By Donna Miles
Fort Meade, MD, Aug. 2, 2006 – The young and not-so-young men and women processing into the military earlier this week at the Military Entrance Processing Station here offer a snapshot of the armed forces of the future. Most are between 18 and 20, and men outnumber women. But beyond those generalizations, no common thread runs through the group. They represent all colors and a broad range of ethnic groups, come from a variety of backgrounds, and express a wide range of motivations for joining the military.
Among the youngest processing through the Baltimore MEPS July 31 was 17-year-old Bethany Wade, a high school student from Lewes, Del. Wade still has a semester of classes ahead of her before she graduates five months ahead of the rest of her senior class, but she had far more than senior proms and yearbooks on her on her mind. She has her heart set on becoming a Marine.
Despite friends who she said "don't support me at all" and parents with mixed emotions about her decision, Wade said she has no doubts she's doing the right thing. She chose the Marine Corps because she believes it's the most difficult service to join and the best service to have served in, she said. "I wanted to do something that would really challenge myself," she said. Already, she's meeting her recruiter three times a week to do push-ups, sit-ups and pull-ups and take long runs to ensure she's physically ready.
By enlisting through the Delayed Entry Program, Wade said, she hopes to close the gap between her high school graduation and the day she reports for training at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C. "Hopefully, the second I get my diploma, I can go the next day," she said.
Many of the recruits sitting alongside Wade at the Baltimore MEPS were fresh out of high school. Some, like 19-year-old Corey Robinson, of Boonesboro, Md., said he knew since he was a child that he wanted to follow in his father's footsteps and join the Army. If all goes as planned, Robinson will head to infantry, airborne and Ranger training after his Basic Combat Training. He said he's excited about the opportunities ahead. "I'll get the educational benefits for college when I get out, but I also get to serve my country," he said.
"I think it's my responsibility to serve," Wade said, shifting self-consciously in his seat as he professed what some might consider an extremely "uncool" viewpoint. "We have freedoms in this country, and if we want to keep them, then it's important to serve," he said. Many of the in processing recruits, including 22-year-old Salvador Goines, of Wilmington, Del., already have a few years of work experience under their belts. Goines spent the past few years installing garage doors while going to school part-time to become a chef. He signed on for a four-year stint as an Army cook and said he looks forward to the experience and educational benefits he'll get.
"I'll try it for a little bit and see what happens," Goines said. "I figure I'll go somewhere and see something a little different." Goines doesn't seem concerned that the "something different" might be a deployment to Iraq. "It's not a factor," he said with a shrug. Across the board, the recruits at the station said that they're ready to go to war if called. "It doesn't really bother me," said 20-year-old Jason Medsker, who is joining the Army to pick up mechanical and welding skills. He said these skills will come in handy when he opens his own garage someday.
The opportunity to learn new skills and get educational benefits is a big draw for many of the new recruits. James Wagner, who served four years in the Navy in the early 1990s, is already halfway through his Master's degree program. He said he looks forward to getting some financial assistance after returning to the Navy as a pharmacy technician. "I want to take advantage of the opportunity to serve my country and get educated at the same time," he said.
Others, like Michael Underwood, aren't as certain of their career paths and chose the military for the discipline and direction they hope it will instill. "I want to straighten my life out and come out with a better head on my shoulders," said the 19-year-old Dale City, Va., resident who's joining the Marine Corps. Underwood said he chose the Marine Corps because he considers it the most demanding of the military services. "I want to do something hard, and I figure that's the hardest," he said.
While most of the recruits at the Baltimore MEPS station had only vague ideas about what they're about to face, others, like Renaldo Peters, know exactly what to expect. Peters served in the Army from 1988 to 1996, a tour of duty that included combat deployments for Operation Just Cause in Panama and Operation Desert Storm. He also was a contractor at Forward Operating Base Caldwell, in Iraq near the Iran border, from 2003 to 2005.
Why, one might wonder, would he choose to return to the Army as a sergeant rather than stick with his higher-paying opportunity as a contractor? Peters said his wife, also a veteran, understands his choice, but his friends and other family members "think I'm crazy." "Not everyone understands, but then again, they never served in the military," he said. "I miss it. I miss the training. I miss the teamwork. I miss the people. I miss the sense of pride.
"Money is a good thing," he said, "but it's not the only thing."
Milton Agurs, at 43, said he understands Peters' sentiment. He served 10 years in the District of Columbia National Guard, but left shortly after his unit returned home from its deployment to Iraq in 2004. A year later, Agurs, who works for the District of Columbia Police Department, is ready to return to his former unit. "There's a sense of pride you miss," he said. "I'm ready to go back to duty. I want to be an example to the children in my neighborhood, to show them what service is all about."