Sunday, April 6, 2008
U.S. armed forces filled with 'such men'
Friends and family members may not always understand it, but these young men are eager to serve.
Register columnist

More than a half-century ago, a character in James Michener's based-on-a-true-story Korean War novel and film "The Bridges at Toko-Ri" mused aloud about the courage and dedication of Americans who risked their lives in a war that was distant and unpopular among many of the people back home.

"Where do we get such men?" the character asked.

I think about that phrase when I hear that one of my Marine friends is leaving for another tour in Iraq, or when I get an e-mail from an Army captain in Baghdad, or when I read about men like Navy SEAL Michael Monsoor of Garden Grove, who this week will be awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor for extraordinary bravery and self-sacrifice in Iraq.

And I thought about it again last Sunday at a barbecue at Camp Pendleton.

The barbecue, hosted by the Patriots Ministry of Cypress Church, was designed to show community support for the Marines. It was one of many such events held every month by good people in Orange County who, regardless of their political leanings, want young men and women in uniform to know that they're appreciated. I wish I could write about them all.

Anyway, hundreds of cammie-clad Marines undergoing training at Camp Pendleton's School of Infantry were there, chowing down on ham and soft drinks. I snagged about a dozen of them at random from the crowd.

All of them were privates or PFCs, just starting out on their first enlistments. Some were only 18 or 19 years old, young men who were just kids when the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began; a few others were "old guys" of 24 or 25 who left safe civilian jobs to join the military. For almost all of them, their decision to join the Marines was a mixture of the personal – "I wanted to make a man of myself" – and the patriotic – "I wanted to serve my country."

All were volunteers – every man and woman in today's U.S. military is – but these Marines had also volunteered to be infantrymen, the "grunts" who hump the gear and live in the dirt and face the enemy at close range. All of them understand full well that as infantrymen, a combat tour in the war zone will likely be their immediate destiny.

And in the middle of a difficult and largely unpopular war, every one of them reported some opposition by friends or family members to their joining the military in the first place.

"Half of my friends were positive; half were negative," said Jonathan Cody, 20, of Riverside. "But it's what I wanted to do."

"With some of my friends it was like, 'What are you thinking?'" said John West, a 23-year-old former union carpenter from Honolulu whose father was a Marine in Vietnam. "But it's been a lifelong calling for me."

"My parents started crying," when he told them he was joining up, said Jose Gomez, 19, of Lafayette, Ind. – although like most of the other Marines, he noted that they're now pleased by the changes the Marine Corps has made in him.

"It seemed like at the start (of the war) everybody wanted to go, but now they've changed their minds," said Patrick Bennette, 24, a former restaurant worker from Simi Valley. "But I'm ready to go."

And so on. Friends and family members may not always understand it, but these young men are eager to serve.

And fortunately, they aren't alone.

Last year all of the active-duty military services met or exceeded their recruiting requirements, although the hard numbers are relatively small. There are more than 40 million Americans ages 18 to 29 who have never served in uniform, but last year only about 300,000 of them – less than 1 percent – enlisted for active-duty or Reserve military service.

Of course, there are many ways to serve your country. And the military isn't for everybody.

Still, it's reassuring to know that even after five years of war in Iraq, even with all the political and media negativity about military service, even at a time when most members of their generation find easier things to do, there are still young Americans who are willing to step up and volunteer for the hard and dangerous work.

Somehow, somewhere, we still get such men, and women.

And for that, as a nation, we should be grateful.

Contact the writer: 714-796-7953