FT. BENNING, Ga. -- More than 23,000 American men are volunteering for combat as U.S. Army infantrymen this year and are likely to be fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan within months. It's a military youth bulge that defies critics who say Americans dislike the military and won't enlist in wartime.
Young, tough and enthusiastic, they are enormously likeable, impressive in their determination to serve, fun to be around and often touchingly innocent.
This year's infantry privates, who charge through 14 weeks of hard basic- and advanced-combat training here at Fort Benning, are only part of the 142,200 men and women joining the Army this year. But along with those who ask for training as artillerymen, tank drivers, helicopter gunship crewmen and other combat jobs, they expect to see the most action.
So strong is the drive to enlist that the Army, given three years to hire and train 65,000 additional troops, did it in two years. And that was before the economy went sour.
"These kids know they're gonna come here, get Full Metal Jacket, get on a plane and land in combat,'' says Command Sergeant Major John Calpena, who oversees drill sergeants and enlisted soldiers at the huge infantry training center here.
By "Full Metal Jacket," Calpena means the skills that new soldiers acquire in firing carbines, grenade launchers and machine guns; planning and carrying out raids and ambushes; attacking and clearing buildings of enemy fighters; and treating serious battle casualties – including inserting intravenous drips and breathing tubes.
They enlist, knowing that risks lie ahead, that they are committing themselves and their families to hardship, that if they kill, they will forever carry that burden.
"We're all gonna go to Afghanistan or Iraq," said Jared Slusser, a 27-year-old private from Bedford, Va. , who will graduate from training Aug. 7.
"Some of us won't come back.''
Against that dark reality these new soldiers carry a hard shell of bravado, in addition to the inability of any young man to imagine that anything bad actually will happen to him.
Many come also with a long family history of military service and seem conscious of their place in a long line of honor. They say they yearn to do their part – and to have stories to tell their grandchildren.
Yet beneath it all, some of these new soldiers harbor the same misgivings as their many friends who have decided that the military's just not for them.
"I don't want to kill anyone," said Tim Deyo, a diminutive 18-year-old private from Albany, N.Y.
He stood in the broiling Georgia sun waiting for the word to launch a mock attack. He cradled a light machine gun, seemingly unaware of the irony.
"I'm young and I don't want to (screw) up the rest of my life'' with the memory of those he killed, he said.
"They have a reason to fight," Deyo mused about his potential enemies. Sliding further into heresy as his buddies listened, he added: "We may not agree with it ... they were somebody's kid and could be a father. How would your family react to your being killed?''
He sighed heavily. Finding himself in combat training, he allowed, "was a reality shock.''
"But if you have to do it, you have to do it,'' he reasoned.
"Nobody in my family, none of my friends, have ever done anything like this before. When I graduate, I'm gonna be so proud. I made it!''
For Jeff Lewis, enlisting was partly a matter of not being left out of his family's heritage. He ticked off the grandfathers, uncles and aunts with military service, along with his father.
"Basically, I was the only one on my dad's side who hadn't been in the military," said this 29-year-old from Indianapolis.
Here's a simpler motive: "I joined for the money,'' said Kurtis Erickson, a 29-year-old from Aurora, Ind. He figures on earning $380 a month extra in combat, and the Army is helping pay off his $53,000 in student loans.
Another new soldier, 23-year-old Michael Edmondson from Charleston, S.C., got a $20,000 cash bonus from the Army for enlisting as an infantryman, and the Army is paying $20,000 of his student loans.
Edmondson enlisted in the National Guard. After initial training here, he'll continue studying civil engineering at Clemson University. In addition to his cash incentives, the Army guaranteed him he won't deploy into combat for two years. "And you can get $400,000 in life insurance!''
"But hopefully, I'll never see combat,'' he said.
Not so for other soldiers in his training platoon. The war, and their part in it, stretches out endlessly before them.
"This war is never-ending. You kill one, another takes his place. You're fighting an idea.'' This is Pvt. Tim Carpenter, a 19-year-old from the small town of Worthington, Ohio, where his mother is a teacher. He enlisted because he saw no future at home.
As an infantryman, he expects to deploy continuously.
"Definitely, no doubt about it,'' he said. "Whether it's Afghanistan, Iraq, or whatever next country we'll be fighting ... most of us are making a career of this.''
Just think, he mused: "The adventure ... the stories!''
"We all know we're going to war -- we're infantry,'' said Pvt. Stephen Lane, 22, from Richmond, Va. " We're the men who do the dirty work, the ones who make things happen.
"It's definitely a hard life,'' Lane said as he loaded bullets into M-16 magazines. "It's gonna be hard because you'll lose friends, see your best friend shot. You'll have to shoot little kids running around with AKs.
"This war is bad because of IEDs – that's the scariest part about it, not being able to see your enemy.''
Lane continued to add up the infantryman's woes.
"It's hard on your family, they're gonna have to be on the move all the time, your family never knowing if they'll get that one phone call ...''
On the other hand, he brightened, "At least your kids can be proud of their dad, fighting for their country.
"And if I die, how do I want to be remembered? As a civilian with a GED who never really did that much? Or someone who became a soldier, lived life on the edge, and died for his country?''
A sharp word from their drill sergeant breaks the discussion. "Hey! First Squad, move yer butts!''
The new privates have been in the field a week, in a rolling series of realistic combat exercises. This afternoon, they're planning to assault a house where insurgents are hiding.
What do we do with EPWs (enemy prisoners of war)? one soldier asks.
"We pop 'em? It takes three of us to take care of an EPW who should be dead anyway,'' snorts Pvt. Joseph Clark, 26, from Lincoln, Calif.
"Nah – remember we are trying to get information from these guys, so you don't pop 'em unless they have a weapon,'' says Kurtis Erickson.
Later, as the setting sun blinks through tall pines and the heat begins to abate, the talk turns again to war and death.
"I want to go but I'm scared,'' said Jared Slusser, quickly adding: "If you're not scared you're not being honest.''
"I'm married and I worry about not coming back in one piece or not coming back alive,'' he said as the platoon members sat in their sweat-soaked fatigues with dirt-streaked faces.
"But it'll be good to have the kind of stories like a grandpa would tell,'' he added.