Want to Die for Your Country?

Marine Corps recruiters need young, healthy New Yorkers to fight George Bush's war

On a Saturday morning in early July, the new Marine recruits ("poolees" in Corps jargon) stand on the Bronx sidewalk in two lines of six apiece. Wearing red Marines T-shirts, hands clasped behind their backs, they have uniformly blank, stoic looks on their faces. All but George Zacatelco, that is. Just three days from his scheduled departure for boot camp, an event he's looked forward to for months, George can't suppress an excited smile. He's the chubbiest poolee and, at five feet four, the shortest except for one of the two girls. His face is broad and flat, with a cluster of shiny pimples on his nose. His short black hair shoots out from his head in a spiky fringe. His back is slightly hunched and his neck juts forward, giving him a turtle-like appearance. Sergeant Juan Valderrama emerges from the building, a compact, fit 26-year-old wearing black nylon pants and a gray T-shirt. Sergeant V, as everyone calls him, is a five-year veteran of the Marine Corps with a sharp triangle for a nose and a near-constant smirk.

"We're gonna run a mile," he says. "Everyone think they can handle that?"

The poolees murmur affirmatively and set off at a moderate pace up the broad, residential Grand Concourse.

photo: Greg Miller

"Who's tired?" Sergeant V jokes after a single block, but no one takes the bait, not even George, the weakest runner in the pool. But a few minutes later, George stops, leans forward, and fumbles with his shoelaces.

"Make sure your shoes are tied or else you stop the world," V says. "Right, George?"

"Yes, sir," George replies. A few blocks later, V starts the chanting.

" Pain!" V yells.

"Pain!" the poolees repeat.

"In my leg!" In my leg!

"I like it there!" like it there!

"I want it there!" I want it there!

"Oh, yeah!" Oh, yeah!

"Marine Corps!" Marine Corps!

"Good for you!" Good for you!

"Good for me!" Good for me!

One of the female poolees stops and tilts back with her hands behind her head. As Sergeant V escorts her over to a minivan driven by a fellow recruiter, the others jog in place. George's feet knead the ground, barely leaving the sidewalk. He might finish last every run, but at least he's never retreated to the "van of tragedies," as the poolees call it.

While waiting at an intersection, V launches into a regular theme. "What do you think all your friends are doing now?" he asks.

"Nothing," a poolee mutters.

For examples of doing nothing, George doesn't need to think of his friends. He only has to think of himself the previous summer, in the one-bedroom apartment where he lives with his parents and younger sister. They just passed it a few minutes before, on the right. A year ago, George would have been sitting at home gorging on ice cream and frittering away his time on MySpace.

George Zacatelco
courtesy of the Zacatelco Family

"And what are you doing?" V asks. "You're making yourself better, right?"

"Yes, sir!" the poolees shout.

"Marines are winners!" V affirms.

As they near their destination, Sergeant V asks, "Who didn't think he was going to make it through this run?"

George props up his hand, a shy smile on his face. His shoes come untied again and he finishes to the cheers of Sergeant V and the other poolees: "C'mon, George! Let's go! Let's go, big George!" As they wait for the other recruiter at the edge of a high school's playing fields, George asks Sergeant V what he should bring to boot camp. He's scheduled to leave Tuesday morning, but no one's told him yet. Sergeant V tells him that all he needs are the clothes on his back, a Social Security card, and a picture ID. The Marine Corps provides the rest.

But V knows that unless George can lose 10 pounds and get in shape in the next few days, he won't be shipping to boot camp on schedule and his dream of becoming a Marine may be derailed. It's a dream he has nurtured since signing up the previous October, choosing the infantry, which means he's likely to end up on the front lines in Iraq—a dream he's clung to even when he proved ill-suited to military discipline. A dream that many around him have found puzzling. Why, they wondered, would anyone want to join the Marines in the middle of a war?

Almost four years into the Iraq War, even Sergeant V—the top Marine recruiter in the New York City metropolitan area— labors against widespread lack of interest in the military, at a time when President Bush has called for a 21,000-troop "surge" to help him win the war. As V's supervisor, Staff Sergeant Jeffrey Hess, puts it, "You get someone who might be good to go and he gets out the door and there are 8 million people saying, 'Why in the heck are you doing this?' " Having once made a living peddling cars, V is a natural salesman. Staff Sergeant Hess calls him a "Marine's Marine," a poster boy for the Corps, and refers to his style as "churning and burning." V walks so much through his territory, which includes the Kingsbridge, University Heights, and Bedford Park neighborhoods of northwest Bronx, that he goes through two pairs of shoes a month. Back at the office, he makes dozens of calls each day, following up on leads.

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