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Marine recruits are in it together

In It Together
Marine recruits Steven Dellinger, center, and Daniel Motamedi, right, kick back with Daniel’s father, Ali, at the Motamedi family home in Stevenson Ranch, the day before Steven and Daniel shipped off to boot camp.
(Rick Loomis / LAT)
Times Staff Writer

ALI and Yasmin Motamedi did not want their eldest son to join the Marine Corps.

They paid close attention to the news, and they didn’t like what they saw: Marines and soldiers dying in Iraq and Afghanistan; young men and women with their limbs blown off; veterans coming home mentally scarred and emotionally broken.

Daniel Motamedi, 17 years old and brimming with wisecracks and bravado, considered the Marine Corps the opportunity — and the adventure — of a lifetime. While his friends watched “American Idol,” he scoured the History Channel for old war footage. He memorized Marine Corps history and traditions. He joined ROTC. He wore a Marine Corps lanyard and plastered the Corps logo on his parents’ gold Mercedes.

On Mother’s Day, at the family home in Stevenson Ranch, Daniel confirmed what his parents had feared for months: He was joining the Marines. Boot camp would begin 10 days after his high school graduation.

“We hoped he’d at least go to college first … " Yasmin said later. “I spent all of Mother’s Day crying.”

Ali thought his son was too young: “When you’re 17, you really don’t think straight. It’s all hype and energy and instinct. It all feels wrong. I should be going to war, not this kid.”

The couple support President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. Ali, a shoe company executive who left his native Iran at 17, believes the U.S. should have attacked Iran as well. Yasmin, a Los Angeles Police Department detective who emigrated from El Salvador at 12, believes the U.S. military “could be a little more forceful” in Iraq. Both parents agonized over what might happen to their son if he enlisted.

In the end, after several frank sessions with Daniel’s Marine recruiter, after emotional talks with their son, after studying casualty statistics on the Internet, and after overcoming a father’s misgivings and a mother’s dread, they signed papers allowing Daniel Brien Motamedi, a minor, to become a Marine recruit.

“I just had to give it to God,” his mother said. “I’m at peace with it now.”

In a time of war, when Americans have soured on the grinding conflict in Iraq, and the rosters of the dead lengthen daily, young men and women continue to join the military. Although the Army missed its recruiting goals in May and June, all four services exceeded their goals last year. More than 80,000 recruits joined the Army, 36,000 the Navy and 30,000 the Air Force. An additional 32,000 joined the Marine Corps. In June, 4,113 Marine recruits signed up, exceeding the monthly goal of 3,742.

Daniel Motamedi didn’t just join. He talked Daryl Crookston and Steven Dellinger — all friends since seventh grade — into signing up with him under the Corps’ buddy program, which puts recruits into the same platoon for the 13-week boot camp. Enduring the rigors together made joining more attractive for the three, promising a sort of long-term camping trip and perpetual boys’ night out, with guns. Ali says the prospect of his son serving with friends helped persuade him to sign Daniel’s papers.

Another friend, Flor Negrete, also visited the Marine recruiting office in nearby Canyon Country at Daniel’s urging. Ultimately, she signed up too.

Against stereotype

THE four do not fit the stereotype of Marine recruits — poor blacks and Latinos from the inner cities, lower-class whites from the rural South and Midwest, troubled kids escaping broken homes. They have caring parents and tightly woven families. They live in middle-class and upper-middle-class neighborhoods in the Santa Clarita Valley.

When pressed about why they enlisted, especially with the near-certainty of being shipped to war, they mention motives that seem almost quaint in the consumer-centric serenity of Santa Clarita.

Daniel: “I’ve always been a patriot, always thought of the Marines as gods…. Both my parents are immigrants, and I feel this is one way to pay back what they’ve done for me.”

Daryl: “I love the traditions and the history of the Corps. I have a protective personality, and I want to protect my country…. Daniel and I have both been asked: If you were given $10 million and all the beautiful women you wanted, would you take that over the Marines? No, we would not take that over this.”

Steven: “I love how the Marines train really hard-core. I like their pride, the way they make you work so hard to accomplish stuff so that it really means something to you.”

After several visits to the recruiting station, the boys sought out two 2006 graduates of their high school, Academy of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, who had survived boot camp a year earlier and were Marine reservists. They couldn’t help but notice their friends’ hardened physiques, their high-and-tight Marine haircuts, their confidence and swagger.

“Oh, man,” Daniel said. “They told the best stories about boot camp — how it’s tough and intense, but also kind of wild, and actually funny, with this great camaraderie.”

Daniel was the class cut-up in high school. Extroverted and witty, he is a master of provocation — especially when it comes to his mother. He can be flippant and outrageous, but also introspective and forthright.

“Daniel is a positive person who sometimes comes across as cocky,” said his recruiter, Staff Sgt. Juan Diazdumeng, who dotes on his young charges. “He’s always excited, always happy. He’ll keep morale up, and that’s huge for the Marines.”

Daniel can be a ruthless critic, even of himself. A few months ago, he said, he was “the fat kid.” He weighed 190 pounds. He embarked on his own crash-course workout program, running, lifting weights and doing crunches, often with Daryl and Steven.

The day his parents signed him up at the Marine recruiting station, Daniel weighed in at 158 pounds. There was muscle definition beneath the baggy red Marine T-shirt he got for signing up.

His friend Daryl is lean and wiry, with long arms and legs. He is deliberate and introspective. He pauses to consider his words before he speaks.

“Daryl is a thinker — a heavy, heavy thinker,” Diazdumeng said. “He has to analyze everything.”

For much of the spring, Daryl, who at 18 was able to enlist on his own, struggled to win his parents’ approval for joining the Corps. He was raised in a devout Mormon family; his parents’ home in Valencia is filled with Bibles and portraits of Jesus. His parents pressured him to reconsider his decision to enlist, Daryl said, and were displeased when he signed in May, a few days before Daniel.

“It’s been very much an ordeal for me,” Daryl said.

Kim and Kymmer Crookston said their preference was for Daryl to attend college or embark on the two-year mission expected of young men in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — missions taken by both parents and Daryl’s two older brothers. But once they realized the depth of his commitment, and his passion for Marine traditions and values, they relented.

“His decision was not my first choice for him, but he’s 18. He has to make his own decisions. He’s very determined, and I respect that. He’s a good kid with a good head on his shoulders,” said his dad, Kim. A mechanical engineer, Kim works for an aerospace company that makes, among other things, guidance-control systems for so-called smart bombs dropped by U.S. warplanes.

Kymmer says she and her husband were not as fiercely opposed as Daryl might think, but merely cautioned him against acting rashly.

“He’s chosen a hard path,” she said, “but I think he’ll be the best Marine he can be. We support him all the way.”

Kymmer, who works part time as a playground supervisor, said her son told her to pray not for his safety, but for him to do his best at all times. “I told Daryl: ‘My prayers will honor that,’ ” she said.

Steven, 18, is quiet and polite, and is often overshadowed by his two more demonstrative friends. His build slight, he gulped protein shakes to build muscle mass.

His decision to enlist — after pep talks from Daniel — disappointed his mother, who he said had planned for him to join her in Missouri to attend college.

Steven’s father, Jim Dellinger, the owner of a pest-control company, said he was “pretty much OK” with his son’s decision. His daughter joined the Air Force last year, and impressed him with her newfound maturity.

“I’m old-school,” said Jim, of Castaic, Calif. “I think any kid right out of high school should go to boot camp or something similar. That would straighten a lot of these kids out…. It’ll be good for my son, and I think he’ll do all right.”

Proud recruiter

ON graduation day at the modern complex that houses Academy of the Canyons, Daniel, Daryl and Flor wore mortarboards and blue gowns to receive their diplomas. (Steven, who graduated from another high school, attended the ceremony.) Staff Sgt. Diazdumeng also showed up, looking formidable in his Marine dress blues, with stiff white cap and spit-shined shoes.

After the ceremony, each of the four shook the recruiter’s hand and posed for photographs. Diazdumeng was beaming. “Congratulations, congratulations!” he hollered at each one.

Flor, 18, was subdued; she was still troubled by her mother’s reaction to her decision to enlist.

“Mom’s having the worst time of it,” she said. “She’s terrified I’m going to get shipped out to Iraq and never come back.”

Flor had tried to reassure her mother by telling her that she was seeking a specialty as a computer technician and that women did not serve in combat units. “Well, at least my dad supports me 100%,” she said.

Flor is the first in her family to graduate from high school, she said. Her parents emigrated from Mexico 20 years ago. “I love my country, and I want to serve,” said Flor, who was assigned to women’s boot camp at Parris Island, S.C. “And the Marines will help with education, which is important to our family.”

Diazdumeng assured her that she could pursue her education in the Corps. He told her, too, that she would hold up well to the demands of boot camp. She had been working out with the boys, running for miles and sweating through drills that included carrying one of the guys on her back.

“I want to be in shape so I don’t get my butt kicked,” she said.

Diazdumeng seemed impressed. “Flor has heart,” he said. “She’s willing to duke it out, and that will take her a long way in the Marine Corps and in life. She has that tough mental attitude.”

After the graduation, Diazdumeng invited the recruits and Daniel’s parents to brunch. At the restaurant, Yasmin joked with the sergeant about the way her son had seemed intent on applying to colleges during the spring.

“Daniel sabotaged me!” she told him. “He told me he applied to UC Davis, then suddenly he hit me with: ‘I’m joining the Marines.’ ”

Diazdumeng laughed, but pointed out that he had stressed the educational opportunities in the Corps. He had even tried to persuade Daniel to switch his MOS — military occupational specialty — to something shielded from direct combat, like computers or motor transport. But Daniel, along with Daryl and Steven, insisted on infantry.

“Yeah,” Ali said, “Daniel is so gung-ho, he actually said he was worried about missing out — that by the time he got to Iraq, it might all be over. I told him, ‘Don’t worry, there’s always something over there.’ ”

Ali feared his son was so taken by the Corps’ glamour and mystique that he overlooked the realities of combat. When he and Daniel looked up military casualties on the Web, Ali pointed out that the number of dead was well over 3,000, and the number of wounded more than eight times that.

“There’s a lot of suffering you never really see, and I tried to explain that to Daniel,” Ali said. “I’m not sure it sank in.”

Diazdumeng told the parents that the recruits would probably be sent to Iraq or Afghanistan after being assigned to active-duty units. “I’m not going to lie to my kids or their parents,” he said. “I can’t sit here and tell them they won’t end up deployed.”

Daniel brightened. “Of course we’ll get deployed,” he said. “I’m in this all the way.”

His mother rolled her eyes. She wished he weren’t so willfully blind to the dangers.

“He wants to be a grunt, or whatever they call it,” she said. “Fine. I’ve accepted it. But parents have dreams for their children … “

She paused and looked at her son, who was studiously ignoring her while cutting up with Daryl and Steven.

“Actually, I’m proud of him,” she said. “I saw his determination and sincerity, and that was the deciding factor for me. I think a lot of young people join the service to get away from problems at home. It’s honorable that Daniel is going for the right reasons. He wants to serve, and I have to respect that. It’s nice to see the passion.”

Though Daryl is an Eagle Scout and got good grades, he calls himself the black sheep of his family.

“I’ve always been the one to take risks, to venture out,” he said.

Kim said his son had told him, “I might come home in a box,” a warning that troubled both parents.

“I think my religious beliefs helped me through the fact that he might die,” Kim said. “I believe death is not the end and I will see Daryl again.”

If he is killed in action, Daryl said, he will die doing what he loved: “Why be afraid of that?”

He considered what he had just said, and added: “I certainly don’t have a death wish.” He shrugged. “I don’t know. I think of life as a sort of card game, and I’m putting in a lot more of my chips right now.”

After brunch, Daniel’s mother reminded her son of several chores. Daniel fixed her with a look of mock horror and said: “Let me see your sleeve. Nope, don’t see any stripes there, sergeant.”

“Oh, I see,” Yasmin said. “That’s the way it’s going to be now. Well, you’re not in the Marines yet, and I’m still your mother.”

She reminded him that he had promised her he would stop smoking. He had — for the most part. But he had secretly bought a final pack of cigarettes; tobacco is not permitted at boot camp.

Daniel also mentioned that he was thinking about a tattoo, but would probably wait until after boot camp. Daryl already had a tattoo — an odd little symbol burned onto his upper arm. “It stands for ‘last man standing,’ ” Daryl explained.

Yasmin stared at Daryl’s arm. “Daniel — please! Please don’t get a tattoo,” she said.

Daniel mugged and grinned. “We’ll see,” he said.

The next weekend, Yasmin insisted that the boys go to church — on the final Sunday before boot camp. The family attends Higher Vision, a Pentecostal church in Castaic, as well as a Roman Catholic church. Ali, born a Muslim, said he “found the Lord” in 1997, a decade after meeting Yasmin at a Catholic church, and converted to Christianity. Yasmin raised their children Catholic; Daniel was an altar boy.

The boys spent that Saturday night at Daniel’s house after buying an “Axis & Allies D-Day” combat board game and watching a bloody action movie, “Smokin’ Aces.” The next morning, Daryl and Steven dressed neatly for church, but Daniel wore a rumpled T-shirt bearing the words: I’m not a model. I just look like one.

It was Father’s Day, and the sermon at Higher Vision was about family and fatherhood. The minister called out the names of the boys and asked them to step forward. He thanked them for serving their country, and everyone joined hands in a prayer for their safety overseas. Yasmin broke down, sobbing.

The countdown

LESS than 18 hours remained before the boys had to report to the recruiting station at 3 a.m. to begin induction. They spent the afternoon hanging out at a mall like any posse of teens, goofing off, checking out the girls, and invited several friends to supper at a restaurant.

After dark, they all wandered over to the Motamedis’ lushly landscaped home to enjoy the pool and hot tub one more time. “Last one in isn’t going to be a Marine!” Daniel hollered as the boys stripped off their shirts and flopped into the pool.

Daniel got out, grabbed an air rifle and aimed at a hanging plant. He missed. “With that kind of aim, the Iraqis are safe!” Steven yelled.

Also in the pool were the two Marine reservists from the boys’ high school, sharing more tales of boot camp. One of them, Eli Hoffberg, 19, a lance corporal, felt some responsibility for the three recruits, especially Daniel, who had been impressed with Eli’s transition from high school kid to buff Marine.

“I was pretty influential in Daniel joining up, I think,” Eli said. “But he’s pretty committed, just on his own. I’ve tried to give him a good idea of what to expect, so he’s ready.”

Eli assured the three that they were physically up to the challenge. Roughhousing in the water, the teens shouted out their weights, bragging about how fit they were from weeks of working out.

Daniel took a call on his cellphone from a friend saying goodbye. As he hung up, he said to the others, “I’ve had to explain too many times why I’m joining the Marine Corps, thousands of times. It’s not easy. There are so many aspects to it — ah, I can’t explain.”

As midnight approached, the boys decided there was no point in going to bed. They had to meet Diazdumeng at his recruiting office in three hours. Steven went home to get ready; his father would drive him there.

Daryl was catching a ride with Daniel’s parents. He had already said goodbye to his parents. It was an emotional parting, he said.

“I think they’ve finally come to terms with it,” he said. “At least they told me they were proud of me.”

Daniel’s parents suggested the boys get some sleep, so they lay down around 1:30 a.m. — Daryl on a sofa downstairs and Daniel in his bedroom upstairs. An hour later, Yasmin tiptoed upstairs to her son’s room, stretching out beside him to slowly coax him awake.

Soon the two boys were stumbling around, half-asleep, trying to figure out what to take to boot camp. Diazdumeng and Eli had warned them to take virtually nothing. The drill instructors always make a big show of throwing away personal items, they said.

Daryl had planned to take an American flag, but changed his mind, fearing it would be confiscated. He asked Ali to keep it for him. Ali’s own Stars and Stripes, which had flown in front of the house, had been taken down by his son. Daniel had decided that it did not meet military regulations because it was not properly lighted at night.

On an end table, Daryl piled his meager possessions: driver’s license, Social Security card, a few dollars, a notebook, a Bible, and a small Mormon dog tag he said was approved by the Corps. That was it, except for the clothes he was wearing: T-shirt, shorts and sneakers.

Daniel gathered his driver’s license, Social Security card, address book and a $20 bill. It didn’t all fit in his shorts pocket, so his father gave both boys small plastic sandwich bags to tote their belongings in.

It was 2:45 a.m. — time to go. The family car was waiting outside. The boys lurched toward the front door, yawning and stretching. Yasmin stopped at the threshold and wiped her eyes. She was trying not to cry. “It’s so hard on the moms,” she whispered.

Ali grabbed his car keys and opened the front door. He turned to his son and said, in a somber tone, “Last chance to change your mind, Daniel. I have a full tank of gas. I can get us to Canada.”

It took Daniel a moment to realize he was joking. Then he responded in a very uncharacteristic way. He didn’t clown around or make a wisecrack. He looked his father in the eye and said: “I want this more than anything. You know that.”


david.zucchino@latimes.com

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About this report

With the U.S. at war, three buddies from the Santa Clarita Valley were eager to see combat. Despite their parents’ misgivings, they enlisted in the Marines fresh out of high school in June. This series of occasional articles will chronicle their experiences in boot camp and beyond.

On the Web

Additional photos and audio are available at latimes.com/buddies.

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About this report:

With the U.S. at war, three buddies from the Santa Clarita Valley were eager to see combat. Despite their parents’ misgivings, they enlisted in the Marines fresh out of high school in June. This series of occasional articles will chronicle their experiences in boot camp and beyond.

--

On the Web

Additional photos and audio are available at latimes.com/buddies.

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