Want to Die for Your Country?

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

Meanwhile, George's father still hopes he'll change his mind. He rubs his eyebrows and asks George softly in Spanish if he really wants to join. Yeah, George replies, and then smiles and grabs his father's shoulder, as if to assure him that everything will be all right.


It's easy to see why Staff Sergeant Hess terrifies George. A former running back whose college football career was ended by injury, the 32-year-old Hess is six feet tall and weighs 225 pounds. He can bench-press nearly twice his weight and his bulging biceps are covered with tattoos, including one of a bulldog wielding a bloody knife. While Sergeant V is like an older brother to the poolees, Hess is the father, the hammer, the one who shoves a foot up their butt.

Putting on a stern look, Hess strides out of his office toward George and another poolee. George was supposed to ship out to boot camp four days ago. But instead, he's sitting at a desk in the recruiting office, where Hess will once again give him the required fitness test. George smiles nervously as Hess approaches.

"Zacatelco!" says Hess, a Pittsburgh native whose accent is curled slightly Southern from eight years stationed in North Carolina as a career retention specialist. "You know how to do pull-ups, right?"

"Yes, sir," George replies. He goes to the pull-up bar, hangs, and pulls. He only needs to do two to pass, but barely gets his arms to 90 degrees before they begin to shake and he drops down.

"You've gotta be shittin' me," Hess barks. "I thought you almost did two the other day."

"Yes, sir," George mumbles.

The other poolee does five, then Hess brings them over to a scale to be weighed. George comes in at 184.

"Me and you are gonna have a conversation," Hess says.

Hess brings George into his office, where he checks height and weight requirements in a loose-leaf binder.

"You need to get down to 175," he tells George, though even at this weight, he'll require a waiver. "You need to be here every day."

"Yes, sir," George says.

"Don't just tell me, 'Yes, sir,' " Hess says. "Because you don't come every day."

"All right," George says, holding his hands behind his back and grabbing at the fabric of his shirt.


George barely does the minimum of 44 abdominal crunches in two minutes. Then they head to nearby Devoe Park for the mile-and-a-half run. On the way, Hess strides several yards ahead, talking on his cell phone to Sergeant V, who's on vacation.

"How the fuck do you expect to fucking get rid of Zacatelco?" he asks. "He's 15 pounds overweight."

"It's your job to know that shit," Hess continues after a pause. "He ain't goin' nowhere. When you come back off of leave, he's gonna be your baby."

At the park, Hess lays down the ground rules. "You don't want to walk on this run. If you walk, guess what?" he says. "You fail. Your goal is to get 10 if you can, but 13 minutes, 30 seconds pays the rent."

Less than halfway through, George slows to a walk. Hess hustles across the park to motivate him.

"Pick it up, Zac!" he taunts. "You ain't gonna pass it this way!"

image
George Zacatelco
courtesy of the Zacatelco Family

George starts jogging again, but before long he's back to walking.

"Let's go!" Hess yells, arms flung wide in disbelief. "Why you walking?"

George finishes two full minutes over the cutoff. A grimace of pain crosses his face. He leans forward, as if to stretch, then crumples down and ends up on all fours. He's rubbing his right calf when Hess commands: "Get up! Drink some water!"

Hess paces around angrily. "Are you gonna die?" he asks.

"No, sir," George says.

"So why walk?"

On the way back to the recruiting station, Hess again pulls ahead. When he looks back in frustration to find George and the other poolee a half block back, they race-walk to catch up.


Even by the standards of the sedentary Xbox generation, George is having serious trouble passing the fitness test. A more common challenge for the recruiters is when a poolee tries to back out as his ship date approaches. Poolees aren't legally bound to the Marines until the day they ship out to boot camp, and some see the delayed-entry program as a trial period at the end of which they can make a final decision. Others waver under the pressure of parents, friends, and teachers telling them they're crazy to join the Marines.

Hess says this happens about half the time. In a recent case, a poolee set to ship the next week tried to pull out at the behest of his parents. A hectic few hours of back-and-forth ensued among Hess, another recruiter, the poolee, and his parents. After methodically reminding the poolee of why he'd joined up in the first place—to be a part of the best—Hess and the other recruiter got him back on track. Hess tries to preempt such second thoughts. When recruits are about to sign up, he sits them down in his office and impresses upon them the gravity of their decision. They're free to get up and go, he tells them, but if they sign up, they're making a commitment. And that means that the day you're set to go to boot camp, he says, when I show up at your house, I'm taking someone to boot camp. If you won't come out of that house, I'll take your mom or your dad. If I have to burn down your house to get you out of there, then I will.If a poolee still dares to try to pull out, Hess and the recruiters remind him that he gave his word. What kind of person goes back on his word? If he drops out and tries to join the Marines later on, they tell him, there'll be a black mark against him. Still, if the poolee has a really good reason, such as a college scholarship, Hess might let him switch to the Reserves. But he has to have gotten up on the right side of the bed for that to happen. Otherwise, he'll just say there's no way out, you signed the contract.

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