The boy was young. I never learned his name. My encounter with his life was all of 10 minutes. "I'm at Opportunity House," I heard him saying rapidly into the phone. "It's a halfway house, but I'm getting outta here soon."
I was visiting my sister there, and we had met him a few minutes earlier out on the patio. I thought then that he was taut, pent-up. He really needed a job, he said, one that paid at least $9 an hour. He had hunger in his eyes and that scary combination of vulnerability, buried fear and fury. I didn't know why he was at the halfway house, but I could see that life had already cut him pretty bad, and that his wounds weren't healing so straight.
"I'd like to sign up for the Marine Corps," he said into the receiver. He pronounced it with the p and the s. It could have been real funny, but the kid wasn't making a joke. "Yes, I have my GED, but the thing is, I don't have the papers to prove it.... Well, that'll take awhile, but I've been working on it. You see, they've got to send them from Or'gon. I'd like to meet with you.... Yeah, I had some citations but they've all been cleared.... Yes, sir. Well, I'm at this house, see, and I can't get messages.... Yes, sir. I just can't stand sittin' here and seeing what they're doing to our country. I want to go over there and do what I can."
"Yes, sir, I could come right down to take the test. Right now? Yes, sir. Thank you. I'll be right down."
It's a good program, Opportunity House. It's funded by the state. It has meant a great deal to my sister--a temporary living space where she gets support and time to stabilize and refocus after the death of our father. She is, like some others who pass through the house, schizophrenic. Others have bipolar disorder, many have drug and alcohol addictions. Some, like her friend Earl, have intense conversations with imaginary voices. All are struggling to stay this side of the sanity line, struggling to keep from falling off the deep end where they'll be driven by demons from hell.
The person on the other end of the phone never asked why the young boy was at Opportunity House. He just invited him on down to this other program, to this other house of opportunity. This one, though, is a tad better funded.
Maybe they took him, maybe they didn't.
According to Assessing Fitness for Military Enlistment: Physical, Medical and Mental Health Standards, published this year by The National Academies Press, there's no formal psychiatric assessment done during recruitment, and gathering a potential recruit's mental history depends solely on self-reporting.
I can't stop feeling sick in my gut, can't stop the images of this kid with an M16 assault rifle letting rip with the other scared and crazed boys over there in Iraq. With a recruiting strategy like this to soldier a war that is not only based on a double lie about WMDs and a connection between Saddam Hussein's regime and al Qaeda, but that is generating the very terrorism it was supposed to combat, you've got to wonder just what side of the sanity line we're all on here.