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At the Parris Island Marine Corp Recruit Training Depot in South Carolina, Technical Sergeant Jim Moore has twelve weeks to turn undisciplined young men into strong, fighting team members. By bullying and barking orders, Moore pushes the recruits to achieve their best. Aware that what he teaches the recruits may later save their lives, he punishes them harshly for the least infraction or slip up. Despite his gruff exterior, Moore is a shrewd judge of character and sacrifices his personal life to "cultivate" the best in his charges. Moore has spent tremendous energy on one of his new recruits, Pvt. Owens, a spoiled whiner who Moore believes has the potential to become a "model Marine." Although Moore has faith in Owens, his superior, Capt. Anderson, fears that Owens will reflect poorly on the division and his own reputation, and gives Moore three days to straighten out the recalcitrant recruit or discharge him. During drills one day, Moore orders Owens' platoon to "take cover and freeze." As the men lay in the sand ready to fire, simulating an attack by an approaching enemy, Owens slaps a flea that is biting his face. Moore reprimands him, stating that the sound of a slap can signal the platoon's location to the enemy and result in their deaths. That evening, Moore accompanies a fellow officer to a nightclub frequented by the Marines, where a Marine taunts Moore about his failure with Owens. Moore is about to slug the man when he spots a purple heart pinned to the man's chest and respectfully backs off. When Moore orders tomato juice, the bartender introduces him to Anne, another patron who has ordered the same drink. Awkward around women, Moore soon quarrels with her, but then seeks her out to apologize. Anne is chatting to Joey, a fellow Marine who goads Moore into a fistfight. Once Moore leaves, Joey admits to Anne that he is jealous of him, because he is "one of the best." Joey also expresses his concern that Moore's devotion to the Corps will wear him out. At the base, Moore, trying to demonstrate to Owens that his actions can affect the entire platoon, orders the whole platoon out to search for and bury the flea he killed. While some of the men dig a deep pit, others sift through the sand. One of the men finds a flea, but Moore declares it is the wrong one and orders them to continue searching. Later, in their bunks, the exhausted men express annoyance with Owen, who is thinking about deserting. Moore enters and orders a rifle check, during which he discovers that Owens has failed to clean his weapon. As punishment, the whole platoon is ordered to run laps. Soon after, Joey visits Moore at his bunk to deliver a note from Anne, asking Moore to meet her at her shop the next day. Concerned that Moore is avoiding a personal life by taking refuge in the Corps, Joey urges him to see Anne and tells him that her boyfriend was killed in combat. The following day, Moore goes to the women's apparel shop where Anne works, but is uncomfortable waiting for her in the feminine surroundings. Summoning his courage, he follows her into the back room, kisses her and asks her out. That afternoon, Owens again slips up during a rifle drill and is ordered to deliver a lecture about the rifle's parts. That night, Moore and Anne meet at the nightclub, but find it has been shut down. They then walk along the shore, where she confides that her boyfriend was like Moore, in that he had no room in his life for anything but the Marines. Unwilling to be in that situation again, she leaves Moore standing alone in the moonlight. When he returns to the base, he is told that Owens is planning to escape. Following Owens to the shore, Moore finds the younger man contemplating swimming the channel to the mainland. Gently, Moore tries to explain how the Corps is like an exclusive club and Parris Island an initiation. When he says he hopes that Owens will change his mind about leaving, Owens accuses him of "riding him." Moore explains that he has given him more time and attention than the others and orders him back to his bunk. Because Owens' mates are grumbling about the punishment they receive as a result of Owens' blunders, Anderson is determines to discharge him, despite Moore's protests. Anderson confronts Owens about his dismal record: a high school honor graduate who has dropped out of medical and law schools and is now in danger of fouling up his chance in the Marines. Anderson has also discovered that Owens' two brothers died during the Korean War and shames him by suggesting he is a coward. Although Moore believes that Owens is the "best" recruit in the platoon, "when he puts his mind to it," the unconvinced Anderson tells Moore that Owens' discharge papers will arrive in three days. During that time, Owens continues to make mistakes. On the third day, Anderson and Moore are surprised by a visit from Owens' mother, who reveals that her husband, a Marine captain and close friend of their current commanding officer, died during the invasion of the Marshall Islands in World War II. Having lost a husband and two sons, she feels that she is a part of the Marines. Although Owens' letters to her have made it clear that he wants to leave the service, she demands that they rescind the discharge, fearing that if he fails the Marines, he will never be good at anything. She confesses that she made the mistake of "coddling" him, as he was all that she had left, and tells Moore to "rough him up." To Moore, she confides that her husband had a "breaking point," but when he finally grinned, she would know the crisis was over. Afterward, Anderson calls Owens to his office, tears up his discharge papers and orders him not to kill sand fleas. Relieved, Owens thanks Moore for not reporting his attempted escape, but Moore interrupts and scolds him for inappropriate familiarity. As Moore barks at him, Owens leaves, grinning. Pleased, Moore visits Anne at her store. After leading her to the back room, he tries to explain his feelings, but she stops him, saying that she can see what he wants to say in his eyes. Later, as the men prepare for a twenty-mile walk, Moore determines that Owens is ready to carry the flag.