Thursday, June 3, 2004

Students inspired by war, service

Seniors graduate into soldiers

By Michael D. Clark
The Cincinnati Enquirer

"I'm willing to defend my country and protect my family," says recent Princeton High School graduate Rebecca Helton, 17. She has enlisted in the Marines and will report to boot camp at Parris Island on June 21.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/GLENN HARTONG
Rebecca Helton values your freedom enough to die for it.

The 17-year-old Princeton High School graduate signed up to join the Marine Corps as a senior and now joins other Greater Cincinnati graduates who are enjoying their last days of civilian status.

They're among thousands of enlistees across the state undeterred - and in many cases, inspired by - America's war on terrorism. Their numbers have made Ohio one of the nation's leaders in military recruiting - No. 5, according to the most recent statistics available from the Department of Defense.

Rebecca has no doubt of the righteousness of putting her life on the line.

"I'm willing to defend my country and protect my family. I want to know that if I have children that they will be safe and they will have the freedoms I helped to defend so they can speak their minds and live in freedom," said Rebecca, who graduated from Princeton last week. She will report to Marine boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., on June 21.

Rebecca's patriotic sentiments are echoed by other Greater Cincinnati teens who made one of their first major life decisions even before graduating high school.

Most cite the horrific images of the 9-11 attacks as igniting a desire to sacrifice for their country.

"9-11 helped to convince me that if people are willing to sacrifice their lives for something wrong, then I should be willing to sacrifice my life for something right," said Dayton (Ky.) High School graduate Daniel Brewer, who enlisted during his senior year to join the U.S. Navy as a submariner.

Ohio ranked No. 5 in military enlistees ages 18-24, according to the Department of Defense's most recent annual figures.
1. California: 19,575
2. Texas: 18,047
3. Florida: 12,278
4. New York: 9,368
5. Ohio: 7,173
6. Illinois: 6,880
7. Pennsylvania: 6,416
8. Georgia: 5,810
9. Michigan: 5,660
10. Virginia: 5,289
14. Indiana: 3,767
26. Kentucky: 2,277
Figures from fiscal year 2002 (ended Sept. 30, 2002), the most recent available.
Source: Department of Defense
The potentially deadly nature of military service, and America's rising casualty list in Iraq, have forced Brewer, 19, and other local young enlistees, to confront their mortality at an age when few young people do so willingly.

"If I'm going to die for something, I believe in dying for something worthwhile," Brewer said.

Retired U.S. Marine Master Sgt. Greg Armstead recalls when the same patriotic passion beat in his own teenage heart after graduating from high school in 1979. Now, as an instructor for Princeton High's Navy Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, he admires the courage and convictions of young people who sign up in wartime.

"The first thing I tell them is how proud I am of them. Deep down inside you know there is a possibility they could end up over there in Iraq, but God willing, with all the training they go through, they will come back," Armstead said.

Mike Fitzgerald, 56, was a 1967 graduate of Covington's Holmes High School when he enlisted in the Marines during the height of the Vietnam War. Today he works with teenagers interested in the armed services, and often sees in them versions of his younger self.

"I needed a direction in my life and stability and the armed services provided that," Fitzgerald said. "They'll find a purpose, but it's not always for everybody."

That's why the Marines and the other service branches concentrate on signing up high school students, said Maj. Dave Griesmer, spokesman for the Marine Corps Recruiting Command in Quantico, Va.

"For the Marine Corps, high schools are the focus of our recruiting. We want to sign up that 17- or 18-year-old senior because our ideal candidate is a young man or woman who doesn't have a lot of attachments in life and is willing to be transformed from a civilian into a Marine."

Local teens are doing their part to keep the military on target for recruiting. U.S. Marine Sgt. Scott Whittington, whose Midwest district includes Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana, said the Norwood recruiting office was tops in the district in 2003. This year, the Fairfield office is the region's leader.

"The people in Cincinnati are very patriotic ... and that patriotism has been displayed in their eagerness to join America's toughest branch of the armed forces ... (Greater Cincinnati) is an excellent area to recruit young men and women to fill our ranks."

And also for Army, Air Force, Marines and Navy recruitment, all of which continue to meet national enlistment goals, according to the U.S. Department of Defense's most recent national recruitment from 2003. Last year was the 30th year of the all-volunteer military.

Zane Westerfield's voice takes on a tone of conviction that belies his youth when he says signing up for military duty "is a way to pay my country back."

Westerfield, 18, who is headed for the Army, said America's existence "depends on people standing up, and it's a job that someone has to do." He graduated Wednesday from North College Hill High School and will report to basic training June 14.

"I know it's the right thing to do, but at the same time it's a little scary," said Westerfield, who plans to learn aircraft repair in the service, and might pursue that as a career when he returns to civilian life.

Lebanon High School graduate Chad Hoeffler's more immediate goal is to survive Marine boot camp, which begins for him Aug. 9, and then after six months of infantry training he plans to be first in line to volunteer for Iraq.

Pushing him is the memory of 9-11, which "made me realize how valuable American freedoms are and how much I love my country."

The 18-year-old Hoeffler isn't oblivious to the ultimate price he might pay for his ideals. The daily news of American casualties "is kind of scary, to be honest with you.

"But that's the best way to go out, is to do it fighting for your country."


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