- Associated Press - Saturday, May 7, 2016

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) - The recruits froze every time a flare lit up the night sky, pressing their bodies flat to the ground under the razor wire.

As soon as the flare fizzled out, they kept on moving, inching through the sand. Drill instructors lobbed smoke grenades in their path, clouding the air, making it impossible to see. The razor wire caught and pulled on their Kevlar.

When Rainer Zarzour, 20, finally reached the end of the 30-foot stretch of razor wire, his drill instructor screamed at him to go back - another recruit was a few feet behind. Zarzour was furious.

“This recruit was mad,” Zarzour said. He’s been trained not to say the word “I” and uses “this recruit” or “he” instead. “This recruit didn’t want to go back. But he thought in his head, ‘You never leave a man behind. You bring them home to their family. You bring them through whatever it is you have to get through.’”

He went back, and crawled out with his fellow recruit.

Zarzour never thought he’d be here, just two weeks and three days away from becoming a U.S. Marine - if he completes the last bit of boot camp at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot on Parris Island in South Carolina.

Last year, the Chattanooga native was living with his parents, working at the Publix grocery store, hair down to his nose. While he’d always wanted to help others, he’d figured a career in the FBI or on a police force fit him best. The military scared him.

Then July 16 happened.

Zarzour was home, about to head to work, when news of the attack first popped up on his social media.

He saw pictures of a silver convertible, heard that a gunman had opened fire at two military sites in Chattanooga - a Marine recruiting center on Lee Highway and a reserve station on Amnicola Highway.

Zarzour, a 2014 graduate of Boyd-Buchanan High School, found out four Marines had been killed and a sailor was in critical condition at Erlanger.

“It messed with this recruit’s head,” Zarzour said, speaking to the Times Free Press outside his squad bay recently while his fellow recruits cleaned the floor inside. His drill instructor’s voice seeped through the walls, harsh and intense.

The day of the attacks, Zarzour drove straight to the makeshift memorial on Lee Highway as soon as he got off work around 11 p.m. At least a hundred people were there and a collection of flags, signs, crosses and memorabilia was beginning to pile up across the parking lot from the bullet-riddled front wall of the recruiting center.

Zarzour took it all in before he left that night.

He came back, twice a day, for a long while. He’d sit by the memorial and think about what had happened. He’d grab the hand of another person and hold tight. He’d thank the military service members he saw at the memorial. And he’d think about joining the military.

“To have that happen in this recruit’s hometown is unbelievable, and this recruit never wanted it to happen again,” Zarzour said. “He wanted to do everything he could to stop that.”

So, about four months after the attack, and after his best friend joined the Marines, Zarzour signed up.

He spent three months on Parris Island completing a physical fitness training regimen before he even started boot camp. On his first night, the Marines shaved his shaggy hair.

“One of this recruit’s favorite things was seeing every recruit’s hair being shaved off,” he said. “To see that individuality stripped away, it made this recruit feel like he was more at home.”

Under clear blue skies just after 9 a.m. on April 29, 379 new Marines marched onto the parade deck at Parris Island for their official graduation.

They stepped in perfect unison, arms swinging together, across the long stretch of asphalt. Each platoon halted, then the two companies turned together.

All 758 boots snapped together with a single crack.

As the band played the “Marines’ Hymn,” the distant shouts of recruits drifted across the parade deck.

At the end of the hourlong ceremony, the new Marines marched past the stands, filled with thousands of family and friends. The Marines showed no emotion as the crowd screamed and cheered and sounded air horns. They kept their eyes straight ahead, steps measured and tight.

Finally, few minutes later, the drill instructors dismissed the new Marines and their families rushed from the stands to the asphalt.

Then the new Marines cried and laughed, hugged and kissed.

And left Parris Island.

Zarzour has been looking forward to graduation since before he signed up.

He already knows he’s different than he was - he moves faster, thinks more clearly, respects authority more than he used to and never procrastinates.

That mental change is the core purpose of every boot camp, said Col. Jeffrey Fultz, chief of staff at Parris Island.

“Anyone can come in here and learn to say, ‘Yes, sir,’ and march,” he said. “But the transformation into a Marine is really internal.”

Boot camp broke Zarzour down in ways he never expected.

“This recruit hit a point in life where he was scraping rock bottom, and didn’t think he was anything,” he said. “And the only people that were there were his peers, his fellow recruits. And that means these recruits leaned on each other and built each other up to where we are today. We still have a while to go. But this recruit is not giving up.”

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