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High school students leave a tough question unanswered

Four young men who went through the school's Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps program have died in combat. Their instructor keeps their memories close.

"I want you to see this isn't a game," she told him. "It's not an adventure. You're my only kid. You could get killed."

She wanted him to go to college, but he was determined to enlist. He wanted to serve, to see the front lines. Then he'd go to college, he told his mother. Then he'd live the rest of his life. "He thought he was invincible," Davis said.

Now his photo is encased in the hallway memorial, a reminder, like his mother's news clippings, of war's consequences.

Augusto Beltrame walks past that photo almost every day. He is 18, a year younger than Justin Davis was when he was killed in Afghanistan in 2006, and just as determined to enlist.

He rattles off his reasons like a recruiter. The Army will teach him leadership and discipline. It will provide him with job training and benefits such as the GI Bill. All that might have convinced him, but not his mother, who sees something conspicuously absent from the way he describes what the Army will be like.

"You can't just look at the positives," Renata Beltrame tells her son in Portuguese. You have to look at the whole picture, and that includes war: "It's dangerous."

But what can she do? Her son's mind is made up. He might have been born in Brazil, but he grew up in the States and is every bit a young American who wants to serve his adopted country.

Augusto has orders to report to Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., on June 23, three weeks after graduation, but he already looks like a soldier. He keeps his hair high and tight. His JROTC uniform has six rows of ribbons and five medals awarded in competitions. He polishes his shoes with window cleaner so they'll shine even in Magruder's dull fluorescent lighting.

And yet he has never fired a gun. He knows he could end up at war, but he can't name a single city in Iraq. He pronounces Kabul "Ka-doo." Camouflage uniforms hang in his bedroom closet, but his shelves are stocked with model cars and a stuffed animal his girlfriend gave him. His mother still washes and folds his underwear. Before he enlisted, the biggest event in his life, he says, was getting a driver's license.

For his mother, the contradictions amount to a parental paradox: How does she reconcile her instinct to protect her child with the need to let him live his life?

She went through the stages of grief -- denial, then anger, then begrudging acceptance -- as if his enlistment were tantamount to a death sentence. Although she still hopes he'll change his mind, she has decided, as Paula Davis did, to support her son. There's no choice, really. He's 18, an adult. The decision is his.

Now it's the son's turn to protect the mother. Augusto Beltrame hasn't told her about the four Magruder JROTC cadets killed in these wars. He doesn't talk about the fact that his Army job is going to be motor transport operator -- one of the most dangerous assignments in Iraq and Afghanistan, where bombs in the road can land you in Ohmer's memorial at Magruder.

But Augusto doesn't dwell on the fallen. Especially not with final exams, graduation and Beach Week on the horizon. He has a hotel room in Ocean City reserved. His girlfriend is coming.

"I can't wait," he says.

From this safe distance, war doesn't seem so bad.

The bell rings. Students spill out of their classes and cram the hallway, which fills with a cacophony of carefree banter as they move past college posters, past SAT signs, past the flag at half-staff and the pictures of the dead.

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