Young Guns

Jeremy Williams shot M-16s last summer.
Daniel Kramer

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."

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.

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

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.

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."

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.

Wanting to be like her uncle, she joined JROTC and decided to be an accountant just like him. "I want his life," she says. "His life is good."

Gabriel's mother hopes the United States won't declare war. She doesn't want her children watching other children die.

"I just pray all the time," Cynthia says. "I pray all the time for them."

Matt Walters, 18
Senior, Galena Park High School
Plans to enlist in the U.S. Air Force

Matt Walters thinks the war will be over before he finishes basic training. He doesn't want to fight. He's a punk rock kid who loves Fear Factor and isn't enlisting out of any feeling of patriotic duty or loyalty to his country. He knows that there might be a war brewing because his JROTC teacher talks about world events every Tuesday and Thursday. They play war games where they invade Afghanistan and, as with real battles, most of the people who fight die.

Matt says the United States should just bomb the Middle East and that whoever has a problem with that, we should blast them, too. "I say drop a bomb on them all instead of sending our people in there and dying for this fake cause," he says. "We're trying to play the dad in a children's game and protect everybody."

He mimics his instructor saying that war should always be the last resort and that it's not going to be fun if he ends up lying on a sandy beach holding his intestines in his hands.

Matt decided to join the air force because he likes their uniform the most. "Marines, they scare me," he says. "And the navy? I don't want to go drown on a boat. And the army? The army's uniform is green." He doesn't like green.

His uncle was drafted into the army for Vietnam; he told Matt to join the air force before he gets drafted into the army. The air force is much easier, Matt says. In the air force he won't have to drop and give anyone 200 push-ups, train or exercise all that hard. "In the air force, you don't work out. You go there and sit down," Matt says.  

If he were rich, he'd go to college, Matt says. He thinks he could get accepted to Texas A&M, but he knows he can't pay for it. He's ranked No. 44 in his class of 350 and he scored a 990 on the SAT; he says the verbal section tripped him up because there were too many words he didn't know.

In this unstable economy, he says, the air force will provide him with a solid, steady job from which he won't get fired and he can retire in 20 years. "If I live that long," he says. He thinks it would be better to die at 25 when he's young "and [has] lived" than when he's 80 "and struggling." He says if he got a regular civilian job he might wind up in the mailroom forever, but in the military he'll get steadily promoted.

Matt did so well on his air force entry test that the recruiter told him he can pick any job he wants. "I'd really like a desk job than actually be out there in the war," he says. "Hopefully I'll be repairing the planes instead of actually flying them." He doesn't think he's tall enough to fly a plane, and he says he can't be a pilot because he wears glasses.

Matt's mom died of cancer when he was ten. He says he has no idea what his father does for a living other than it's a "worker-type job" that involves metal -- maybe he's a welder, Matt says, he doesn't know because he doesn't talk to his dad. "The TV is always on," he says. West Point accepted his father, Matt says, but his dad turned the school down because he got married. The military, Matt says, isn't good for relationships.

Matt wants to travel and see places far away from the Ship Channel. "I want to leave this cheap town," he says. He's hoping to get stationed in London or Australia or someplace where people speak English and he won't experience too much culture shock. If he gets deployed to the Middle East, he's afraid he'll get there, ask where the candy machine is, and there won't be one. "They have a lot of problems," he says.

Shetyra Brown, 17
Senior, George Bush High School
Enlisted, U.S. Army

Watching Men of Honor, Shetyra Brown decided she wanted to be a navy diver -- but she can't swim. Her grandfather was in the army, but he won't tell her where he served or what he did; he just tells her that she shouldn't join the army because she will go to war and she will die.

"I'm not gonna go to waaaaaar," she says exasperatedly.

She recently enlisted to serve four years' active duty in the army and an additional two years in the reserves. She leaves June 5 for nine weeks of basic training at South Carolina's Fort Jackson. "Everybody needs to serve their country in their own different way -- I chose to protect them," she says. "My job has nothing to do with combat. I sit behind a desk and mess with computers. You can't program your computer to kill their computer."

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.

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."

Esteban Garcia, 19
Senior, Klein Forest High School
Plans to enlist in the U.S. Air Force

Esteban Garcia wants to be a Texas Ranger. He says the quickest way to be a cop is to join the military because the training time is shorter than the police academy. When he gets out of the air force, he says, he can immediately become a state trooper.

Esteban is the oldest of four children, and his mother doesn't want him to join. "She's afraid," he says. "Most Mexican moms think if you join the military you're gonna come out crazy. She thinks if I join for four years she'll never see me again."  

Esteban says he's going to train in San Antonio, which is only a few hours away, and he promises to come home for visits and call all the time. "It's not like I'm going to jail or anything," he says.

He doesn't think he'll see much action in the air force because he doesn't think they get involved in actual combat. "That's what the army and the marines are for: to fight," he says.

The only possible chance of danger he sees is that he might be stationed as a military police officer guarding a base in Afghanistan and someone might try to blow up the base. Then, he says, he might get hurt.

He has a girl who already is in the air force to whom he gave a promise ring, but he's not sure if he's going to keep that promise and marry her. "Maybe, maybe not," he says. Because he's also got a girl at home.

He says his dad told him that when he finishes his tour of duty, if he's not making enough money as a state trooper, he can always work at his construction company.

Jeremy Williams likes taking things apart and putting them back together. Last summer he debated between being a chef and an architect; his mother told him to make up his mind so she could fill out the financial aid forms.

When he told her he wanted to join the marines, she told him: "For 17 years I stuck with you -- I might have taken a vacation for a week-- but I stuck with you. And you're just running off, leaving me. I didn't run off and leave you. That's what you're doing. You're gonna hit the highway and be gone."

He says he's going to take care of her and send her money, and since he's going to train in California and Florida he's going to take her and his two sisters to both Disneyland and Disney World.

Since he likes drawing, his Marine Corps recruiter said his job could involve drafting blueprints. When he enlisted, Jeremy says, he was the only guy in the recruitment office who didn't want to fight on the front lines. "Everyone around me was saying, 'I can't wait to shoot the big guns,' " he says. "There's zero to no chance that I'm going to war, no matter how bad things get. I'm going to be working on computers and drawing things."

Even though he likes shooting, he doesn't want to kill anyone. He's been to the veterans hospital and seen amputees. He says if he lost an arm or leg he'd miss it, but he'd move on. "I'd be like, 'Damn, no arm,' but you got to adapt," he says. "If everyone was afraid of going to war, who would be there to defend us?"

Dolores is planning to throw him a going-away party the week before he ships out next September. That's when they're going to announce to the family that he's leaving. She says she can't stomach the idea of having her mother and sisters calling her, crying every day for the next eight months, demanding to know why she's crazy enough to let her baby go to war.

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