Young Guns

Some are ready to die. Others aren't -- they just want a chance at a better life. But even the most careful of local teens who enlist in 2003 may find their plans for a desk job interrupted by war.

Dolores Paige told the Marine Corps recruiter he could enlist all the students at Willowridge High School -- except her son. "I told him, 'You take all these kids if you want to, but don't you call my house -- you ain't getting my baby.' "

It's not that Dolores has anything against the military. Both her father and brother served. In fact, when she moved from the Third Ward to Missouri City, it was her idea that her son, Jeremy C. Williams, join the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC). She was working long hours as an assistant manager at Hobby Lobby, and she wasn't home to pick up her kids from school and keep an eye on them. Jeremy didn't want to play sports and he didn't want to keep taking karate lessons, so she made him join JROTC. She wanted him involved in an all-consuming after-school activity that would keep him off the streets.

"Back in the days when I was growing up, you could walk down the street and the only thing you had to worry about were the drug dealers and the prostitutes. If there was a fight, it was a fistfight," Dolores says. "Now there's shooting and people getting cut and kids getting snatched off the street."

Jeremy Williams shot M-16s last summer.
Daniel Kramer
Jeremy Williams shot M-16s last summer.
Michelle Martinez (far right) drills her troops.
Daniel Kramer
Michelle Martinez (far right) drills her troops.

She thought he would quit after his freshman year, but Jeremy stuck with it and thrived.

Now a 17-year-old senior, Jeremy is the captain of the rifle team, commands a color guard and is the head armory officer in charge of cleaning, repairing and guarding the school's 22 air rifles and 75 M-14s. In class, Jeremy practiced shooting, studied land navigation and learned leadership principles. He has trained on obstacle courses in the middle of the woods. Last summer, during a JROTC trip to Norfolk, Virginia, he shot M-16s, toured navy boats and did early-morning exercises with marines. He and his best friend came home determined to enlist.

When the recruiter telephoned Jeremy's mother, Dolores reminded him that she had already told him not to call her.

Jeremy enlisted last Wednesday.

In the hours after New York City's twin towers were hit, military recruitment offices reported a surge of phone calls from people interested in enlisting. Teens surveyed by the Department of Defense said they were definitely going to join the military. Another Department of Defense study showed that parents, teachers and other adults encouraged kids to enlist immediately after the attacks, but post-September 11 patriotism died down after two weeks and kids didn't join.

Comparing the number of people who enlisted the month after the attacks with the previous October, the air force is the only branch that showed any increase. The army had 144 fewer contracts, the navy had 85 fewer, and the marines' enlistment stayed about the same.

All branches of the military have met their recruitment goals for the last several years, says Department of Defense recruitment spokesperson Major Sandy Troeber -- but the military sets much lower goals than it used to. For example, since 1989, the navy's recruitment goals have been cut in half and the army's have dropped by a third. "More people are staying in the navy than getting out, so we need less to join," explains Petty Officer Sue Roland, the public affairs officer for the Houston Navy Recruiting District.

According to Department of Defense data, during 2002, approximately 2,700 people enlisted in the armed services from Harris County, 270 from Fort Bend County, 224 from Galveston County and 262 from Brazoria County.

Locally, army recruiter Staff Sergeant Ramiro Vazquez says he's signed up almost twice as many kids this year than he did last year. He sets up tables in Aldine Independent School District's high school cafeterias, takes rock-climbing walls to college campuses and calls and visits students and parents at home. "I talk to everybody and anybody," he says. Since October he has enlisted six students.

Jeremy's marine corps recruiter, Staff Sergeant Kenyon Carter, says he had fewer students sign up this year. "A lot of parents are guiding kids away from the military," he says. "It's shunned."

With possible war in Iraq, parents like Dolores are afraid that if their children sign up, they will die. "It's the timing," Dolores says. "They might be shipping him off. I'm not ready for my baby to go nowhere yet -- he's the only son that I have."

Carter tells parents that their kids could die anywhere on any street at any time and that not every person who joins the military goes to war. But, then again, a lot of people do.

According to the Texas Veterans Commission, ten people from Harris County served in World War I; 40,070 served in World War II; 32,940 served in the Korean War; 90,410 served in Vietnam; and 23,500 served in the Gulf War.

"Yes, it's dangerous," Vazquez says. "But so is driving down I-45."

Some students say they're enlisting because they want to fight and they're willing to die so the people they love can live free. Others think any possible war is going to be over before they graduate and hope to never see combat. Kids who don't have the test scores or the cash to go to college say they're joining the military to get free tuition or vocational training. "The army is one of the few employers that will hire someone for a particular job without prior experience," Vazquez says. More students join out of family tradition, following brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, parents and grandparents into service.

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