Marine Pfc. Dave Kroha, 23, from Cromwell, Conn., plays with his bomb-sniffing dog, Mike. Kroha dropped out of college and was in a few bar fights before his mother jokingly suggested that he go and fight for his country. The next day he enlisted in the Marine Corps.
A very small number of Americans are now serving in the military — less than 1 percent. Some are looking for direction; others are inspired by a sense of patriotism or by a family member who served in an earlier war. In the series Who Serves, NPR looks at the troops who have made a decision few others today have — to fight in America's wars.
Pfc. Dave Kroha from Cromwell, Conn., is a lanky 23-year-old stuffed into the back of an armored vehicle that rumbles along a dusty road in Afghanistan. His wire-rimmed glasses are held together by tape.
Kroha dropped out of college after an argument with his wrestling coach. He bummed around, and after a few bar scuffles, his mother suggested another fight.
"She was like, 'What are you going to do? ... Why don't you go fight for our country?'" Kroha says. "And then that next night at dinner she [said], 'Oh, what'd you do today?' I was like, 'I joined the Marine Corps.' She said, 'I was just kidding!' I was like, 'Well, I did it.' So, yeah, now I'm here."
Here is Helmand province, an endless series of fields and mud brick compounds baking in the heat. Kroha pets the head of his bomb-sniffing dog, Mike. The young black lab is tucked by his feet.
Some Marines are looking for a bit of adventure, something to remember when they reach their later years.
Lance Cpl. Andrew Zemore fits that mold. He sits across from Kroha. He's also 23, from Fredericksburg, Va.
"I got into a lot of trouble back in the day ... I had to make a change, you know what I'm saying?" Zemore says. "I didn't really know where to go. So like, push came to shove and I had to do something. I kind of just fell into the Marine Corps."
Marine Lance Cpl. Andrew Zemore, 23, from Fredericksburg, Va., is a self-described troublemaker who liked to party too much. Zemore said he fell into the Marine Corps and now is on a Explosives Ordinance Disposal team, searching out bombs with a hand-held metal detector.
The Marines decided to make Zemore a combat engineer. He walks around with a hand-held mine detector searching for the hidden killer here — roadside bombs — and he likes it.
"You're going to go out there and blow stuff up and I said, 'Sweet,'" he said with a laugh. "I'm kind of an extremist. Living life on the edge. I do it here; I do it back home. It's just the way I live. It's been good for me, though, for real."
Sometimes too real. Zemore is on his second combat tour in Helmand province. He's lost buddies, including his best friend, Joseph Whitehead, who was killed by a bomb in the doorway of an abandoned compound back in January.
His name is etched on an aluminum bracelet on Zemore's wrist. On his chest are two large red As for Alabama, Whitehead's home state.
Zemore looks away.
"I've had to tourniquet people up, and I've had to pick up body parts of my buddies," he said. "When I got back it was a hard transition for real. You want to talk to somebody, but you feel like nobody can understand or feel your pain that you feel every single day for what you've seen. And what you had to give up for your country."
Kroha nods. There's a gulf between the Marines and their civilian friends back home, going to college, working at their jobs, dealing with day-to-day frustrations.
"I talk to people back home and they say they've had a bad day," he said. "They'll give me three petty examples of why the day was so terrible. I'm like, 'That's it? It must be nice. You are lucky!'"
Zemore says his experiences in Afghanistan all rushed back to him watching a Fourth of July celebration back home, after his first deployment.
"For some reason — I don't know why — I just sat there and I cried," he says. "That sounds pretty lame, but the transition, it was so difficult. I don't even know why I was crying, you know what I mean? It's just like, I [saw] the fireworks and I was thinking about my buddies that couldn't be there, and the explosions and the lights and everything, it just like somehow it just triggered that. It's weird, man."
Zemore says when his time in the Marine Corps is up, he'd like to become a contractor, training Marines how to spot roadside bombs.
And Kroha? He thinks he's now mature enough to go back to college.