Patriotism and the Armed Forces

It’s a bad air day in lower Manhattan-- the kind of day you don’t want to breathe any more deeply than you have to. But that’s not stopping Charles Medina and Americo Echeveria from going running along the East River.

(RUNNING SOUND) Charles and Americo are preparing for Marine Corps boot camp. Every morning they meet at the recruiting center on Beekman Street to keep each other going… with the Marine mantra.

You gotta keep your mind off the pain…pain is just weakness leaving the body, when you feel pain, it’s just weakness leaving the body. Pain is good.

Charles decided to join the Marines long before the attacks and hopes to ship out later this month. Americo has just enlisted.

Even before attack, ever since kid, wanted to join military. I’m sure you’ve felt it…the whole country feels patriotic, everyone wants to do something to help. So any doubts that I had prior I don’t have anymore. I know I want to join and that’s what I’m doing now.

Local military officials say Americo and Charles’ stories are common. For young men and women already toying with the idea of joining the military, the terror attacks have provided a final motivation. But for young New Yorkers who never considered joining before…not much has changed.

It’s just not for me. I can’t see myself out there shooting, fighting and all that.

I can’t take someone barking orders at me, because I’m too independent, you know, and to have somebody screaming in my face, I don’t like that.

That beef going on, that ain’t got nothing to do with us minority. That’s between Bin Laden and the whole Bush administration.

I don’t like being shot at, it’s not a thrill

I can’t see myself going to another country, fighting for their problems when I think we have enough problems of our own here that we should address before we go somewhere else meddling.

But while some of New York’s young people have their doubts about enlisting, Major James Casella, a spokesman for the Department of Defense says, nationwide, interest in the military is up.

We compile our statistical data on enlistments on a month to month basis, so it will be at least another month before we know if there’s been an increase in enlistment, post attack. What I can tell you is there’s been a doubling in the number of young people making contact with recruiters, expressing interest in possibly serving in the military. Local military representatives like Marines Staff Sargent Matt Olivolo agree that interest in the military has been tremendous since the attacks. Lots of phone calls, people asking for information…

But as far as people actually signing a four year contract, the numbers haven’t really increased. It’s been roughly about the same.

After Pearl Harbor enlistment skyrocketed. With the September eleventh attacks even closer to home, many might have expected a similar response from this generation.

(VIDEO: “basic training has been welcoming and preparing new recruits for life as airmen…this video will show you that journey”)

But as the military has become more about pushing buttons, and less about getting muddy, recruiting requirements have become stricter. Airforce Major Terry Bowman says many interested people simply don’t qualify.

(PHONE) There is a great difference in a sense between now and say after pearl harbor. There’s no difference in patriotism or spirit. It’s just that we have a highly technical recruitment process now which involves aptitude scoring, physical exams, that kind of thing. So you can’t really walk into a recruiter’s office and join the Air Force in a day.

Tough standards might explain why more people aren’t signing up. But back in the recruiting center, Charles says his generation’s view of the military could also be playing a role.

Patriotism is like a fashion right now, it’s a fad. It’s an in thing to say, “I want to join” but when they come and find out how hard it is, and how much you sacrifice, they realize it’s not for them. It’s easy to say, “oh I’m going to do this. But it’s hard to actually do it. It’s hard to commit.

A booming economy in the 90’s put the military low on the list of career options for this generation. Also, today’s twenty-somethings, used to conflicts like Desert Storm, have yet to see a war last more than a few months…they may simply think they’re not needed. Even new recruits like Joseph Sediak, who will complete Air Force training in June, have trouble picturing themselves on active duty.

I don’t think I’ll be on the front lines…I’m pretty sure our government will take care of the situation a lot quicker than when I’ll be on duty

But whether it’s high standards, or low motivation keeping young people from signing up to be all that they can be…Major Bowman says, if they’re not deeply committed, the military might not want them anyway.

(PHONE) You know, the recruiter will encourage them to think of the air force as a job, a career, not just something because they have a sudden surge of patriotism they want to join. That’s the wrong reason. It’s more than that that’s going to take you and keep you in the airforce. And that really has not changed.

With only a few weeks to go before he heads off for boot camp on Paris Island, Charles agrees. By now he knows what it takes to join the Marines. As he pounds the pavement, he says, for him, it’s still the right choice, and he encourages others to consider making the move.

(RUNNING) But only enter this if you really want it. You gotta’ breath it. If you don’t you’re gonna make a mistake and you’re gonna hate yourself for it.

The military says, this year, goals have been met and vast numbers of new recruits won’t be needed. But if the war against terrorism lasts as long as some predict, demand might increase. And that will be when this generation faces its real test. For WNYC, I’m Sidsel Overgaard.