Want to Die for Your Country?

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

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.

In the end, a certain number of poolees never do go to boot camp. Each substation tries to keep this attrition rate below 20 percent. At Hess's office, it was 14 percent for 2006.

On an overcast, humid morning in mid July, George and 11 other poolees stand in a circle at the edge of Van Cortlandt Park. Staff Sergeant Hess, who apparently did not get up on the right side of the bed this morning, glares at them from the center of the circle.

photo: Greg Miller

"You sound like a bunch of little girls," he says as they count off while stretching their quads. Then he leads them in a set of push-ups, keeping his body absolutely straight and thrusting his head forward to keep watch on them.

"Push up!" he commands.

"Marine Corps!" they respond.

On abdominal crunches, George falters as they near 40.

"Let's go, Zacatelco!" Hess yells.

"Yes, sir!" George responds, showing a bit more verve than usual. As promised, he's come to the recruiting office to work out almost every day in the week since the disastrous fitness test.

Hess has decided it's time to crack down. After the run at the last training, Sergeant V had the poolees play football, then they drove back to the office to eat pizza. This time, when Sergeant V and another recruiter expect to play football again, Hess is annoyed. "We're gonna train these guys the way we're supposed to," he says.

On the run, Hess leads the chanting:

Up from the sub 60 feet below!

Hit the surface and we're ready to go!

Grease gun, K-bar by my side!

These are the tools that make men die!

Sidestroke, backstroke, swim to the shore!

Hit the beach and we're ready for war!

It's rare to hear the recruiters and poolees express such bloodthirsty sentiments. Although the Marine Corps is known for undertaking extremely dangerous missions, most recently in places such as Anbar Province in Iraq, the recruiters would much rather talk about education benefits and the inculcation of pride and leadership than about facing down an enemy with a K-bar knife.

As of mid July, Staff Sergeant Hess claims that George is the only current poolee signed up for the infantry; others are headed for careers as computer specialists and legal administrators. Of several hundred Marines recruited in the three years he's headed the substation, Hess claims that only a handful have ended up in Iraq. Yet Lawrence Korb, the former assistant secretary of defense, estimates that half of all Marines end up deploying to Iraq or Afghanistan within a year of starting boot camp. He says that even a computer specialist might end up attached to an infantry platoon.

After jogging halfway around the field and running a series of "suicide sprints," the pool circles up for more exercises. Sergeant V leads them in a lengthy set of arm circles and, as poolees give up, another recruiter taps them on the shoulder and directs them to sit on the sidelines. George's arms droop, but he perseveres.

"If you're thinking of quitting," V says, "look inside yourself and decide who you really are."

"If you're thinking of quitting," Hess rebuts, "don't."

The next stop is the pull-up bars. Each poolee has to run up and identify himself with a set script before beginning. Many garble the words or say them weakly. One laughs halfway through. Hess sends the offenders to the back of the line. On his second try, George announces himself at a barely acceptable volume: "Poolee Zacatelco from RSS West Bronx, sir!"

Hess nods his approval and George leaps up to grab the bars.

"C'mon, c'mon! One! Two!" Hess cheers George along, giving him a boost, with one hand on his back and one on his torso. " Three! C'mon! You got it! There you go! Four! Get it! Get it! Five! C'mon, big George. Six! There you go. Six! Good job!"

A few weeks later, one of Sergeant V's fellow recruiters pulls up to George's apartment building at 4 in the morning. It's early August and George has shed the required 10 pounds and passed the fitness test by doing two pull-ups and running a mile and a half in 13 minutes, 15 seconds. George has been up all night, too anxious to sleep. Though he'd been concerned that his parents would accompany him to the military processing center in Brooklyn, prolonging an awkward parting, he now finds it difficult to say goodbye. But he does, then joins the recruiter in the car. Upon arriving at Parris Island, however, he does only one pull-up and spends several weeks in a remedial platoon before starting boot camp proper.

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