Features

Unusual recruits

Iraq | Comedians and peace moms take note: even as the casualty list grows, Ivy Leaguers and honor students are signing up to serve

Issue: "Faith-based about-face," Aug. 27, 2005

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."

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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."

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