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IN IT TOGETHER

About to learn the drill at Marine boot camp

Three best friends headed off as Daniel, Daryl and Steven. Now they'll all answer to 'Recruit!'

September 05, 2007|David Zucchino | Times Staff Writer

It was nearly 3 a.m. on a Monday when three weary teenagers arrived at the Marine Corps recruiting station in the Santa Clarita Valley. There to meet them was the station's chief recruiter, Staff Sgt. Juan Diazdumeng, an energetic and enthusiastic presence, even in the middle of the night.

Daniel Motamedi, 17 years old and just 10 days past his high school graduation, rubbed his head and yawned. It was one of the most important days of his young life, and he seemed half-awake.

Daniel's best friends, Daryl Crookston and Steven Dellinger, both 18, were yawning, too. The three had spent the previous week squeezing in the last pleasures of civilian life before shipping out to boot camp that morning. Going to bed on time was not among them.

Now, in the darkened shopping center where the recruiting station occupied a cramped corner, they filed in with parents and a dozen other recruits to hear Diazdumeng describe the next 13 weeks of their lives.

While still in high school, the friends had enlisted under the Marines' buddy program, which guaranteed they would train in the same platoon throughout boot camp. In July, a Times article recounted the friends' decisions to enlist and the trauma that had ensued in their homes. Now, their eager anticipation was about to run into reality.

Diazdumeng rattled off a compendium of boot camp horrors: Black Friday, four days hence, when the recruits are assigned drill sergeants and platoons. Hell Week, the third week, crammed with debilitating tests of stamina. The Crucible, the eighth week, a punishing three-day sojourn in the mountains of Camp Pendleton.

His voice softened as he offered final advice: "Listen to the drill instructors. Do everything they tell you. Do not ask questions. They are telling you to do certain things for a reason, OK? And have a great time. Boot camp is so much fun."

It would be one of the last times over the next three months that a Marine in authority would speak to the three recruits in a calm, nurturing, reassuring tone. In just a few hours, they would be confronted by hyper-aggressive drill sergeants whose piercing screams would begin a process of stripping suburban teenagers of their civilian psyches, their blasé attitudes, their very identities.

"Questions? Moms? Dads?" Diazdumeng asked.

The friends' parents initially opposed their sons' enlistments in a time of war, but now supported their decisions to serve. Daniel's mother, Yasmin Motamedi, a Los Angeles police detective, asked: "How long do they give them to learn how to make their beds?"

Diazdumeng smiled. "Oh, they'll learn quick. Everything they do, they will get a class. Everything is speed and intensity down there."

The three teens shrugged; they fully expected to be pressured and hectored. They were willing to endure the worst deprivations of boot camp for the end reward: wearing the Marine Corps uniform.

They were more than a little afraid, they admitted, but they felt prepared. Daniel hugged his parents goodbye as his mother choked back tears. Steven embraced his father, Jim Dellinger. Daryl had already said an emotional goodbye to his parents at home.

"At least my mom didn't go waterworks on me," Daniel said. She didn't burst into tears until he had left.

Diazdumeng drove a van full of recruits from Santa Clarita to the Military Entrance Processing Station on Rodeo Road in Los Angeles. There, just after dawn, the sergeant walked them to the receiving area. An entry sign read: "Where the Stars Shine."

Diazdumeng hugged each one and whispered encouragement. "Hey, you'll do great," he said. As the recruits reached the door, he yelled out: "I love you guys!"

The intake officer, a thin, intense woman carrying a clipboard, sang out in a saccharine tone: "Oh, isn't that sweet! He loves you!"

Then her voice hardened: "Take everything out of your pockets! Now! Take off your belts!" They would be searched for drugs and other contraband.

The friends fumbled through their pockets and clawed at their belts. A Marine shouted out names. One of the teens answered: "Here!"

The Marine shouted back: "Here, what?"

"Here, sir!"

The processing center -- the largest of 65 such stations in the country -- was like a vast bus station filled with confused, sleepy teenagers. Recruits wandered from room to room, following color-coded footprints painted on the floors.

Future soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors were being processed, tested, quizzed and shipped out. Most looked frightened and forlorn. A few adopted tough, stoic poses that fooled no one.

The three friends were given medical exams and blood tests. They filled out reams of paperwork. Daniel was so sleepy that he wrote "high school" in the space for the type of military job he preferred. Sheepishly, he asked for another form.

Daryl underwent a tattoo check for a small symbol he had recently burned onto his shoulder. He passed; the Marines do not permit tattoos that feature profanity, gang affiliations, racial slurs or pornography.

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