As the United States prepares for possible war in Iraq, recruits continue to enter the armed forces and undergo training. Recruits say they are not anxious to fight, but are willing to, if needed.
Military recruiters say they have seen no increase in applicants since the war on terrorism began 18 months ago, but the services are meeting their quotas. The U.S. Marine Corps, for example, loses nearly one-quarter of its 174,000 member force each year, as Marines complete their tours of duty.
Staff Sergeant Steven Sarten works at a recruiting station in a small suburban shopping mall outside San Diego. He says some who ask about joining are anxious to see action, but most are looking for a career, financial help in finishing college, and a challenge. He says that is true today, as it was in the past. "We always had people come in who want to be a part of something. If you look through history, the Marine Corps is always doing something. It may not be a conflict in Iraq. It may be operations in Liberia. It may be operations in Somalia or Bosnia," he says. "There's always something going in the world and we always have people who want to be a part of that."
Joining any branch of the military takes some time. Screening and selection require two to three days, followed by a wait of two to 12 months before basic training begins in boot camp. Basic training takes six to 12 weeks, depending on the service, and specialized combat and job training takes even longer.
Navy Lieutenant Commander Beth Hostetler heads the processing station for all branches of the armed forces in San Diego. She says most recruits are age 18 to 25, and they undergo testing at her facility in a new industrial section of the city. "Testing for mental aptitude, both general, mechanical, mathematical, and reading comprehension," she explains.
Recruits also undergo drug tests. Marijuana use disqualifies applicants for 45 days; cocaine use for one year.
A doctor gives a physical and checks coordination.
"Small steps, heel-to-toe, slowly turn around on the ball of your feet. Keep it going," he directs.
All applicants are finger printed and undergo a background check for a possible criminal record.
"We're going to take the right thumb first, stand right here, and we're going to slide your thumb this way. Just relax, don't apply any pressure."
Nearly everyone passes the tests, and more than two-thirds will sign a contract and go on to basic training.
First, they take an oath, in this case administered by Army Captain Terri Jones. The officer explains that the recruits are now bound, not by civilian law but by the uniform code of military justice. "At this time, resume the position of attention," she says. "Raise your right hands, and repeat after me "I - state your full name - do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic...."
Daniel Holland, 19, has taken the oath and signed the contract. He will spend four years in the army, and says he needs the discipline and wants to serve his country. He says he will fight if he has to. "You join the military, we're here to protect the country, so that's it. If there's a war, we're the ones to go," he says.
Jennifer Bell, 24, is a part-time student who wants to be trained as a linguist and do intelligence work. She says Iraq is not foremost on her mind, but she's ready to fight there if needed. "There's always something going on, and I'm ready to go to war if we're going to go to war this time. Maybe if we go to war later, then I'll go to war later," she says. "There's always something going on in the world."
Eighteen-year-old Raul Flores says he plans to join the Navy "for a lot of reasons. One is thinking about my future and to improve my future. And I know I have to sacrifice a lot, but I'm willing to do that."
Recruiters say the quality of applicants has gone up in recent years. Since 1973, when conscription ended, the U.S. has an all-volunteer military. Today, most applicants have finished high school. Marine Corps Captain Kevin Keating says he has also seen an improvement in the attitude of recruits since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. "There is a difference. A big difference. It was sad to say, before 9-11, it was kind of like some of these kids were coming in like they were renegotiating a baseball contract. Now they're coming in and they're swearing in, the proud, they're patriotic, and it's good to see," he says.
Most of these youngsters are fresh out of high school, and the tests and physical exam are just the beginning. Next comes arduous training at boot camp.
But already, they're on their way to becoming Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen.