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PARRIS ISLAND, S.C. — “Some people, toward the end of their lives, may ask themselves if they made a difference. I’m not going to have to say ‘no,’ ” says Pvt. Rocky Consiglieri of Harrison, N.Y.

The 19-year-old recruit, who calls the president “the Honorable Mr. Bush,” is explaining why he joined the Marine Corps when multiple tours in Iraq are routine and polls show most Americans believe the war is a mistake.

“This isn’t for everybody,” Consiglieri concedes, speaking so fast and low he’s almost talking to himself. “Some people want to watch and see what happens. Some other people want to get in and make a change.”

To learn what motivates young people who become Marines today, we interviewed several recruits Oct. 22 as they completed 12 difficult weeks of basic training. Two days earlier, they had survived the “Crucible,” a 54-hour physical and emotional ordeal that is a final rite of passage to be a Marine.

I wanted to talk with three graduating recruits chosen at random. Drill instructors instead “volunteered” perhaps their most articulate charges, accounting for the age range of 22 to 27. Adding Rocky Consiglieri at the last minute lowered the average age of my sampling but probably kicked up the toughness quotient. Rocky declined to sit on a bench outside his squad bay while we talked, preferring to stand at parade rest, his feet set shoulder-width apart, hands clasped behind back, eyes forward.

Gnats bite here, even at midday, which left me slapping arms and legs between questions. Rocky ignored the bugs, even those alighting on his lower lip, a glimpse of why he was named his platoon “guide” or top leader.

Despite his height — “five-foot-three and three quarter inches” — he played football, baseball, and wrestled in high school. Grades were the challenge. But he buckled down, to graduate last June, securing the diploma his recruiter insisted upon. Rocky said his family pleaded with him not to join, offering “bribes,” he said, including a long vacation followed by a job in the family’s home improvement business if he would change his mind.

“Kind of the easy way out,” he said. “But that’s not me.”

Harrison is a suburb of New York City. Rocky said the 9/11 attacks killed neighbors who either worked in the Twin Towers or rushed to the rescue. Two couples who rented apartments from his father lost spouses and moved out. Rocky was in grade school then. By his high school years, the 9/11 attacks had made him want to be a Marine and fight the terrorists. As far as he knows, no one else from his graduating class entered the military.

“The Marine Corps pushes you to your limits and past them,” he said, which helps to explain his “indescribable” pride the day his platoon completed the Crucible and received their Eagle, Globe and Anchor insignia.

“I never felt like that before,” Rocky said, not even on the days he had had “three saves” as a lifeguard.

William Taylor was in Rocky’s platoon and saw his maturity over the last three months. Taylor, a Flora, Miss., native, turned 22 last February, and discovered he was bored with classes and fraternity life at the University of West Alabama. He told his parents he was leaving school to join the Corps.

“My mom and dad were not real happy at first,” Taylor said. His father warned him that if he wasn’t truly serious about being a Marine an early discharge could follow him for life. “I said, ‘You’re looking at it wrong.’ ” He wanted to do something worthwhile, something not focused on himself. He sought a challenge and discipline. He wanted to get in shape.

Fraternity brothers “were floored,” Taylor said. “I had long, curly hair so, when you saw me, Marine Corps was the last thing you’d think.”

Boot camp was tough. Taylor said he didn’t smile for weeks. “Then I woke up one morning, put my trousers on but didn’t get my belt done all the way. They fell off as I was going to the head. I looked in the mirror in the squad bay and hardly recognized the person I saw. And I smiled.”

He lost 32 pounds, to hit 175. His attitude also got an adjustment. Like the others, he said, he learned “to do the right things for the right reasons.”

After more combat training in North Carolina, Taylor will go to aircraft mechanic school in Pensacola, Fla. There’s a good chance later he’ll be assigned to Iraq. He knows many Americans opposed the decision to invade Iraq and want the troops out. But Americans, he said, still “are behind their military” and respect “the sons and daughters willing to give their lives.”

Matthew Kruspe, 27, wanted to be a Marine for years. But he got married after graduating from the University of Albany and his wife strongly opposed the idea. “She would say, ‘No, not with what’s going on today.’ ”

Kruspe taught for two years at “an alternative school” in upstate New York. “The kids were pretty outrageous,” he said. He then took a job in pest control instead. Last spring, his wife asked if he still wanted to be a Marine, like his father, who retired as a master sergeant, and like his brother.

“I guess she was trying to call my bluff. I went the very next day and signed the papers,” Kruspe said. His scores were high enough to qualify for any specialty. Kruspe chose infantry. He expects to go to Iraq. Recruits are taught about IEDs. One of his drill instructors said he has lost seven former recruits to the war, a point intended to focus young minds on their training.

Being older, Kruspe said, “I know full well what I’m getting into. It’s hard to get younger recruits to see that this is not a joke. You’re training to save your life or the Marine next to you. This is not the video games a lot of these young recruits probably played all day until they went to boot camp.”

But he also has been surprised that so many, like him, know that “the greatest honor you can have is to serve your country. I don’t know how they got that mentality … I’m glad it’s still out there because I had my doubts.”

To comment, e-mail milupdate@aol.com, write Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA 20120-1111 or visit www.militaryupdate.com

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