Want to Die for Your Country?


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.

“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.

When talking to potential recruits, V, who grew up in Forest Hills and was piling up debt at St. John’s University when he left to join the Marines, emphasizes the educational benefits of the Corps, not the chances of going to Iraq. Still, V and his two fellow recruiters frequently have to push to “make mission,” to reach their monthly recruiting quota. In December, they made their quota of five total recruits by a hair, with two—both recruited by V—signing up the day before deadline. Of the 14 substations in New York City and on Long Island, Hess’s was the only one to make mission for the month.

Marine recruiting is more challenging today than during any of the major 20th-century conflicts, according to David Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland. The prospect of getting drafted by the Army to fight in the World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam led many who sought control over their military experience to enlist in the Marines. With the Iraq War increasingly unpopular and with no draft to serve as a foil, the Marine Corps failed to reach its recruiting goals for the first four months of 2005, the first time this had happened in a decade. Unlike the Army, which missed its overall 2005 goal by almost 7,000 recruits, the Marines rebounded to make its target for the year and hasn’t missed a monthly goal since.

George Zacatelco
courtesy of the Zacatelco Family

Lawrence Korb, a fellow at the Center for American Progress and assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan Administration, says the Marine Corps’ success is due to its smaller recruiting goals and to “a special élan” that appeals to recruits. Segal adds that the Corps assigns its very best noncommissioned officers to recruiting duty and rewards them with accelerated promotion.

Still, Marine recruitment is showing signs of strain. In August, the Corps announced the recall of up to 2,500 Marines who’d completed their tour of duty to serve in positions that couldn’t be filled by volunteers. President Bush’s proposed Iraq troop surge, as well as his proposal to increase the size of the Marine Corps by 23,000 over the next five years, would dramatically increase the burden on Marine recruiters.

At Recruiting Substation West Bronx, where Hess and V are based, both the élan and the potential crisis are apparent. The walls of their boxy main office, in a building at the intersection of East Fordham Road and Grand Concourse, feature hundreds of photos of newly minted Marines in dress uniforms alongside plaques citing the substation for being “First on Target” in April, May, and December of 2006, making mission before any other substation in the city or on Long Island.

Sergeant V says their success is due to teamwork, but demographics may also play a part. The station’s territory is heavily Hispanic, as are the majority of its recruits, including George Zacatelco, whose parents are Mexican immigrants. While Hispanics have historically enlisted at low rates, the Marine Corps has made great progress in recruiting them, according to Segal. Sergeant V, of Colombian descent, speaks fluent Spanish, as do the station’s two other recruiters, which helps them connect with potential recruits’ parents.

But on a day in late June when V is pushing to make mission, a terse hortatory list in Staff Sergeant Hess’s office tells a different story:

1. We must perform at a level which forces us to make all our missions before deadlines.

2. Currently we are not performing. WTF!

3. Make adjustments ASAP!

Hess, who volunteered to become a recruiter and worked as one for a year in Jamaica, Queens, before taking over the West Bronx office in 2003, says that recruiting is the hardest job in the Marine Corps. The demands of making mission have his recruiters working 12 to 15 hours a day, six days a week. They’re on their own most of the time and face a constant stream of dispiriting rejection.

Hess says that Sergeant V hates being a recruiter, but V says he’s gotten used to the job, though he’d prefer one that wouldn’t require dealing with the public and would allow him to spend more time with his wife and young daughter. Still, he throws himself into the assignment. In addition to searching for new recruits, he has to keep tabs on his poolees. Many sign up while still in high school and spend months in the delayed-entry program before shipping to boot camp. If they aren’t ready to ship on schedule, he has to recruit others to take their place. For some poolees, readying them to ship means accompanying them on errands such as getting a new Social Security card or signing up for summer school. For others, like George Zacatelco, it means working out with them to make sure they can pass the required fitness test.

It’s a Friday afternoon in mid June, and George sits on a couch in his living room watching a DVD of Jarhead. The couch doubles as his bed, and there’s little in the room’s plain décor to mark it as his own. The window drapes are lace. Two shelves of an immense wall unit hold a smattering of his things: Old Spice, a photograph from his prom. The rest are packed with ornate dolls and photographs from his younger sister’s quinceañera. (She shares the apartment’s single bedroom with their parents.) Jarhead, about a Marine sniper platoon during the first Gulf War, came out shortly after George joined the delayed-entry program and was an instant hit among the poolees. “We burn the fat off our souls,” they’ll say, echoing one of its lines. They’re also fond of advice on how to kill time in the desert, which features extensive masturbation along with debates on the meaning of life. The recruiters tell the poolees that Jarhead is dumb, that it casts the Marine Corps in a poor light. If anything, though, its warts-and-all portrayal only increases George’s desire to be a Marine.

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.

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.)

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!”

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.

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.

“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!
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.

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.”

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.