PARRIS ISLAND, S.C. — On a freezing cold morning, hours before sunrise, U.S. Marine Staff Sgt. Javier Cuadro was already in his office preparing for another long day of boot camp training.
At 4:30 a.m., Cuadro nodded to his fellow drill instructors, then barked a command that would shatter the sleep of some 60 recruits in the squad bay and send them scrambling out of their bunks to stand at rigid attention a few seconds later.
“Turn ’em on, Fire Watch. Turn the lights on,” he shouted, as he and the other drill instructors stormed between the bunks, yelling at the young recruits to get up and face another grueling day. And they had better move fast, fast, fast!
For the next several minutes, the recruits counted off, put on their fatigues, boots and caps — performing each task on command, always being yelled at, constantly shouting back at the top of their lungs, "Aye, sir!"
Next, they would make their bunks — exactly right — and sweep the squad room, crawling along the floor like crabs, one hand behind their back, the other pushing a small brush. "Any day, any day," shouted Cuadro to an errant recruit, who wisely stepped up the pace. All this, and it's not even 5 a.m. yet.
"You try to get them used to working in a stressful environment, being able to perform simple tasks while someone is yelling at them," said Cuadro, as the never-ending shouts of drill instructors and recruits reverberated through the building.
Long, hard training day
For the next several hours, the recruits would march in sub-freezing temperatures to the mess hall for a breakfast of eggs, pancakes and bacon; return to the barracks for more clean-up —looking again like crabs holding brushes; then do two hours of vigorous physical training led by Cuadro himself, their senior drill instructor.
"We all know how to do pushups, do we not?" shouted Cuadro. "Yes, sir," screamed the recruits. "We all know how to do crunches? Yes, sir!" With that, the recruits were pushed harder than they ever dreamed of as civilians.
"You will do my pull-ups. You have no choice," shouted Cuadro. Recruits who slacked off, didn't count loud enough, or forgot to tuck in the tie-strings from their sweatpants were ordered to start the exercise cycle all over again.
"I let it slide, it means what else am I gonna let slide?" explained Cuadro. "If they can get away with that, they can get away with anything else."
Sandbox training gets attention
After lunch, the recruits headed out to the parade ground for two hours of marching and rifle drill instruction. They were taught to act and think as a team, which could save their lives in the months to come.
Looking over a somewhat ragged formation, Cuadro said, "You gotta work as a unit. If one recruit messes up, no one behind him is going to be able to do this movement correctly."
For failing to perform the maneuvers with the proper skill and enthusiasm, the recruits were all ordered to do stop drill practice and head to a large sandbox for a session of pushups, lunges and other exercises. The fine sand got all over their hands and into their clothing.
"Recruits hate that," said Cuadro, who added he was only trying to get their attention.
Likely headed for Iraq
Looming over all the Marine Corps' efforts at Parris Island is the likelihood that most of the recruits here will end up fighting in Iraq after completing basic and advanced training.
That reality has lent focus to this boot camp, and also led to a quiet confession from the 27-year-old Cuadro, who was raised in Hialeah, Fla., is married and is the father of an 11-month-old daughter.
He has not yet expressed this to his new platoon of recruits, but beneath all the harsh demands, fierce demeanor and constant yelling, Cuadro actually likes and greatly respects the young trainees — all of whom are volunteers. Many of them are still in their teens.
"It takes courage for them to come down here," he said. "There's a war going on, they know there's a war going on, and they came down here anyway. You gotta admire that. Everybody back home stayed there, and they came here."
That admiration, and the certainty that most of his recruits will be put in harm's way overseas, help define Cuadro's role. "I gotta give it everything I can to make sure that they come back alive."
A tough father figure
Cuadro said that, because he really does care about his recruits and knows the trauma they could face with other Marines during wartime, he is dedicated to pushing them as hard as he can, so they will be prepared.
"We don't really give them the option of not succeeding," he said. "You make it look to them like they're not gonna make it. Then you give them the tools for how to do it, and you can see their pride building."
Many of the recruits came from broken homes, and have had brushes with the law. For some of them, Cuadro is actually the first father figure of their lives.
Past recruits have sent e-mails thanking him and telling him how much their training helped them later on. "It makes you want to work even harder," said Cuadro. "It makes you not want to make any mistakes, yourself."
Cuadro, who wakes up every morning at 3:30 a.m., and returns home to his young family sometimes long after 9 p.m., said his dedication to the recruits is "one hundred percent."
Although these current recruits, Platoon 2012, just completed their first two weeks of training, they were still 2-1/2 months from graduation day — which is always an emotional time for recruits, their parents, and, yes, even the senior drill instructor.
"We spend three months trying to toughen them up, to show them don't show emotion, or anything like that. So, they've got three months worth of emotion built up, and you can just see it come out on graduation days." It usually happens, Cuadro said, when the ceremony ends, and parents and sons rush into each others' arms.
Cuadro said he is often moved by the visible changes in his recruits. "You can see them stand up straighter," he said. "They stick their chests out a little bit further. They've got a little swagger to their walk. They're proud of themselves."
Before saying good-bye, Cuadro has a heart-to-heart talk with his new Marines. "Every recruit that comes out of here becomes a part of you, and now you're letting them go. You tell ’em, hey, you're ready to go now. Go out there and make me proud."
In time, those are words he will speak to his current class of recruits, but they don't know that yet. For them, it's more yelling, more demands to be faster, to form straighter lines, and to do more pushups.
Always in the back of Cuadro's mind is the war in Iraq. "At one point, my life might be in their hands, or their life might be in my hands. So I've got to make sure we're both ready."
Mark Potter is an NBC News correspondent. Please watch his report on MSNBC cable TV — part of the MSNBC "Homefront" series — for more on Marine drill sergeants.