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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We're going to spend some time on this Fourth of July talking about service to our country. A very small number of Americans now serve in the military, far less than one percent. It is way more common not to sign up for the all-volunteer military, so NPR's Tom Bowman, who covers the Pentagon, has been asking those who do serve why they choose to do so. Tom is just back from a month in Afghanistan.

Tom, welcome back home.

TOM BOWMAN: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What did you learn?

BOWMAN: Well, Steve, I was trying to get at some broad themes when I was over there, first of all, their journey to this place. Why was it that they signed up in first place? And for some, it's almost become the family business. A father, an uncle, or a grandfather served in the military.

Others are still driven by patriotism, of course. In the lingering effects of 9/11, they want to defend America. They want to fight. They want to fight America's enemies. And I remember one Marine general saying to me years ago: You know, the reason a lot of young men sign up for the Marine Corps, they want to look the dragon in the eye.

INSKEEP: Hmm. Well, tell us about some of the men and women you met who were trying to look that dragon in the eye.

BOWMAN: Well, I want to start with two guys - and there's another reason for joining, too. Both are kind of classic tales of screw-ups at home. They were kind of directionless, and the joined the military because nothing else was working out for them.

I met Private First Class Dave Kroha at a forward operating base. Now, picture sort of a cross between a construction site and a summer camp.

INSKEEP: OK.

BOWMAN: There are dirt roads and gravel and tents and shacks. And he was in this hulking armored vehicle rumbling down a dirt road outside of this combat outpost that they the road was nicknamed Elephant by the Marines. And they're on their way to another combat outpost. So we were covering their patrol.

Now Private Kroha is from Connecticut. He's 23 years old, and he has these broken, wire-rimmed glasses held together by tape. He's this lanky guy. He dropped out of college after an argument with his wrestling coach, and he kind of bummed around. He got in a few bar scuffles, and his mother suggested another fight.

Private First Class DAVE KROHA (U.S. Marine Corps): My mom brought us here one day. She's like, what are you going to do? I was like, I don't know. She's like, why don't you go fight for our country? Like just throwing the idea out as kind of a joke. And then that next night at dinner, she's like, oh, what did you do today? I was like, I joined the Marine Corps. And she says, I was just kidding. I was like, well, I did it. So yeah, now I'm here.

INSKEEP: OK, so there you go.

BOWMAN: Right. And here is Helmand Province in southwest Afghanistan, one of the toughest places in the whole country.

INSKEEP: And I want to emphasize, you said he's 23, which means he's about 13 at the time of the 9/11 attacks. He enlisted knowing what he was in for, and sure - because so many people are rotating out to battle zones - that he was likely to do that.

BOWMAN: Absolutely. In joining the Marine Corps in an infantry unit, you know you're going to be in the fight.

INSKEEP: So that's one 23-year-old you met. And there's another one we're going to talk about, here.

BOWMAN: That's right. He's Lance Corporal Andrew Zemore from Fredericksburg, Virginia. And take a listen to his reason for signing up. It'll sound pretty familiar.

Lance Corporal ANDREW ZEMORE (U.S. Marine Corps): Like, you know, I got into a lot of trouble back in the day. You know what I'm saying? So, like, I was at that time in my life where I, like, I had to make a change. You know what I'm saying? And I didn't really know where to go. So, like, push came to shove, and I had to do something. And I kind of just, like, fell into the Marine Corps.

BOWMAN: So the Marines decided to make Zemore a combat engineer. He walks around with this hand-held mine detector, searching for roadside bombs. And he likes it.

Lance Cpl. ZEMORE: You've got to go out there and, you know, blow stuff up. And I was like, sweet, you know. So I'm, like, kind of an extremist. You know, I mean, I like living life on the edge. I do it here. You know, I do it back home. It's just the way I live. It's been good for me, though. For real.

INSKEEP: Well, it's a good thing there are people who are willing to do the job.

BOWMAN: That's right. You know, that being said, this is a very, very dangerous place. Corporal Zemore, he's a Marine from Virginia. He's on his second combat tour in Helmand. He's lost friends, including his best friend, Joseph Whitehead, who was killed by a bomb in a doorway of an abandoned compound back in January. And Zemore had his friend's name etched on an aluminum bracelet he always wears. He also has two large red As tattooed on his chest, signifying Alabama, where his friend Joseph Whitehead had come from.

And I asked him about the deaths and the near misses, and this is what he said.

Lance Cpl. ZEMORE: You know, like, I've had to, like, you know, tourniquet people up and I've had to pick up, like, body parts of my buddies. And it was it really sucked. You know, when I got back, it was a hard transition, for real, because like 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, you know, for your country.

INSKEEP: That's one of the U.S. Marines who spoke with NPR's Tom Bowman in Afghanistan. They were talking about service to country. It is amazing Tom. It starts as a personal decision in these two young men's cases. They are thinking about their country, but also thinking about their own situation in life. Now, has their service affected the way that they think about their country?

BOWMAN: I think so. I mean, there's more of an appreciation for the United States, for America. There's something internal, also. There's a certain maturity, a wisdom, and also a world-weariness. And remember, these guys are in their early 20s. And I talked to Private Kroha, he's the one from Connecticut. And he also told me he notices this gulf between his life with the Marines and his civilian friends. Back home, they're going to college. They're working at their jobs, and dealing with the day-to-day frustrations. And listen to what he says.

Private First Class KROHA: I go back - I talk to some people back home, and like, a girl or a guy, they're like, oh, this was a bad day. I'm like, oh well, wow, what happened? And they're, like, they'll give me, like, three petty examples of, like, why their day was so terrible. And I'm like, that's it? I was like, it must be nice. Like, you are lucky.

INSKEEP: Yeah, bad hair day, as compared to seeing your friends being killed in combat.

BOWMAN: That's right. And Corporal Zemore has his own version of that story, that disconnect between his old civilian world and his life in the military. Today's the Fourth of July, and Zemore says his experiences in Afghanistan all rushed back to him when he was watching a Fourth of July celebration back home, after his first deployment.

Lance Corporal ZEMORE: And I know the Fourth of July I - for some reason, I don't know why, I just sat there and I cried. You know what I mean? Like, that sounds pretty lame, but like, the transition, it was so difficult. I don't even know why I was crying. You know what I mean? It was just like, I seen the fireworks and I was thinking about my buddies that couldn't be there and, like, you know, the explosions and the lights and everything. It was just like somehow it just triggered that. You know, it's weird, man.

INSKEEP: Tom, when you're telling me about the incredible experiences of these young men and playing the tape of their voices, I'm thinking of the fact that this experience is multiplied by tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of young men and women today.

BOWMAN: Absolutely. And it also goes back though our history, Steve. If you look at World War II veterans who never could explain to their families what they went through, and after they died, their family members would go up into an attic, maybe, and find this old dusty box with a silver star in it, maybe, and a citation explaining what these people did so many years ago.

And it goes back even further, I think, to the Civil War, with the writings of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. He's a Union officer during some of the toughest fights of the Civil War. And he said of his fellow veterans: We share the incommunicable experience of war. He said that three decades after the fight, meaning that there's some things that only they can talk about among their comrades, that people at home would never understand it.

INSKEEP: Well, NPR's Tom Bowman is going to try to help us bridge some of that gap over the coming days. And who do we profile tomorrow, Tom?

BOWMAN: We're going to profile Sergeant John Moulder. He's a Marine. And he's on his fourth combat tour.

Sergeant JOHN MOULDER (U.S. Marine Corps): It's like you lose a little piece of yourself every time you come over here, a little bit of a piece of humanity every time. And I don't want to hit that breaking point to where I have no respect for humanity left.

INSKEEP: And we'll hear more of Sergeant Moulder's story tomorrow from NPR's Tom Bowman.

Tom, thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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