days in boot camp.
"Like everybody says, the hardest part is the first week or week and a half," he said. "It got better as time went on. The longer you're in it, you just mature. You grow up real fast. You have to."
At the end of The Times' first story on Sieler, he had just finished being processed through the receiving barracks at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot. It was nearly midnight, and he looked tired and beat after his first long day in the Marines.
"It's a night to remember," he acknowledged with a grin. "But the next morning was the worst part. You're just not used to it: getting up and getting yelled at without being able to yell back."
Did he at any point have second thoughts about joining the Marines?
"Yes, that first night," he admitted. "But after the receiving barracks and getting into the training it wasn't that bad. It's just a matter of taking it day by day and you survive."
Although Sieler, a former high school wrestler and football player, had jogged and lifted weights before joining the Marines, he said the hardest part of boot camp was the physical training.
"It was hard all the way through, but you progressively get stronger," he said, explaining that part of the physical training included having to do 20 pullups, followed by 80 sit-ups in two minutes and a timed three-mile run.