Want to Die for Your Country?

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

But George is also driven by a strong sense of patriotic duty. He first heard of the Marine Corps when he spent hours as a young child watching History Channel documentaries about the World Wars. His MySpace page reflects that obsession. Under the header "Who I'd like to meet," instead of a movie star or athlete, he features the famous photograph of Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill together at Yalta. "The Big Three," he notes. After the terrorist attacks of September 11 , which happened when he was in eighth grade, George began to seriously consider joining the military. As a high school freshman, he wrote an essay arguing for war against Iraq, though he later came to believe that President Bush was "BS'ing" about weapons of mass destruction. Still, the Madrid and London bombings, as well as ongoing attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq, solidified his resolve to enlist.

At first, George's parents laughed off his plans. When they realized he was serious, they grew angry. He was their only son. Why wouldn't he just go to college? Nonetheless, in October 2005, Sergeant V came to their apartment and they signed papers allowing George, six weeks past his 17th birthday, to join the delayed-entry program.

A few of George's teachers at the Marble Hill School for International Studies, a small public high school in the Bronx, supported his decision to enlist, but many urged him to go to college instead. But George revels in defying his teachers' expectations. (His favorite line from Jarhead is the main character's explanation of how he ended up in the Marines: "I got lost on the way to college.") He even has a conspiracy theory that explains his teachers' obsession with higher education: The more students they send to college, he claims, the more funding they get.

photo: Greg Miller

George's friends at school wore black, grew their hair out, and did "stupid crazy" stuff. They'd run around the hallways, slamming into doors. They'd dare a friend to drink an entire gallon of milk in a single sitting. They'd shout down people who made stupid comments, like a girl in one of George's classes who said that illegal immigrants take jobs from Americans.

George Zacatelco
courtesy of the Zacatelco Family

His friends thought it was cool that he was joining the Marines, though one girl told him he was going to die in Iraq, while others joked that if he went there, he should bring back some body parts. Another girl would hug him every time he mentioned the Marines, and not let go.

When the platoon in Jarhead throws an alcohol-fueled blowout, George grins. With a 7 p.m. curfew, he didn't get to go out much in high school, and he's hoping there will be a lot of partying in the Marines. From what he's seen so far, they're pretty crazy. The sergeants will get into martial arts battles in the street, indifferent to what passersby might think. And when the poolees are in the minivan after training, they'll start chanting, "Kill! Kill! Kill!"

For the first few months, George was a solid poolee. He went to all the Saturday trainings and worked out with Sergeant V during the week. But then in early February, he had an awful week. It started with a poor report card, which placed his graduation in jeopardy. Then, during a fitness test that all poolees must pass before shipping out to boot camp, he finished the one-and-a-half-mile run in 16 minutes, way over the limit. Staff Sergeant Hess, who's so big and tough that George doesn't even like to talk to him under normal circumstances, blew up at him, telling him to take off his poolee shirt, that he wasn't fit to wear it.

Now, when a drill instructor in Jarhead shoves the main character's head through a blackboard, George is nonchalant. "I hope that doesn't happen to me," he says.

But back then, George felt like burying his head under a rock. He holed up at home, obsessively re-reading "The Making of a Marine," an official booklet given to each poolee. On the inside front cover, next to "Ship Date," George had written, "July 11th, 2006 woot!"—"woot" being what his crazy friends at school say when they want to get pumped. George occasionally made his way back to the recruiting office, but the sergeants would mock him by giving him Army recruiting flyers and saying, "I thought you were dead," or, "Look who appeared—a ghost."

Once George showed up with a lip piercing. "I will either kill you," Staff Sergeant Hess said, "or you can go outside, or I'll take that shit out of your mouth." George was about to leave, perhaps for good, when Sergeant V appeared and talked him into taking the piercing out. That was George's turning point. He was back on track, still set to leave on July 11. Woot!

Just before Jarhead ends, George's mother arrives home from her babysitting job, followed shortly after by his father, a cook. They sink into a couch at the other end of the room and a tense silence takes hold as the movie's two main characters return from the desert to find that the war's over. "They didn't get a kill," George remarks softly, explaining the characters' sullen expressions. After the movie, George's mother leaves the room, and his father, a squat man with a sunken face and a wispy mustache, sits next to him on the couch. George replaces the DVD with a documentary about Marines who fought in Iraq that came packaged with the Jarhead collector's edition. One of its subjects can't sleep at night. Another discovers that the GI Bill doesn't cover his state school tuition. A third mocks the idea that Marine jobs carry over into civilian life. If you're trained as a cannoneer, he asks, "what are you going to be, the guy who fires a cannon in the circus?" George laughs at the quip, but he's unfazed by the bleak prognosis for life after the Marines. The Marine brother of a friend from school had post-traumatic stress disorder and now he's back in Iraq. Having signed up for the infantry, George knows he's likely to end up there, too. Going to Iraq would be an honor, he says, because he'd be able to "get some bad guys, to fight them over there instead of over here." He just hopes he doesn't die, and takes solace in his belief that Army soldiers in Iraq are more vulnerable than Marines. Some online research he did around the time of the 2,000th American death in Iraq revealed that most were indeed from the Army and the National Guard. (He failed to take into account that Marines make up just one-sixth of the troops in Iraq; per capita, they're twice as likely as Army soldiers to die there.)

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