My nephew Duncan is a Marine recruit at boot camp at notorious Parris Island, SC.
The day he reported for duty, our family assumed that was the last open contact we would have with him until graduation day. After all, we figured, letters home would most likely be blandly upbeat, unrevealing, and probably censored. The secretive nature of military ritual would mean our only source material about his experience would be DVDs of Full Metal Jacket, Stripes, and Private Benjamin.
His letters have been positive, but their credibility is bolstered by the surprising amount of information that is available about what he is actually doing. The platoon maintains a website and posts photographs of the training each week. And, yes, it really is his platoon, as you can clearly identify individual trainees.
The photos are accompanied by reassuringly down-to-earth commentary, written by the drill instructor, on what the recruits are up to - in spite of some euphemistic terminology for push-ups (dubbed "incentive training") and other activities. The instructor includes his personal e-mail address for questions, and a guest book is loaded with postings from family members grateful for the information. It is a simple and effective tool for creating a community among people who only really care about one thing - the well-being of their loved ones. Suddenly, you kind of even care about that nice drill instructor. How is that possible?