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thedrifter
03-15-08, 08:24 AM
GRIEGO: For some, the war isn't a factor in enlisting

By Tina Griego

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Matthew Isaiah Stewart, 18, of Grand Junction, and Kyle Patrick Kerr, 19, of Arvada, became Marines Thursday. They stood side-by-side, shoulders squared, chins raised, each wearing blue jeans and gray T-shirts, which read, "Pain is weakness leaving your body."

"You have told your recruiters, parents and counselors everything they need to know?" the Military Entry Processing Station commander, Maj. Cort Hunt, asked.

"Yes, sir!" they said.

"Do you have any questions, reservations, reluctance to enlist?"

"No, sir!"

"Do you understand your contract, the length of time you will serve, where you will go to boot camp?"

"Yes, sir!"

"Your moms and dads understand what's going on and are proud of you?"

"Yes, sir!"

"Have you been on the 16th Street Mall?"

"Yes, sir!"

The people walking around, "not knowing what's going on in the world? We're going to be one step ahead of them."

"Yes, sir!"

"Thank you for defending your country."

That last time I visited MEPS, as the station is known, we were a year into the war and had just seen its deadliest month. I was surprised to see many hopeful recruits awaiting testing.

Now, five years after the war began, with the conflict more unpopular than ever, I am again surprised by the numbers. Last month, 435 recruits were sworn in at MEPS, and Maj. Hunt says since Thanksgiving, "We've been slammed. It might have something to do with the economy. I don't know."

He says the reasons for enlistment have not changed much. Number one is usually that it pays for college.

"Five to 10 percent do it for patriotism," Hunt says, "or because the family has a military background. But those families are like a dying breed."

It is no secret the American public has been largely disconnected from this war. We worry about the cost and how and when we'll get out, but the human price is paid by few. The rest of us are urged to go shopping.

So, I return to MEPS and I call schools looking for a particular group of recruits: high school seniors. The war has been a backdrop of their adolescence. Twelve and 13 years old when it began, theirs has been a youth accompanied by the press conferences of generals and pickets of protesters and the sad and steady tributes to fallen soldiers.

I wonder how all this weighed upon their decision to enlist. In choosing to join in a time of war, these young people have decided to risk being sent to fight its battles. An abstraction becoming concrete.

I find them as pragmatic and intent on the immediate as Hunt predicted. Perhaps, too, it is youth's invincibility speaking, but they say the war they have grown up with, the war they may join, was simply not a factor in their decision.

It'll pay for college, they say. It'll help make me become a stronger person. It's a ticket out.

And the war? If we go, we go, they say; it's the job.

I do find exceptions. Eric Gallagher is a Cherry Creek High senior. He leaves June 30 for West Point, a choice, he says, that satisfies both his dreams and his parents'.

"The practical part is it's a great education. It's free, that's practical. But that's not all there is. Look at who's fighting and there's no one from my zip code dying. It's not a broad range of people fighting. And they're dying for people who are living it up here."

That few bear the burden is wrong, he says.

I learn they grew up in military towns or that they wanted to join since middle school or that among their treasures is the medal of a great-uncle wounded in World War II.

Kerr tells me his father was a Marine and his grandpa fought in World War II.

"I feel obligated to serve," Kerr says. "The war does not impact my decision at all."

This is not a popular decision. West High Senior Chris Hinojosa (Marines) says his friends tell him he's stupid. North High School senior Bridget Romero (Air Force) says people warn her she's going to Iraq.

"I've just stopped talking about it at school," she says. "People keeping asking me, 'Why?' I don't feel like I have to explain it to them."

Of course, their parents worry. Kerr's and Gallagher's families planned for their sons to go to college. It's taken some time, their parents say, to accept this path. But I hear, too, something like awe in these parents' voices. Their sons are passing a threshold into adulthood and, Laura Kerr and Mike Gallagher say, they are doing so with focus and diligence.

"Raise your right hands," Maj. Hunt told Stewart and Kerr Thursday. Nervous, excited, they vowed to defend the Constitution of the United States. Stewart leaves for boot camp on Sept. 21; Kerr on Aug. 18.


griegot@RockyMountainNews.com

Ellie