As you're reading this, National Honor Society member Caity Swanson, 18, of Audubon, N.J., is likely cranking out one . . . more . . . pushup . . . under the stern eye of an Army drill sergeant at Ft. Leonard Wood, Mo. Princeton University senior Ross Williams, 21, is finalizing his plans to check out of the Ivy League and into the Marine Corps. And Congressional Award winner Asher Strassner, 18, just shipped out from his home in Houston to Navy boot camp in Great Lakes, Ill.
When Mr. Strassner signed up to begin basic training in August, he had no way of knowing the month would prove a brutal one in Iraq. American forces so far this month have lost at least 63 souls, including three Tennessee National Guard soldiers from the 278th Regimental Combat Team, who died Aug. 14 in a rocket-propelled grenade attack.
Families of the fallen grieve, some bitterly, like Cindy Sheehan, who since Aug. 6 has staged a mini war-protest outside George W. Bush's Texas ranch. Others, like Gary Reese of Ashland, Tenn., grieve proudly. His son, Sgt. Gary Lee Reese, 22, of the 278th, "is the only one from the town to die in the war," Mr. Reese told the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "He is someone I'm really proud to be the father of."
Mr. Reese believes "bad-mouthing" the war dishonors the dead. Meanwhile, even as casualties mount, thousands of young people are still signing up to serve, with only the Army and National Guard now falling short of recruiting goals. When widespread shortfalls made news earlier this year, comedian Bill Maher used the occasion to reinforce the stereotype that America scrapes its military from the bottom of the population barrel.
Quota-missing Army recruiters had, Mr. Maher quipped, "done picked all the low-lying Lyndie England fruit. And now we need warm bodies."
Ms. England, of course, is accused of abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib. And Mr. Maher isn't the first person to suggest that the U.S. military is mainly a refuge for the depraved or desperate. In a May 2003 graduation speech at Rockford College, New York Times reporter Chris Hedges said the nation's fighting forces are made up mostly of "poor kids from Mississippi or Alabama or Texas who could not get a decent job or health insurance and joined the Army because it was all we offered them."
Is the military stereotype accurate? Karl Zinsmeister doesn't think so. During three stints as an embedded reporter in Iraq-the most recent in May 2005-the American Enterprise editor-in-chief met farm boys, poor boys, and boys escaping dead-end blue-collar towns. But he also encountered Cornell grads, Ph.D. candidates, and high-tech wunderkinds, and wrote about them in his 2003 book Boots on the Ground.
It was love, not desperation or a lack of prospects, that propelled honor student and all-state vocalist Caity Swanson into the Army: love of language. As a junior, Caity's 3.9 GPA qualified her for the National Honor Society, while A's in Spanish earned her acceptance into the Spanish National Honor Society. She realized she wanted to pursue foreign-language translation as a vocation, and she began exploring colleges that offered a major in linguistics. But though her parents earn a good living-dad Chuck works in the pharmaceutical industry and mom Andria is an R.N.-good programs were too expensive.
Then as a senior, Caity, like thousands of American high-school students, took the military entrance exam. An Army recruiter saw her score-93 out of 99-and called her last December. That's when she learned about her dream school: The Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (DLIFLC) in Monterey, Calif., the largest foreign language school in the world.
After careful discussion with her parents, Caity enlisted. She's now looking forward to learning a new language by immersion, packing two weeks of traditional college instruction into each day during the year-long course, and learning from native speakers. "The way they teach a foreign language is the way I want to learn it," she said.
She doesn't know which language yet-the military assigns that based on a student's ability and the government's need. But it's likely to be a tough one: Caity blew away the Defense Language Battery, qualifying her to learn any language the Institute offers, including those considered most difficult, like Chinese or Arabic.
With the war on terrorism, and Middle Eastern languages high on the Defense Department's wish list, is Caity worried she'll wind up in Iraq? "Wherever the Army sends me, I'm fine," she said in a June 30 phone interview, five days before heading out for boot camp. "God is in control. Whatever He wants for me, that's what I'm going to do."
Houston homeschool graduate Asher Strassner feels the same way. In February he enlisted in the Navy as a hospital corpsman and signed up for Fleet Marine Forces (FMF) training, a school he hopes will land him a job as a combat medic in Iraq.
"When other people ask me how scared I am, I tell them not at all," he said. "That might seem like the typical teen who thinks he's invincible. But if it's my time to die, I will, whether it's in Iraq or crossing the street. . . . If God wants me to live only 18 or 19 years-or to be 100-it's up to Him."
Asher told WORLD his job is to glorify God, not himself. He seems to have been busy about that task, chalking up high grades and high scores on college aptitude tests. In June, he earned the Congressional Award, an honor Congress established in 1979 to recognize initiative, achievement, and service in young people.
To win it, Asher completed a two-year program: He volunteered for 450 hours in a Houston hospital, learned horticulture and landscaping, became a top-ranked junior golfer, and organized a camping expedition that followed the Texas Independence Trail.
Not exactly your Maher-style military down-and-outer. So Asher surprised even himself when he decided to join the Navy. "Weeks before I enlisted, I never would have considered the military," he said. "My friends were surprised . . . but I didn't think I was ready for college. I thought if I went to college in the fall, I'd end up goofing off and getting bad grades."
Bound for boot camp this month, then corpsman and FMF training, Asher could touch down in Iraq late next year. He's hoping that's where he winds up.
"I have a friend in the Army who just got back and he's always telling us that the negative stuff we hear in the media [about American progress in Iraq] is 99 percent made up," Asher said. "He tells about all the Iraqis who love the Americans. . . . I think that's very interesting. I'd like to see that myself."
Ross Williams would like to see it, too, which is why the Princeton senior chose the Marine Corps, a ground force, instead of a more high-tech but remote branch like the Air Force or the Navy. "It's more personal. You interact more with the culture you're protecting," Ross said. "I didn't want to go into the service looking for a spot where I'd feel more comfortable. I wanted to choose the spot I'll get most out of."
If his resumé is any indication, Ross, 21, will give as much as he gets. At his high school in Oyster Bay, N.Y.-a small town he describes as "close enough to New York City that you could smell September 11"-he served as student body president and graduated third in his class with a 4.0 GPA. He also earned all-state honors in vocal competition and made the all-county team as a long-distance runner.
Now a Princeton political science major who rows for his school's nationally ranked crew team, Ross had originally been accepted to West Point. "But I was told by a couple of cadets that if I wanted any sort of academic college life, I should go to a different school."
After completing his degree next spring, Ross plans to attend a 10-week officer training course in Quantico, Va., then accept a Marine Corps commission. His grandfather served as a Marine during World War II, and Ross said he also feels a call to serve his country, to do "something I'd enjoy looking back on, something I could be proud that I'd done."