Surprise, I just joined the Marines

My BlackBerry buzzed as I was sipping merlot at a reception in downtown Chicago. I had missed two calls from home. I found a quiet spot and called, and my 19-year-old stepson, Sergei, answered.

Could I come home right now? It was urgent, he said. See, he was joining the Marines.

"What? You mean you're talking to a recruiter?"

"I was sworn in this afternoon."

Then my wife, Nonna, was on the line. She was sobbing. "Russik, please, come home, right now."

I have known Sergei since he was 9. I used to carry him to bed by his ankles. He and his mother are Russian immigrants, and he is not an American citizen. Now he would be leaving Oak Park in 10 days for boot camp in San Diego, preparing to defend a country that has yet to become his. Suddenly, in a time of war, we are a military family.

There are thousands of others like us, of course. But one can forget that even during a controversial war, young men and women show up every day at recruiting centers.

In the year that ended last September, 163,259 men and women signed up for the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. Some 32,961 entered the Marine Corps. The manpower-hungry military welcomes green-card holders such as Sergei and permits them to apply for fast-track citizenship.

On issues of war and peace, our family--like the nation at large--holds views that are intense and conflicted, and my son's enlistment has highlighted them.

Sergei is a self-confident young man who thrives on academic and athletic challenge. While studying Chinese at a Beijing university last semester, he joined the rugby club and spoke with awe of a player who got knocked down, spat out a couple of teeth and then resumed play. When he speaks of "our army," he means Russia's. He opposed the decision to go to war in Iraq.

My wife, Nonna, is a former journalist who was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Soviet army reserve when she was a university student. The military required service from all students in the English department. In case of war they were to write leaflets, interrogate prisoners and broadcast the announcement: "American soldiers, surrender!"

But after college, Nonna ignored the letters ordering her to report to a local military office. She spent 19 years trying to teach an ethic of peace to Sergei. She wants to do this with Lyova, our 2-year-old son, as well.

As for me, I am the 46-year-old son of a Korean War combat veteran. He emerged with a hatred for war, and before I was born, my mom tells me, he used to shout, "Incoming!" during nightmares. After college, I worked in a pacifist Mennonite organization. But I reluctantly came to see the need for military action after the genocides in Rwanda and the Balkans.

Changing view of war

In 2003 I supported the war in Iraq as an opportunity to rid the world of a mass murderer. Since then, I have often agonized over this decision. I have sat in living rooms of parents whose sons were killed in Iraq, and last fall, I wrote about Sasha Bakhtiarov, a Ukrainian coalition soldier who was rendered speechless and barely able to walk because of shrapnel wounds. His powder-burnt face made me think about my own eldest son.

The night Sergei broke the news, we all sat at the dining room table to talk. We felt the war's presence like a distant thumping that rattles the windows. I said I was afraid of what might happen to him if he ended up in Iraq, and of what he might do.

Sergei said he had scored high enough on the entrance exam to work in legal administration, not in a battlefield role. If he didn't want to go to Iraq, he wouldn't be sent there. And even if he did go, he wouldn't be in a combat role.

"I don't want to kill anyone," he said. "And I don't want to be killed."

That's fine, I said. But did he see that he had now placed himself in a position where both of these had become possibilities?

Spontaneously, the three of us engaged in a bit of a Russian superstition. You pretend to spit three times over your left shoulder, into the face of the devil, to ward off an evil that has been spoken.

Becoming a stepfather

I met Nonna in 1996 when she visited the Tacoma News Tribune in Washington, where I then worked as a reporter. A journalist from the Pacific port city of Vladivostok, she had come to the United States for a few weeks under a State Department grant. Seven months later I moved there to edit an English-language biweekly and, later, to freelance for international papers. Eventually we would marry.

Nonna was divorced and had a son, a rough-and-tumble 9-year-old named Sergei (in our family, he goes by multifarious Russian nicknames, such as Seryoga and Seryozhik). He needed no prodding to see me as a father, just as I saw him as a son. His own father had abandoned them when Sergei was a baby and had nothing to do with the boy.

Nonna had always detested the military, and her son's fascination with combat drove her to distraction. He loved samurai video games and amassed a great cohort of toy soldiers. But there is more than a boyish love of soldier games in Sergei's decision to enlist. He has always been a leader, the kid who organized snowball fights and taught the kids in our Russian neighborhood how to play American football.

Sergei has often expressed an immigrant's gratitude for life in the United States, and I thought this might explain, in part, why he enlisted. I wished I could hear that he had wrestled with the ethics of war and peace, that he had rejected Tolstoy's pacifism, or agreed with George Orwell's devastating critique of Gandhi.

Yet in family discussions, Sergei shied away from overt expressions of patriotism and shrugged off his previous opposition to the war. It became clear that personal motivations weighed heaviest of all in his decision to enlist.

"I didn't want to be a burden on you guys," he said.

Sergei had begun his freshman year of college in August by enrolling in Beijing Language and Culture University. But he fell into a bureaucratic netherworld between American green-card requirements and an expiring Russian passport, and he had to come home after one semester.

In January he started classes at Triton College in River Grove while he looked for a part-time job and tried to figure out what to do next. He fell into a gloom that we could not penetrate.

Aren't there a bunch of businesses up there on North Avenue? I said. Why don't you scout it out on your way back from school?

It was on North Avenue that he found the Marine Corps' Oak Park recruiting substation.

He met with recruiters four times before he talked to us. At one point, he spent the night at a hotel near the U.S. Military Entrance Processing Station in Des Plaines, where he underwent a physical and took a written test that determined what kind of assignment he would have. He told us that he was spending the night with a friend. He didn't want us to talk him out of the decision.

It also turned out that Sergei had been confused about the swearing-in the night he broke the news to us: He had only pledged to enter the Marine recruitment program. Later on, on the day he shipped out, he would officially swear into the military, in a ceremony we attended in Des Plaines.

Unsheathing the sword

The week after Sergei broke his news, I accompanied him to the recruiting substation. It is a storefront in a building that houses a day-care center, a chiropractor's office and an Irish-American newspaper. Inside, photos cover two corkboards: snapshots of locals before they ship out, and in dress blues toward the end of their time at boot camp.

A Marine Corps sword lay on a bookcase opposite the door. A recruiter unsheathed it for me. The blade was engraved with flags, scrollwork and the Marines' eagle, globe and anchor insignia.

That's what got him, I thought. The sword.

Marine recruit T-shirts

Someone had printed the motto of the recruiting center on a white board: "The Weapon of Mass Destruction." They even print it on T-shirts they hand out, along with the image of a skull wearing a Marine Corps cap. When Sergei brought his shirt home, Nonna threw it away.

The recruiting center was crowded with "poolees"--Marine Corps argot for young men and women preparing to enter the service. (They become recruits only when they head off to boot camp). There was a chin-up bar, a bench for weightlifting, a few desks. The faint odor of sweat hung in the air. Every week the poolees gather here to work out.

They were a varied group: a young woman with white-blond hair and Goth-style makeup, a stubble-headed jock wearing a Marine T-shirt that reads "Pain is the Weakness Leaving the Body," and my Russian son, pretending he didn't know me.

The young men took turns doing pull-ups as the others counted off and shouted encouragement. (The girls must hang with their chins above the bar.)


"Come on! Go for it!"

Several poolees could barely manage three or four chin-ups. Most did fewer than 10. Sergei did 19, just one shy of the 20 he must be able to do by the time he graduates from boot camp.

Watching him, I thought that no parent could be pleased that a son or daughter might be heading into danger. He had chosen the Marines Corps because it would be the greatest challenge he had ever faced. Yet I was sure he would excel. And I didn't want to send him off to the drill instructors without some word of encouragement.

Later, feeling vaguely disloyal to Nonna, I told him, "I'm proud of you."