Sunday, April 09, 2006

MOSQUITOES ARE NOT THE ONLY blood-suckers in places like Mississippi:

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."

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."

All-volunteer army, right. They go after you and they go after you and they go after you and they dangle fat bonuses in front of high school kids who live in trailer parks and then they go after you some more. Until you "volunteer."

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