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.

Many others join because they see the military as their ticket out of town and the only way to move out of their parents' house. "Some people I talk to join for the adventure. They want to jump out of airplanes, they want to see the world," Vazquez says. "They've been in Houston all their life and they want to see other cultures firsthand, instead of on TV."

Veronica Escamilla, 18
2002 graduate of Galena Park High School
Enlisted, U.S. Marine Corps

Michelle Martinez has four friends who already have been shipped off to Iraq.
Daniel Kramer
Michelle Martinez has four friends who already have been shipped off to Iraq.
Gabriel Contreras is willing to die defending his country.
Daniel Kramer
Gabriel Contreras is willing to die defending his country.

When Veronica Escamilla told her father she was joining the marines, he kicked her out of the house. He told her he wanted her to go to college, not join the military. She signed up for night school community college classes, but on her 18th birthday she told her father she was joining the marines whether he liked it or not; again, he told her to get out of his house.

She didn't believe he was serious when he evicted her, and she didn't have the money to live anywhere else, so she stayed. She says joining the marines is the only way she can afford to move out of the house and leave the Ship Channel.

Veronica wanted to enlist after she graduated in May, but she was 17 and her parents wouldn't sign the waiver granting her permission. She turned 18 a month later, but the marines told her she was an inch too short of their four-foot-11 height requirement and before they would waive it, she needed to lose 22 pounds.

Every day, marines fresh from basic training picked her up at 8 a.m. and took her to aerobics classes at the Baytown YMCA. She ran, swam, lifted weights and sat in the steam room. As they exercised, the marines told her stories about boot camp. "They told me how much fun they had, and how much hell it was," Veronica says. "They wished they could go back, or they wished they'd never went through it."

Veronica was born in Monterrey, Mexico; her father was a medic in the Mexican army, and now he does construction. She likes being in command, and she likes the orderliness and the discipline of the armed forces. And she likes guns -- even though she's never fired a real gun, just held one. She joined the marines because she likes their uniforms the most.

Her recruiter tells her that she's going to do legal administration; she's not sure what that means -- she just knows she'll be in an office doing some kind of paperwork. The marines were to pick her up at 5 a.m., Monday, January 27, drive her to downtown Houston, where she would fill out paperwork, and then ship off to basic training in South Carolina.

Her grandparents, uncles and cousins say she's making a mistake and that she should listen to her father when he says the military is not for her, or for any girl. Relatives tell her stories about friends of friends who lost their minds or were taken prisoner and tortured. Her grandmother tells her over and over that she could get hurt or killed. Even after Veronica enlisted, her grandmother kept telling her that it wasn't too late -- she could change her mind and stay home.

"I just tell her, 'Yes, Grandmother,' " Veronica says. "I cannot tell her no."

Michelle Martinez, 17
Senior, George Bush High School
Plans to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps

During a 1.5-mile race at a JROTC physical fitness competition, a girl collapsed on the track. No one bothered to step around her or stop to help her -- they just kept running. "They trampled her," Michelle Martinez says. Michelle picked up the girl and ran with her; the girl stopped every few yards, fell to the ground, puked on Michelle and told her that she couldn't make it. Michelle told her that she could do it, picked her up and helped her finish the race. "We made pretty good time, too," Michelle says. "That's just stuff I do all the time."

The highest-ranking officer in her JROTC unit, Michelle has 22 ribbons for various meritorious achievements and talks about training her "kids" and "insubordinates." Someday she wants to be a Marine Corps drill instructor. "It's the epitome of being a marine," she says. "I want to set the example. I want to be the motivator."

Three of Michelle's uncles are marines, and four of her aunts are in the navy. "We're a very military-oriented family," she says. In second grade, she saw a photograph of one of her uncles wearing his dress blues and decided to join, too. "It hit me hard," she says.

Michelle can do 85 push-ups in three minutes; she blew out her shoulder because someone dared her to do upside-down push-ups against the wall. "I knew I couldn't do it, but I did it anyway," she says.

She hasn't enlisted in the marines yet because she's been offered a college scholarship and her JROTC instructor is trying to talk her into going to school, then later enlisting as an officer.

But, she says, school sucks. JROTC is the only thing that motivates her to pass her classes, she says, because the school has a no-pass-no-play policy for electives. The only class she looks forward to every day is JROTC; she has two free periods and study halls that she spends in the JROTC classroom. She stays after school every day and drills on weekends and holidays. "When I go home I don't have anything to do, so I come back," she says.

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