Want to Die for Your Country?

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

Shortly after George joined the delayed-entry program, he dreamed of a flag-draped casket. He'd been fighting in Iraq and one of his buddies hadn't made it. No, it was him. He was in the casket.

That was October 2005, when American casualties in Iraq increased sharply. George returned from boot camp in late November 2006, in the midst of an even bloodier period. Last October, 105 American troops died in Iraq, and the average of more than three deaths per day during the last three months of 2006 was the highest in two years. Yet boot camp was a news vacuum. As the chaos in Iraq helped propel the Democrats to control of Congress and brought down Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, George was put through a grueling 13-week training regimen. All day long, drill instructors yelled at him to hurry up, do this, do that. At night, he dreamed of more orders, not Iraq.

A week after returning home, George sits in his parents' living room. Foil banners reading "Congratulations" and "Welcome Home" are taped to the walls, and a cluster of partially deflated balloons hugs the ceiling. George's parents have installed a bed in the corner to make his brief stay more comfortable. A Snoopy doll rests by the pillow. George looks like he's shrunk a few sizes. Along with 15 fewer pounds—he's down to 159—he has lost a certain animation in his face. His old nervous smile surfaces only at rare moments. Since returning, George has grown much closer to his parents and sister. They traveled down to South Carolina for his boot camp graduation, and seeing them there was, he says, "the best feeling in the world."

photo: Greg Miller

When George goes to the recruiting station, he's treated as a Marine. The first time he walks in, he's wearing civilian clothes and a poolee mistakes him for another poolee. "I'm a Marine," George says. "Get on your face!" The poolee obeys and begins doing push-ups. He does so many that George loses count.

Through the summer and into the fall, Hess's office consistently exceeded its mission. The pressure never lets up, though—when it makes mission before the end of the month, it's expected to bring in more recruits to make up for substations that fall short. At the end of September, the office was named "City Station of the Year" for making mission more often than any other substation in 2006.

Before heading to North Carolina for infantry school, George spends a few days assisting the recruiters. On an unusually mild day the week after Thanksgiving, he stands in front of an armed forces recruiting station in the traffic island across from the recruiting office and tries to interest passersby in the Marines. With him are a lance corporal and Hanly Rivas, the poolee George ordered to do push-ups. George wears a green cap, tan shirt and tie, dark green slacks, and glossy black shoes. He has a blank, self-conscious look on his face and rocks back and forth on his feet as pedestrians stream by.

"Grab 'im up! Grab 'im up!" says the lance corporal, prodding George to approach two passing black kids.

George sticks out a hand and the kid closest to him shakes it without breaking stride.

"No, no," the other teen mouths, weaving around George.

George smiles nervously. A dark-haired young woman walks up and berates Rivas, whose gray T-shirt features an image of an M16 rifle, for joining the Marines. It turns out that the wiry 18-year-old Rivas and the woman dated briefly.

"I'm serving my country," Rivas says.

"Bush has us in Iraq fighting for oil," the woman says. "You guys are protecting oil!"

George walks over to Rivas and whispers in his ear, "End it."

Rivas goes quiet as the woman continues her tirade. "You're entitled to your opinion," he says when she's done.

For George, there's no longer any point in discussing whether the Iraq War is right or wrong, whether it's a success or a disaster. As the rest of the country embraces the latter position, he focuses on doing his job.

A few days later, he leaves for Camp Geiger in North Carolina for infantry school, which lasts about a month. Now, he's there training to be a rifleman, his specialty. According to Hess, George could "pump out" to Iraq as early as March. Training keeps George pretty busy, but he finds time to keep up his MySpace page, logging in once a week or so. He's changed the design a bit, though. The photo of Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin is gone, replaced by a link to a YouTube video of Marine martial arts battles—a hard rock–scored smorgasbord of flailing limbs and body slams. And George's identification photo, which used to include a number of his high school friends, has been supplanted by a picture of him flanked by two fellow Marines.

Its title: Killers.

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