In the nine months after he graduated from high school, Lance Cpl. Daryl Crookston was trained to close and kill. The proper pursuit of the enemy was pounded into him during boot camp and combat drills.
Last month, as his unit prepared to ship out to Afghanistan, some Marines in Crookston's platoon didn't think he was capable of killing a man. He's deeply religious. He had chosen to stop cursing and drinking -- and that, in the Marines' testosterone-stoked world, suggested weakness.
Crookston, 19, and away from home for the first time, is certain he could kill if called upon, particularly if his quarry were one of the religious zealots of the Taliban. If Talibs can kill for their ideals, he said, he could kill for his.
"I'm defending my homeland -- my family -- my country," he said, weary and filthy after a long day of training in the Mojave Desert. "And I'm willing to kill for my country."
Combat and killing were remote concepts in June, when Crookston and two friends graduated from high school in Santa Clarita after joining the Marine Corps. They enlisted in the buddy program, which guaranteed they would go through boot camp together.
Crookston, Daniel Motamedi and Steven Dellinger hoped they would be assigned to the same unit. But after 13 weeks of boot camp and eight weeks of infantry training, they were sent to different battalions. All were in California, but training demands kept them apart.
Crookston was the first to deploy to war -- to Kandahar from the Marine base at Twentynine Palms the first week of April. Lance Cpl. Motamedi's battalion is scheduled to leave Camp Pendleton soon on a "float," a ship to the Middle East, where the unit could be sent to Afghanistan or Iraq by summer. Lance Cpl. Dellinger, 19, will remain at Twentynine Palms until his unit, inevitably, is deployed into combat.
For the friends, the lure of combat motivated them to enlist. They considered war a noble calling, a sure path to manhood and glory. All three chose infantry, a position virtually assured of combat. Asked whether they had second thoughts about enlisting in a time of war, all gave the same brisk answer: "No regrets."
The friends trained together at the School of Infantry at Camp Pendleton last fall. There, the boot camp graduates were drilled on grunt work -- the dirty, demanding business of laboring in small groups to find and kill the enemy over rough terrain, sometimes in the dark. They spent days either assaulting or defending a mock Middle Eastern village erected on a bald hillside, firing blanks. During one exercise, the Marines fired wildly when attacked by a sniper, played by an instructor.
"You dumped rounds with no idea what you're firing at!" the instructor screamed afterward. "That volley of fire probably went into civilian homes. That's how you kill innocent people!"
Later, another instructor, Sgt. Louis Serafin, said aggressiveness was preferable to timidity. "I'd rather have them trigger-happy now, in training, than be hesitant" in combat, he said.
Serafin, an Iraq veteran, assured the Marines that it was normal to be disoriented. "Combat is controlled chaos," he said.
The instructors stressed death and danger. The focus was on killing the enemy before the enemy could kill them. "Get yourself ready physically and mentally," an instructor advised. "It ain't going to be no Hollywood movie. Marines are going to die over there. Get used to it."
Crookston and Motamedi, 18, moved on this spring to weeks of specialized desert training to prepare them for combat overseas -- Crookston at Twentynine Palms and Motamedi at Ft. Irwin, 85 miles away. At both bases, elaborate Afghan villages were stocked with wily insurgents, complacent Afghan police, inscrutable villagers and reclusive women with their faces covered -- all played by Afghan Americans.
For Crookston, boot camp and combat training were the most trying experiences of his young life. "It's definitely not as glamorous as everyone depicted it," he said. "It's exhausting."
The Marines also faced stultifying boredom, the endless rote, the mind-numbing sameness of the pale desert landscape -- all staples of overseas deployment. They slept in the dirt and cold, wolfed down packaged MREs, stank of stale sweat and unwashed feet, just like troops in Afghanistan.
Channeling the aggression
The desert training was blunt and practical. Marines learned to rub their hands together when examining a buddy for wounds in the dark; blood is sticky. They were told to carry markers for scrawling on the foreheads of the wounded: "T" after applying a tourniquet, and "M" after giving morphine.