By Anne Hull
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 9, 2006
Blake Johnson is almost 18. Tan and muscular, he plays third base for the Clarkdale High School Bulldogs. He is a B student who says "Yes, sir" when his coach corrects his batting stance. Wisps of brown hair fall above his green eyes, and a rope choker is clasped around his neck. He lives in a mobile home with his mother and younger brother on Old Highway 80 on a piece of land that never quite dries.
On the afternoon before the opening of baseball season, a balloon floats inside the cab of his truck, a gift from one of the Diamond Girls at school, with a note that says, "Go Big Senior!" But any poetry about the waning days of youthful abandon feels false in this part of central Mississippi, where the bridge to Iraq is a short one.
"Welcome home, 155th!" a road sign announces, heralding the return of Mississippi Army National Guard units recently back from Iraq. At the country mini-mart where Johnson stops for candy bars and gas, a handmade memorial honors a local 19-year-old Marine killed in Iraq. So far, 36 Mississippians have died in Iraq -- 15 of them members of Army National Guard units. From these red clay hills, it sometimes feels as if joining the military is less a choice than the inevitable march of life.
Now it's Johnson's moment to enlist, and the pull is hard.
Toby Keith's "American Soldier" rocks the inside of his pickup. The Marine Corps recruiter tells him he's a born leader and that his athletic skills would make him an ideal Marine. He imagines himself in uniform, and wonders what it would be like, "just actually being a part of something you can feel proud of."
And yet Johnson -- a decent shot with a hunting rifle, with a Bible on his nightstand -- is resisting what feels like his fate. He lives within a mile of two young men killed in Iraq, and the deadly geography is giving him pause. As he says, with honest yearning:
"I want a family and kids and stuff."A Patriotic Place
When President Bush calls for sacrifice in Iraq, this is a place that listens. Here, where the gnats swarm and the magnolias blossom, and where locals pin their hopes on a Kia Motors Corp. assembly plant that would bring 2,500 jobs to the sagging economy, only to have it go to another state instead.
Military recruiters talk of Mississippi being a special place, a patriotic place and the envy of other states. The recruiting battalion commander for the Mississippi Army National Guard says his state's force is as large as the one in Georgia, which has triple the population. Patriotism aside, bleak demographics make the state a ready labor pool. More than 30 percent of high school students fail to graduate. The median household income -- $32,397 -- ranks lowest in the nation. When the Cooper tire plant in Tupelo cuts employee hours, the Mississippi Army National Guard experiences a bump in enlistees.
A few weeks ago, some mail came for Blake Johnson. A cold front had blown through the working-class community of Meehan Junction, outside Meridian, and the daffodils of early spring shivered in the wind. Sticking out of the mailbox across the road from Johnson's trailer were two recruiting letters, one from the Army and the other from the National Guard -- the Guard offering a $10,000 signing bonus. All of Johnson's senior year, the local recruiters have come after him; the national mailers were the latest enticements.
As his mother said, as she placed them on the counter, "That's a whole lot of money when you are in the 12th grade."
Square-chinned and tranquil, with a deep Dixie drawl, Johnson understands the vague isolation of his rural existence. There is one mall in Meridian, "and it don't even have a Gap," he says. He watches "Viva La Bam" on MTV while a train whistle blows in the distance. On Friday nights, he and his friends hang out at the Sonic drive-in until the waitresses chase them off, and when there is really nothing to do, they meet at the boat ramp where they stand around a 55-gallon drum and burn trash.
"Pretty redneck, huh?" he says, smiling.
The men in his family operate cranes, install cable and lay telephone lines. His father was mostly absent from his childhood. His mother held the family together, going back to college for her two-year degree. She now works as an IT specialist at Peavey Electronics. They live in a mobile home on two acres of cleared land that cost $3,000. A house would be nice, but Diane Johnson is afraid more manufacturing work will shift to China, leaving her with a mortgage payment and no job.
Such fragility makes the military the best job going, but there are also cultural forces. Johnson jokes about being a hick, but the powerful realities in his life are hunting, church, Confederate soldier memorials and American flags. His public school has brightly painted "Prayer Request" boxes in the hallways. Students held a Godapalooza on campus this year, and 170 souls stepped forward to be saved. Unlike some schools around the country, Clarkdale warmly welcomes military recruiters.
"Not to feed a stereotype of the South, but the people here believe in God and country," says Roy McNeill, the high school principal. "For the most part, they believe the president has their best interest in mind. These are not high-and-mighty government thinkers; they are young men and women who just want to help their country."
For such notions, they pay a price. The football field at Clarkdale is named after a 2003 graduate who joined the Marines and was killed in Iraq. This is the same field where Blake Johnson played quarterback this year, and the same field where he suffered a knee injury that hurt his chances for a college scholarship, which is what led him to meet with the military recruiters.
"If you don't have a college degree, you have to work on the railroad or [the oil rigs] offshore," Johnson says. "Or get a cashier job that don't pay nothin'. Around here, people are like, 'Why don't you go to the military?' "
And yet the weeks and months of his senior year roll by and he does not sign the paperwork to enlist. One night as baseball season gets underway, he goes to the mall and runs into a Clarkdale graduate wearing a red Marine Corps T-shirt. Wiry and taciturn, Matthew Addy pulls up his sleeve to show off his tattoo.
"I'm still studying up on Navy SEAL karate," he tells Johnson, standing outside the food court. "In a bar, I can't even throw the first punch. Being with the martial arts and being a Marine, I'll get charged with attempted murder."
Johnson nods. "You're a dadgum deadly weapon," he says.
Addy rides him for not committing to the Marines, and he delivers a message from some of the recruiters: "They told me to tell you they don't like you for [wimping] out."Preparing to Ship Out
The redbuds are starting to flare along the roadsides. Spring is here, and graduation is not far behind. Young Marine recruits are receiving their ship dates for basic training at Parris Island. One warm Saturday afternoon, 10 young men gather for an orientation at a recruiter's house in Meridian. The house is in a new subdivision and is palatial by the standards of many in Mississippi. Gunnery Sgt. Mark Ramos likes to bring recruits here to show them what they can have if they become Marines.
No one gathered in his living room mentions Iraq, but privately Ramos says that getting deployed there is no more perilous than normal, everyday life. "There was a young man at the mall here -- he got injured and killed on a hatrack," he says, of a recent freak accident at a hat store. "There is danger in anything you do. War is all around us. We will not send a Marine into harm's way unless they are properly trained."
The recruits -- all white except for a Native American -- gather in Ramos's back yard. Several parents have tagged along. They stand at the side, watching their sons compete in the grass with ropes and obstacles. The boys pant and sweat as the recruiters shout encouragement. One drill is called dizzy-izzy. Recruits race to a baseball bat lying 20 yards away. They stand it upright, place their foreheads down on the butt of the bat and spin 15 rotations. Then they are supposed to sprint back to the finish line, but most are so disoriented they stumble in slow motion toward a stand of pine trees or the side of the house.
One of the fathers watching is John Rue. His son is slender and pale, with scruffy chin hair and shiny blue warm-up pants. "Come on, boy, pick it up, let's go!" he yells, clapping his hands.
Rue's own dream of joining the Marines was thwarted by his mother when he was 18, and now his son is fulfilling the dream. Rue says he has tried to teach his son America's true purpose in Iraq. "We need to show honor and commitment," he says, wearing a Marine Corps T-shirt. "You always love these people. You are not ever there to destroy them. We are trying to make a point: There's a better way." Rue's son wants to be a mechanic in the Marines, but Rue has tried to explain the wider possibilities. "You are gonna have to do some killing on your own," he told his son.
After the sit-up contest, the recruits finish with their drills. They pile barbecue, rice and watermelon on paper plates, and eagerly talk about boot camp.
"I ship July 2nd," one says. "When do you ship?"
"The 10th of July."
Absent from the group is Blake Johnson, an absence that pains one of the recruiters.
"Now, that's a Marine," says Staff Sgt. Jay Wyatt, describing the first time he met Johnson. "Just how he walked into the office. He has the basic leadership qualities we are looking for. He's a quarterback, pitcher and third baseman. These are leadership positions. He is a very determined individual. His scores would qualify him for any job he wants."
Wyatt watches the other recruits chow. "It gets me personally," he says. "There's really not a whole lot of prosperous opportunities around here. We do offer opportunities."A Mother's Struggle
There is no other option in Johnson's life that offers such a full package. All he has to do is sign the papers and the next five years are paved with a job, housing, education, medical care, paid vacations, physical supremacy and honor.
His mother supports the war and has voted for George W. Bush twice. "Terrorism is scary," Diane Johnson says. "We need to protect what we have." But now that her son is almost 18 and the president is calling for more sacrifice, she's having second thoughts.
"I'm not sure I'm willing to give up my son," she says.
This surprises Blake. He listens to her talk one evening. They are at a Mexican restaurant after baseball practice, and he is wolfing down quesadillas and guzzling sweet tea as his mother explains her reversal. She makes a case for another option besides the Marines. They could trade in his gas-guzzling truck and buy a smaller car so he could commute to classes at Meridian Community College, and he could work part time.
Unsettled by her own feelings, she calls a friend later that night to talk. She finds out the woman's son has signed with the National Guard. "I feel guilty, not wanting Blake to serve," she says. ""I want freedom, but I'm not willing to do anything for it. I'm sorry if that's two-faced."
A few days later, she is in her living room folding laundry. A light rain falls on the roof. Her son is getting his baseball uniform ready. "Mama, did you dry my pants?" he shouts.
"He's a good kid," Diane says, of her middle son, the high achiever who somehow transcends his overheated trailer with a cologne called Fierce and button-down shirts that suggest he is a legacy from Ole Miss, and not these hills that are covered in green and loss.
"Two houses down from where we live there's Glenn Pugh," Diane says. "His son got the Silver Star on Saturday. Another mile down the road is a young man who died in Iraq, Chris Mabry. I used to give him a ride home from football practice. I don't want a flag. I don't want a star. I want my child."
She is cautious making such a declaration in public. One afternoon she's at a family gathering at her sister's place. Her son is out in the yard tossing a football. Some of the other boys are buttoning on camouflage to hunt turkey. Several of the women are in the kitchen talking. Johnson expresses relief that Blake is leaning toward community college instead of joining the Marines while the country is at war.
One mother says how good she'd feel if her son enlisted.
"Wouldn't you be upset?" Johnson asks.
"I would be upset," says Wendy Stephens. "But I would just be so proud. Bo has such a big love for America."
Johnson is quiet. What she wants to say is, "Bo is only 10 years old. Your attitude might change when he gets a little closer to joining time." But she says nothing.One Family's Loss
Sweet gums and pine trees lead the way to the Mabry place. Everyone knows it by the Marine Corps flag flying in front. Inside the mobile home is Frances Mabry and the china cabinet she carefully pulls open.
"This is the global war on terrorism medal," she says. "This is his good conduct medal. And, of course, his Purple Heart. Here is the Silver Star. He was shot four times.
"This is him on prom night and graduation night. The prom was at the Howard Johnson in Meridian. This is another picture." She pauses. She stares at the six-foot blond with freckles scattered across his nose. "He always had a clear, direct way of looking at you," Mabry says. "If you would have known him. He was so young. So well-thought-of. He loved life. He took to life."
The china cabinet is what's left of Christopher Mabry, the grandson that Frances Mabry raised since he was a boy. His bedroom is down the hall, now darkened. She pulls out his letters from Iraq. In one, he asks if she could please send Pop Tarts, trail mix and razors.
I appreciate everything ya'll have done for me. I wish I was still at home, too, or at least in the states. I hate this place with a passion. You worry about getting blowed up or stabbed or shot in the back.
After her grandson was killed, faraway postmarks and fancier stationery kept arriving in her mailbox in the small Mississippi town of Chunky. There is the official Marine Corps letter from a Capt. C.J. Bronzi.
It is with the deepest regret and my most heartfelt sympathy that I write this letter to you.
And a letter from the White House, signed by President Bush. In her trove of memorabilia, Mabry also has a photo of herself with the president last year when he visited the Nissan plant. She holds the picture with particular pride. "He said, 'God bless your family, this country owes you,' " Mabry recalls. "When he learned that Chris's cousin was over there, too, big tears welled up in his eyes."
Chris Mabry knew he wanted to be a Marine from the time he was a junior at Clarkdale. In preparation for boot camp, he'd run up and down the highway wearing headphones. He'd run on the blistering track at school while the maintenance man cut the grass in the dead of summer. Seeing him out there made everyone feel proud because they knew he was determined to vault over the circumstances of his life and become a Marine. The only anger that Frances Mabry holds is toward the Marine recruiter who she says stood in her living room and said it was unlikely that Chris would be sent to Iraq. Of course, six months after boot camp he was in Iraq, and five weeks later he was dead at 19.
"The snipers set up an ambush," Mabry explains. "The Marine captain said they were outnumbered. Where they were, they really didn't have a chance. An ambush was set up. Chris was shot through the left thigh. His left arm was literally blown off, according to the autopsy report. He was shot through the right abdomen. The bullet that killed him went through the sixth and seventh rib, through the liver, the lung and apex of the heart. He survived for six hours."
She is reading from the autopsy report. A retired nurse, she wanted to know the details. Now she closes her china cabinet.
"The only way to preserve our freedom is to fight for it," she says. Her voice has a quiet dignity but also the weariness that comes with grief. "I feel like our president has done the best he could. I can't fault him because of Chris's death. Every bit of improvement we can make in their lives over there, try to reason with them to see that there's a better way, well, I'm for it."A Different Path
Blake Johnson is standing on the foul line with the Clarkdale Bulldogs in the late afternoon light. The bleachers are full, and hamburgers are grilling. When Faith Hill's voice begins singing the national anthem, hats are removed and hands are placed over hearts. Diane Johnson arrives by the third inning, after work. The Bulldogs lose but hold their own against a formidable team Blake Johnson describes as "rich preps who drive way nicer trucks than ours."
After the game, Johnson throws his bats into his truck, and guns into town with his friend Tanner Street, the right fielder. Street announces that he's signing with the Army Reserve.
"I'm going," Street says. "Nothin's gonna change my mind."
"That girlie might," Johnson says, of Street's longtime steady girlfriend.
"Not even that girl will change my mind," Street answers. His father, a retired sheriff's deputy, has just left Mississippi to take a better-paying job in Iraq training police officers. Street fumbles through a stack of CDs. The interstate lights bounce off his boyish face and brown bangs. "If I have to go over there and fight, that's fine with me. Hey, Blake, you got any George Strait? That song, 'Cross My Heart,' man, that's gonna be my wedding song."
Johnson listens to his friend, only 17 and already planning his wedding and his war. Johnson won't be enlisting. The decision doesn't come in a lightening-bolt moment. It occurs gradually, seeping in. While the death of Chris Mabry inspired some boys at his school to enlist, it sent Johnson's mind in another direction, focusing him less on pageantry or revenge and more on what happened that day in Anbar province.
"He was on watch," Johnson says, of Mabry. "There was a building. You know how the Alamo looks? Some stone-lookin' little house? He got shot through the stomach. I guess some Iraqi dude did it. They were taking him back to the hospital when he died."
Johnson's tone is reverent. His own path will be different. Instead of boot camp after graduation, he'll try to find a job -- "anything I reckon" -- and start community college in the fall.