God, they look so young.
And their idealism is utterly amazing, especially during a time when national cynicism and skepticism are racing at an all-time high among an often jaded and sometimes unforgiving American public.
One soldier who graduated from nine weeks of basic training at Fort Sill in Oklahoma said he was 24 years old, married with three children. Except he didn’t look a day over 18.
Another soldier was 19, another had just turned 20 and set to ship off to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio for Advanced Individual Training to learn his job as a medic for the next five months. A female soldier with Shirley Temple’s curly top was only 5-foot-3, 20 years old, with eyeglasses, replete with an unabashed eagerness to also learn medic duties.
This gaggle of U.S. Army uniforms, combat boots and bright eyes to match is armed with an unwavering hope coursing through their veins. They are young at heart but fiercely determined in mind.
You want determination? One bespectacled soldier, who just graduated the day before, was headed to San Antonio to learn his new craft: carpentry. He couldn’t wait to learn how to build military housing for soldiers abroad, or other structures such as schools, most likely in some war zone in some faraway place.
During the actual graduation ceremony at McMahon Auditorium in Lawton, Okla., newly minted soldiers sit at attention in the middle rows of the audience, hands palms down on kneecaps, staring straight ahead. They head to the graduation dais row-by-row at strict attention, announce their names via microphone and ultimately meet their commanding officers.
One soldier set to ship out for the next phase told me he had lost 40 pounds during the rigorous basic training. As he said, “When we are not working out, we are working out.”
Many miles to run before you recite the “The Soldier’s Creed” on graduation day (usually held on Thursdays and Fridays at Fort Sill).
Another soldier told me the military, partly due to the weak economy with the uncertain jobs front, is a hot spot for young people these days. He said there is a waiting list of up to a year and a half for basic boot camp to join the Marine Corps; another soldier said the Air Force waiting list can be up to two years.
One newbie soldier who resembled former New York Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte said he eventually would be deployed to Afghanistan as a medic. He already knows this, he said. However, the clincher for me was when he said he would have volunteered for Afghanistan duty even if he weren’t ordered to go.
Why would anyone want to look forward to Afghanistan, I ask.
“Because that’s my job,” he says. “If I go to Afghanistan, that means at least one American will be safe at home, sir.”
Another soldier chimed in, “Better me than you, sir.”
OK, if you say so.
But why care about me, I ask. You don’t know me, never met me before this particular day, I suggest.
One of the soldiers asks me, “Where are you from, sir?”
I respond, “Washington D.C., the nation’s capital.”
He then asks another soldier standing nearby, “Where are you from?”
The soldier says Pennsylvania.
He asks another soldier for his home state; she answers Iowa.
He asks the same of another soldier; he says Virginia.
Then, the fresh-faced soldier probably no more than about 5-foot-5 in height and just turned 20, responds, “See, sir, we are all Americans.”
His message: We, as soldiers, are here to serve the United States of America. That means the American people. To preserve and protect.
Listening to these U.S. soldiers evoke such unfettered enthusiasm was both informative and enlightening. I haven’t heard such love for fellow (U.S.) man — and woman — since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, when, in its aftermath, much of the country bonded, whether through fear, or a sense of loss or just plain goodwill. Both strangers and friends alike partook.
But what about the ultimate sacrifice. Suppose you become a casualty of war.
“We know what can happen,” one young soldier explains.
You know the deal, I ask.
“We know the deal, sir,” another soldier says convincingly.
Are you sure?
“Yes sir,” he says without equivocation.
• Clay is assistant sports editor for McClatchy-Tribune News Service.