Newly minted Marines display spit-polished shine
Published: November 17th, 2007 01:00 AM

Some people, toward the end of their lives, may ask themselves if they made a difference. I’m not going to have to say no,” says Pvt. Rocky Consiglieri of Harrison, N.Y.

The 19-old-year recruit, who calls the president “the Honorable Mr. Bush,” is explaining why he joined the Marine Corps when multiple tours in Iraq are routine and polls show most Americans believe the war is a mistake.

“This isn’t for everybody,” Consiglieri concedes, speaking so fast and low he’s almost talking to himself. “Some people want to watch and see what happens. Some other people want to get in and make a change.”

To learn what motivates young people who become Marines today, we interviewed several recruits Oct. 22 as they completed 12 weeks of basic training. Two days earlier, they had survived the “Crucible,” a 54-hour physical and emotional ordeal that is a final rite of passage to be a Marine.

Rocky declined to sit on a bench outside his squad bay while we talked, preferring to stand at parade rest, his feet set shoulder-width apart, hands clasped behind back, eyes forward.

Gnats bite here, even at mid-day, which left me slapping arms and legs between questions. Rocky ignored the bugs, even those alighting on his lower lip, a glimpse of why he was named his platoon “guide” or top leader.

Despite his “five-foot-three and three quarter inches” height, he played football, baseball and wrestled in high school. Grades were the challenge. But he buckled down to graduate last June, securing the diploma his recruiter insisted on. Rocky said his family pleaded with him not to join, offering bribes, he said, including a long vacation followed by a job in the family’s home improvement business.

“Kind of the easy way out,” he said. “But that’s not me.”

Harrison is a suburb of New York City. Rocky said the 9/11 attacks killed neighbors who either worked in the Twin Towers or rushed to the rescue. Two couples who rented apartments from his father lost spouses and moved out. Rocky was in grade school then. By his high school years, the 9/11 attacks had made him want to be a Marine and fight the terrorists. As far as he knows, no one else from his graduating class entered the military.

“The Marine Corps pushes you to your limits and past them,” he said, which helps to explain his “indescribable” pride the day his platoon completed the Crucible and received their Eagle, Globe and Anchor insignia.

“I never felt like that before,” Rocky said, not even on the days he had three saves as a lifeguard.

William Taylor, a Flora, Miss., native, turned 22 last February, and discovered he was bored with classes and fraternity life at the University of West Alabama. He told his parents he was leaving school to join the Corps.

“My mom and dad were not real happy at first,” Taylor said. His father warned him that if he wasn’t truly serious about being a Marine an early discharge could follow him for life. “I said, ‘You’re looking at it wrong.’” He wanted to do something worthwhile, something not focused on himself. He sought a challenge and discipline. He wanted to get in shape.

Fraternity brothers “were floored,” Taylor said. “I had long curly hair so, when you saw me, Marine Corps was the last thing you’d think.”

Boot camp was tough. Taylor said he didn’t smile for weeks. “Then I woke up one morning, put my trousers on but didn’t get my belt done all the way. They fell off as I was going to the head. I looked in the mirror in the squad bay and hardly recognized the person I saw. And I smiled.”

After more combat training in North Carolina, Taylor will go to aircraft mechanic school. There’s a good chance later he’ll be assigned to Iraq. He knows many Americans opposed the decision to invade Iraq and want the troops out. But Americans, he said, still “are behind their military” and respect “the sons and daughters willing to give their lives.”

To reach military columnist Tom Philpott, e-mail or write Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA, 20120-1111.