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.

Four of her friends are in the marines and have already shipped off to Iraq. "I think about them all the time," she says. "They write me that it's hot during the day and cold at night. That's all they say."

She says she's worried that if she enlists right away instead of going to college, she'll get shipped over, too. "I might just get lucky and I might stay in the States," she says. "I'm trying not to think too far ahead."

Nelton "Big Nard" Bernard ships out to boot camp in September.
Wendy Grossman
Nelton "Big Nard" Bernard ships out to boot camp in September.
Dolores Paige says she isn't ready for her son Jeremy to leave.
Daniel Kramer
Dolores Paige says she isn't ready for her son Jeremy to leave.

Hermes Troche, 17
Senior, George Bush High School
Plans to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps after attending college

After September 11, Hermes Troche wrote his principal a letter demanding that students pledge allegiance to the flag every morning. "We should remember and be reminded every day of who's out there fighting for our country -- who's gone out there and died and the freedom that we have," he says.

After the Pentagon was hit, Hermes wanted to drop out of high school and enlist immediately. His father told him he should definitely serve, but he wants him to graduate from college and then enlist as an officer, because he thinks Hermes is a leader and should be a part of the decision-making process.

His grandfather served in Korea; his father was in ROTC in college but didn't enlist. Born in Puerto Rico, Hermes moved to Houston when he was two years old. He plays trombone, sings bass in the high school choir, collects classic and modern cars and makes $8 an hour as a cashier at H-E-B.

When he joined JROTC his freshman year, Hermes didn't make the rifle team, but he kept showing up for practice and was commanding the team before the year ended. He earned 18 ribbons his first year and now has 31 ribbons and 21 medals.

He plans to attend Texas A&M, enlist in the marines and have them send him to law school so he can be like the guys in JAG. Watching Full Metal Jacket, Heartbreak Ridge and Platoon, he decided that he definitely wants to see combat and fight on the front lines.

"I think it'd be a big rush going out to battle knowing every day might be your last day," he says. "It's cool thinking, 'Hey, maybe tonight I might not make it back to the barracks.' I'm big on suspense."

Gabriel Contreras, 17
Senior, Klein Forest High School
Plans to enlist in the U.S. Air Force

Evelinette Vazquez, 17
Senior, Klein Forest High School
Plans to enlist in the U.S. Air Force

A year ago, Gabriel Contreras and Evelinette Vazquez dated for a month, but they broke up because Gabriel didn't think they had a future. Four months ago they started dating again, and one December night at his sister's friend's ex-boyfriend's house he asked her if she wanted to be with him for, like, forever. She said yes.

"He's my baby," she says.

They read each other's mind, finish each other's sentences and often say the same thing at once. "We think the same," he says. They both want to join the air force; they both want to be accountants; blue is their favorite color; plus they both like Snickers, Sprite, Corn Pops and Polo clothes.

"There's a lot of girls out there," he says, "and I've been with a lot of them -- but she's different."

The couple plan to enlist right after graduation, train together at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio and then get married next March after Gabriel's 19th birthday. Gabriel says he wanted to make sure they were engaged before they left for boot camp. They plan to have their first child (a boy) by December 2004 and name him Xavior Alexander Contreras. They want to have a baby right away because they've talked about the fact that Gabriel might get stationed in the Middle East and he might die and he doesn't want Evelinette to be alone. "At least she'll have a kid," he says. "She'll have someone to be there with."

He told her he'd die for her, and he'd die for their country, and he'd die for their child. "If he dies, he dies for me," she says. "He's defending me and his country -- and I live in the U.S."

Gabriel's grandfather was in the air force, and his uncles were in the army and the navy, and his sister is in the army.

Gabriel has his own daily physical training regimen: Every night he does 200 sit-ups, runs 2.5 miles, rides a stationary bike 40 minutes and does 100 to 150 push-ups. In the morning, he says, he's so tired he doesn't always feel like going to school. He wanted to be a marine, but his mother convinced him to join the air force instead. "I said, 'Use your mind, not your body,' " says Cynthia Contreras.

His intended, Evelinette, was born in Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico, where her father owned a delivery business. Her uncle was in the military, and he brought her dolls and toys and clothes from all over the world.

Her uncle moved to Houston, and her grandmother followed him, to be near her other grandchildren. Two months before her 11th birthday, Evelinette and her brother and sister left their parents and moved in with their grandmother. But a few years later her brother was getting into trouble and failed a grade; as punishment, the family sent him back to Puerto Rico. Evelinette asked if she could stay.

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