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.

She runs every morning, even in the rain, and can do 100 sit-ups in two minutes. She says that after basic training, she'll get a nice house and "go to work and have a nine-to-five eight-hour shift and come home like any other eight-hour person."

Her plan is for the army to pay for her to go to Louisiana State University and study computers. She loves computers, but she says that in the classroom she doesn't catch on quickly because the teachers move too fast. She says that in the army, they'll go step-by-step and make sure she understands everything -- why would they pay her for a job she can't do?

Plus, she wants to travel around the world, and the army offered her the opportunity to globe-trot.

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 didn't take the SAT because her sister took it and didn't do too well. Since her sister is "a little bit smarter," Shetyra figured that she wouldn't do well, either. "No need to put myself down and take the test and get, like, an 800 and be really disappointed in myself," she says.

Shetyra eats five packs of Twinkies a day, sings alto in the high school choir, loves Dawson's Creek and is an MTV junkie. "I can watch a video then do the dance better than anyone in it," she says. "One day everybody will see me on a dance video. One day."

Nelton Bernard doesn't like guns. "I'm not gonna deal with any job with guns or weapons," he says. If he's in combat and someone else is shooting at him, he'll shoot back. "It's either kill or be killed," he says. But even with war brewing in the Middle East, he doubts he'll see combat. "Only 1 percent of males in the military go to war," he says. "It ain't nothing to worry about."

Nelton, "Big Nard" to his friends, enlisted last Wednesday in the marines and ships out to boot camp in San Diego this September. "29 Palms," he says with a grin. "I can't wait. I ain't been too many places."

He's captain of the physical fitness team and can do 247 sit-ups, 100 pull-ups and push-ups, and his broad jump is longer than nine feet.

He picked the marines because it's the hardest branch of the military and he tries to do whatever challenges him the most. He doesn't like school. He has a B average and is ranked about 92 in a class of more than 300. The only classes he likes are precalculus and JROTC. His mother works as a security guard, and he says she doesn't want him to have to work as hard as she does. He wants to fix planes, go to college and get a degree in computer engineering, to marry his love of math and the military.

He spends his spare time downloading music off the Internet, watching wrestling on TV and talking to his girlfriend, Dominique Richards. Dominique is a 16-year-old junior in JROTC; they've dated ten months, and she says he's always reminding her that she's going to be his wife and the mother his children. (Right now they're thinking of having four or five.)

The plan is for him to go to boot camp, train for a year and then return to Texas, where he'll attend Prairie View A&M and be with her. Dominique doesn't want him to join the marines because she's afraid he's going to die. If he loses a leg or an arm she'll love him anyway, she says, because she loves the person inside. But if he goes crazy and has some version of Gulf War syndrome, then she may have to reconsider the marriage because if he's crazy, she says, he might snap and kill her and the kids.

"You're not promised tomorrow. You never know [if] you're gonna live," he says. "I'm not afraid of the dark."

Jason Chan, 17
Senior, George Bush High School
Enlisted, U.S. Marine Corps

Born Man Ting Chan in Hong Kong, Jason Chan moved to Houston with his family ten years ago because his parents wanted their sons to get a good education.

Jason joined JROTC hoping to earn a scholarship, but he hasn't gotten any offers because he's not a hard-core drill-every-day-after-school kid. He's not on the color guard or the drill team because he'd rather go home, watch TV, sleep or play war games on his PlayStation 2.

Jason's older brother is studying electrical engineering at the University of Houston; Jason thought about being an engineer, too, but he doesn't really like school and he thinks that joining the marines will be more difficult. "I need something more challenging than college," he says.

Last June, Jason enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps.

His parents, he says, "are freaked out." They're panicking that he's going to go to war and get sick or get hurt or get killed.

Jason took his Marine Corps recruiter to the Chinese restaurant where his father works as a chef and his mother is a waitress.

"He said, 'Everything's going to be fine. Nothing's going to happen to your kid,' " Jason says. "I'm gonna be fine."

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