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January 6, 2010

The Toughest Woman in America

How did a girl who loves shopping and never leaves the house without lip gloss become the meanest of the Marines?

ronda porter

Photo Credit: Andrew Hetherington

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The former teacher drops to his knees, crying. He's broken and dispirited, a whimpering, sleep deprived mess. But if he expects mercy, he's come to the wrong place. There's no mercy at Officer Candidates School.

Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant Ronda Porter has seen candidates crack before — so tired they fall asleep standing up, so physically taxed they puke, so on edge they jerk when she screams. But in her seven years as a drill instructor, she's never seen anyone buckle like this. She glares from behind her desk, stone-faced.

"What's wrong with you?!" she snaps.

"It's you," he says, eyes on the floor. "I'm intimidated."

"You're 6'2" and I'm 5'2"!" She could have added: "And I'm a woman." But he isn't concerned with her gender; he's terrified by her power, the only currency of consequence at OCS.

As a drill instructor — or sergeant instructor, as they're called at Marine Corps Base Quantico — Ronda Porter has been trained to display every degree of displeasure, from pissed off to put out, frustrated to ferocious. It's all an act, a bit of Marine Corps theater staged at the sprawling, woodsy base in northern Virginia. But it's a convincing performance, especially for the lowly civilians she spends 10 weeks breaking down until they graduate — if they graduate — into Marine officers. Last summer, Quantico welcomed 2500 candidates, its second-largest class since the Vietnam War. But even with our armed forces spread thin across Iraq and Afghanistan, anywhere from 12 to 30 percent of these recruits won't make it to graduation.

It's the drill instructors' job to determine who does. They are the meanest species of Marine—unflinching, infallible, almost inhuman embodiments of 234 years of Corps toughness. This one also happens to be a petite 32-year-old beauty whose rise through the ranks was as unlikely as her decision to enlist in the first place. Porter grew up in tiny Bristow, OK, with a deep aversion to sweat and dirt. In high school, her sport of choice was shopping. Enlisting was a lark that came at her high school guidance counselor's suggestion as a way to pay for college.

It took. Porter liked the order, the discipline. Instead of using her education bonus to get her college degree and then striking out as a civilian, she made a career in the Marines, 14 years and counting. Seven of those have been as a drill instructor, first at Parris Island (of Full Metal Jacket fame), then at Quantico. Her commanders saw in this young woman with the toothpaste-commercial smile the kind of controlled ferocity required of drill instructors. "She is as tough as nails and never falters," says Colonel Rick Mancini, a former commanding officer at OCS.

And Porter knew as soon as she stepped onto the field how to be the steely paragon of Marine ethos. She mastered the art of detachment and learned to tap an atavistic hardness that makes her larger than herself. "I call it the bitch switch," she says. Flick it on and Ronda becomes Gunnery Sergeant Porter, a lip-curled instructor who can sense weakness from 60 paces, who screams sometimes for 16 hours a day with barely a pause, until her skull pounds and her voice fails. She pops Excedrin like candy and sips hot water with honey, but the only real cure for a throat gone hoarse and a headache from the sound of your own raised voice, she'll tell you, is more screaming.


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