By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The afternoon is slipping by, and Salas is going through piles of brochures, bracelets and bumper stickers. A fair-skinned man with piercing blue eyes walks up and asks Salas in Argentine-accented Spanish whether he speaks the language. When the soldier nods, the man launches into a lecture on the perils of warfare. "The Army isn't good for people," he says, explaining that he fought for Argentina in the Falklands War with Britain. "I lost a lot of friends—I saw people lose arms, legs..." Salas replies that the level of risk depends on which jobs soldiers choose, that some positions don't involve much combat. The man isn't convinced. "The Army shouldn't exist in any country," he says, jabbing his finger in the air. Salas shakes his head and shrugs.
This seasoned familiarity with risk and its consequences is something teenage recruits simply don't have, no matter how much they're prepared for sacrifice. Back at the Oak Cliff recruiting station next to a cabinet stenciled with the words "Duty, Honor, and Country," Garcia and Borjas sit with a few other kids in running pants and hoodies. They're getting ready to go home for the night and wake up for school the next morning. As the days pass and spring draws closer, talk in the halls turns to people's plans after graduation. And with the news focused almost entirely on Iraq—the bombings, the body count, the spiraling sectarian violence—the boys' peers sometimes question their decision to enlist. Garcia's girlfriend tells him that other kids ask her why he joined, what she'll do if he's sent to Iraq. The new soldiers have already picked up the military habit of dismissing the grim news coming out of Baghdad as the media's obsession with reporting only negative developments. "They only talk about the bad stuff," they say.
One recruit, a skinny kid named Juan Puente, has an older brother who did a tour in Iraq and claims he's "ready to go back right now." Juan says friends have criticized his choice to follow in his brother's footsteps. "Everyone says, 'You're gonna go to Iraq and die,'" he says. "But you could step outside and get killed—it could happen any time."
Garcia nods. "Yeah, just 'cause you go to Iraq doesn't mean you're gonna die—you just do what you gotta do and hopefully you come out of it with all your limbs."