Daniel spoke of a psychological journey from civilian to warrior. "I never showed it to anyone, but this recruit always questioned himself, you know? 'Will I be able to pull through?' " he said. "So the Crucible gave this recruit a whole bunch of confidence. I don't think I'll ever doubt myself again."
Back with their parents
On graduation day, hundreds of families squinted into the bright morning sun, trying to pick out their recruits. They all looked alike -- rigid, composed, trim and fit.
Mothers and fathers shouted out their sons' names. A few family members wore T-shirts printed with messages: "My Marine Has Your Back" and "Some People Just Need Killing -- That's Why We Have Marines." Daniel's sister, Setareh, 11, wore a cap with the message: "Proud sister of a U.S. Marine."
A band pounded out the Marines' Hymn, the 588 graduates from seven platoons marched in flawless step, and the Stars and Stripes rippled in the sea breeze.
Then came the climax of boot camp: the awarding of eagle, globe and anchor pins, a ceremony that christened the recruits as U.S. Marines.
"Wear it on your heart," an officer told them as the Marine emblem was pinned to their uniforms. "Let it guide all your actions and intentions."
Many of the mothers broke down in tears, and some of the fathers dabbed their eyes. A sergeant's voice sounded: "Liberty will now commence! Dismissed!"
The formations collapsed. The recruits whooped and hollered. The families rushed out of the viewing stands. The three friends were swarmed by parents, siblings, grandparents and friends.
The mothers of Daniel, Daryl and Steven greeted their sons with the same words: "You look so handsome."
The ceremony -- and the evolution of the three teenagers from high school kids to Marine men -- had a transforming effect on parents who had wanted their sons to attend college rather than enlist.
Ali and Yasmin Motamedi said they were proud of Daniel's dedication to his country, and to the Corps. They were overwhelmed by the polite, focused, slimmed-down figure who stood before them.
"It's like he's a different person," Yasmin said.
Daryl's mother, Kymmer Crookston, had joined the Blue Star Mothers of America, a group of women with children in the military. The family car bore a new bumper sticker: "Proud Parents of a United States Marine."
Kim Crookston smiled at his son and said, "We have a different son. What a drill instructor has done in three months -- I can say we're grateful for the DI. Everything we've tried to do with Daryl is finally coming around."
Steven's mother, Cathy Carlson, also saw a more poised young man.
"He looks awesome -- very grown up," she said. "I'm still very scared -- scared, but also extremely proud."
The three friends will likely be sent to Iraq or Afghanistan at some point after joining an active-duty unit. First, they must complete two months of specialized infantry training at Camp Pendleton.
Steven's father, Jim Dellinger, hoped his son would be sent to Afghanistan, but he knew Steven wanted to prove himself in Iraq. "It's a scary thought," he said, "but I know it's what he wants to do."
The three families were so caught up in the emotion of their reunions that they forgot about the Corps' invitation to chat with the drill instructors in a receiving line that Marines call "the petting zoo."
Hibbs was there. Platoon 2103 was his seventh. Daniel, Daryl and Steven typified the platoon, he said: bright and competent, not all-stars, but not problem children, either. Hibbs did notice one characteristic that set the three apart.
"I could tell right off they were good citizens, good people, good guys with good strong families, strong work ethics," he said. "Honor, courage, commitment -- they already had it. It just has a new meaning to them now."