Credit: Portraits by Darrow Montgomery

Everyone wants Joshua Anderson to do his war face.

After 8 p.m. on a Tuesday night, Anderson and a handful of the military’s future finest have commandeered an ashtray and a concrete slab for their own private party outside the Comfort Inn. Military brass puts them up at the hotel, located a few miles from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, the night before they either swear in or ship out. It amounts to a last stop, their last night as civilians. Before sunrise, they will arrive at Fort Meade, the area’s main processing center, and learn how to take orders, to fall in, to ride the military’s definition of the straight and narrow.

In the lobby, on a board, people leave messages for the recruits. One reads, “Bring ’em home.”

But these are recruits. They are fleeing home.

A large shaved-head kid does most of the pleading with Anderson, peppering him with incessant dare-yas to bring out the war face.

Anderson tries to bag out, but he knows he will succumb. After a brief paus e, he squints his face hard like a rivet tightening in place, squares his lineman shoulders, closes his eyes, balls his fists and screams:

“Hoo-Rah!”

When his eyes open, Anderson, 20, gives his best, deepest war-movie stare. He is going into the Marines, shipping out in the morning to Parris Island, S.C. He’s already been given the nickname “Juggernaut.” It seems to have stuck.

Anderson has been at the Comfort Inn for three days, bogged down under an avalanche of unfinished military paperwork. “It’s hell,” he says. “You get in your head a lot.” Left alone, he explains, the Comfort Inn starts to feel a lot like Baghdad. He starts thinking about war and shooting somebody, “What’s it really going to be like? Am I going to be able to live on it? Am I going to have nightmares?”

Anderson brought clothes for only one day, a pair of baggy jeans and dark shirt. No one cares. His Comfort Inn time has made him this group’s decorated vet, the wise man among the newbies. The key to surviving the hotel, he says, is finding other recruits to talk to. Tonight he found six.

Anderson’s been holding court at the little Comfort Inn shindig for an hour or so, the participants swapping the kind of stories instant friends tell. They all say they see the military as their chance to grow up. But first, over Newports and Gatorade, they just want one more moment to be who they are.

The chatter has the feel of one-upmanship. Each recruit tries to top the previous story, and in the process they become geysers of their own sordid pasts, of gross-out stories, of what they’re gonna do.

The topic for this round: Weirdest places you’ve had sex.

“Cop car, backseat with handcuffs.”

“Catholic church parking lot on the hood of a car. I thought God was going to kill me.”

Another recruit, 18-year-old Michael Potts, offers this classic line: “Think about this: I’m going to be called a seaman.”

Potts cracks a sly Beavis grin. It’s the second time he’s made this joke. Still, everyone has to laugh.

With the group’s attention on him, Potts riffs on a list of made-up sex acts. He asks if they’ve ever tried the “Pirate.” “The girl has to be giving you a blowjob,” Potts explains. You then cum in her eye and stomp on her foot. He imitates the effect: a one-eyed woman hopping around on one leg screaming, “Argh!”

No one admits to trying the “Pirate” or the “Strawberry Shortcake” or the “Spiderman.”

A tattoo roll call soon commences.

Jeannie Cook, the lone female recruit, asks if anyone wants to see her ink. “They’re all below the belt,” she says.

She did not have to ask.

Under the hotel’s cruddy light, the petite blonde with big Britney eyes pulls down her pants to reveal a heart resting on a wavy line just beside her crotch.

All the male recruits go silent for the first time that night.

Cook, 30, is supposed to swear in to the Army National Guard tomorrow morning. It’s her second try. The first time, she says, she didn’t meet the minimum weight requirement for women—97 pounds. She says she’s only 1 pound off. In the morning, she explains, she plans on eating 16 bananas.

“The shit is staying in until I get weighed,” Cook says.

Cook has two children, a 4-year-old son and a 15-month-old daughter. She also has had a difficult past, including two stints in rehab for drug abuse before she reached voting age. Her last high, she tells the group, came off snorting an eight ball and downing 100 Xanaxes. Two dudes nod. They’ve reached similar lows.

Cook has since gone on to manage a pharmacy. She says that she wants to help Army vets from Iraq deal with post-traumatic stress disorder. All the guys ask her to be their shrink when they come home from Iraq.

It’s nearing their 10 p.m. curfew. There’s a round of last smokes. Cook offers to be everyone’s backup wake-up call. Two recruits take her up on it. Anderson promptly makes a phone sex joke.

The smokers puff hard and start their goodnights. Cook offers hugs and cheek kisses. Anderson contemplates asking Cook for more but thinks better of it. Everyone shuffles off except Anderson and a new best friend.

“You want another?” Anderson asks.

They light up two more last cigarettes. At 4:45, they will board a yellow schoolbus to Fort Meade, where these photographs were taken. Once they are on the bus, they will not be allowed to smoke again.

Anderson is trying to be good. He admits to a history filled with drugs and fights and restitution payments. A day earlier at Fort Meade, Anderson had gotten busted sneaking a cigarette outside.

Last night, Anderson says, he got drunk in the Comfort Inn’s parking lot and started doing his war face. One of the recruit minders heard him screaming. It was long after curfew. He was ordered back to his room. Once inside, the minder found him. And, after a beat, found a woman hiding out in his shower.

Tonight, Anderson follows his orders and goes to bed.

(Portrait by Darrow Montgomery)

Divontay Queen
Age: 18
Navy
From: Temple Hills
Ship-out date: Oct. 9
Destination: Naval Station Great Lakes, Chicago

Queen began to think of joining the military during a 9th grade honor-roll assembly. The audience shouted taunts about the ROTC students’ tight pants. A cell phone rang, and everyone giggled. Queen, though, didn’t. He just eyeballed the ROTC kids, who never broke stride. He soon joined the tight-pants brigade, graduating as a Cadet Master Sergeant. He still has the memory of his classmates mocking his pants. But he has fresher memories that stick in his head. Before his ship-out date arrived, he went back to his alma mater. “They saw I’m going into the Navy, dealing with Seals,” he says. “I get a great deal of respect now. It’s an indescribable feeling when you go back and all the sudden everybody thanks you. The first thing they say is: ‘Ain’t you scared?’ You say, ‘Not yet.’”

(Portrait by Darrow Montgomery)

Joe Davis
Age: 21
Navy
From: Waldorf
Ship-out date: Oct. 9
Destination: Naval Station Great Lakes, Chicago

Davis knows he can handle the push-ups and sit-ups, the grunt work of basic training. Except for one thing. “I can’t swim,” the future Navy man admits. “That might be a challenge.…I know it’s awkward. I didn’t want to go in the Air Force. I figured, ‘Hey, I’ll learn how to swim.’” The last time he went swimming was two months ago. “I didn’t really swim,” he says. “I stayed in the 3-feet area and just threw the football. I don’t really count it as swimming….We good at 3 feet.”

(Portrait by Darrow Montgomery)

Jesse Colvin
Age: 23
Army
From: Baltimore
Ship­out date: Oct. 12
Destination: Fort Benning, Ga.

Colvin is against the war. “I took about three months to make the decision,” he says. “I don’t come from a family or a community where military service is even on the radar. Most of my friends are either in law school or med school.” He graduated in 2006 from Duke University with a degree in Middle East history and a minor in Arabic. After that, he went to Syria to study Arabic and teach English to pay the bills. “When I came back from Syria, I wrote a list of objectives for what I wanted to do, and I wrote down the options. When the dust settled, the Army fulfilled the most objectives.” He had written down: service to country, a challenge, Middle Eastnrelated. “I didn’t like the idea, for instance, of joining the State Department and not being able to write a memo on your own until you’re six years in.” People close to him were shocked by his decision. One family friend screamed at him over a lunch. The night before his ship-out day, he finished Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran. In his bag, he has Fiasco by Thomas Ricks and his counterinsurgency manual. “I definitely turned the hunting channel on last week for like an hour,” he says. “I tried to pick up a couple vocabulary words like ‘points.’”

(Portrait by Darrow Montgomery)

Nancy Beckett
Age: 18
Army
Ship-out date: Nov. 1
From: Ocean City, Md.
Destination: Fort Jackson, S.C.

Beckett signed up to be a Human Intelligence Collector. That means interrogations. If she has to, she says she might have to use torture. “I’m not really concerned with it,” she says. “If I have to do it, I will. Hopefully I won’t have to do anything like torturing anybody. If I have to do that to do my job, it will just come along. If it’s to help protect someone else, then yeah.” But she can deploy less coercive methods of investigation, as she displayed in high school. Another student had stolen her sneakers, and she worked the case under strict Geneva Convention standards. “I had my initials on the bottom of the shoe, but the person that stole them didn’t know,” she says. “I knew she stole them because I saw her wear them….She said she found them in this locker. I just caught her in her own lie, being retarded.…I got my shoes back. But I didn’t wear them because she had been wearing them during gym. I know she was sweating and stuff.”

(Portrait by Darrow Montgomery)

Jacob Engle
Age: 22
Army
From: Perryville, Md.
Ship-out date: Oct. 25
Destination: Fort Benning, Ga.

“I’ve always had the mentality of a warrior,” Engle says. “My dad was in the Air Force for 20 years. I’ve always had a military personality, raised that way.…It was my time to stand up.” He has only slightly less confidence in how his warrior skills will stand up in Iraq. “I’m concerned about taking down the right people and bringing the right people to justice and finding the terrorists causing nations over there to be in complete chaos, trying to help them out whatever way I can. Everything’s 50-50, either you win or you lose.”

(Portrait by Darrow Montgomery)

Chris Young
Age: 18
Air Force
From: Mayo, Md.
Ship-out date: Oct. 9
Destination: Lackland Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas

In his last week as a civilian, Young ate a lot of send-off meals. There were probably 10 rounds of lunches, dinners, and goodbyes. His last meal was a dinner of cinnamon toast. “That’s what I wanted, and I figured I wouldn’t be able to get it,” he says. “It’s something you don’t get anywhere else other than home.” He signed up for a job fixing targets for bombs. Last night he couldn’t sleep. He imagined himself in his uniform, seeing his family again, being in combat (“Just myself in a desert with a gun and a couple guys”) and gutting it out in basic training. But a guy just out of basic training told him the Air Force has “really good French toast.”

(Portrait by Darrow Montgomery)

Gary Little
Age: 19
Army National Guard
From: Dover, Del.
Ship-out date: Oct. 12
Destination: Fort Knox, Ky.

“I wasn’t pressured or anything. But my family is military background.…So it’s kind of like why not just try it?” Little says. His last job was working a conveyor belt in a Procter & Gamble factory, midnight shift. He figures boot camp has one advantage over the factory job: “You start getting your weapons and you know, you start blowing stuff up. I like fireworks.…I had a stick of dynamite before.” It was right outside Oklahoma City, where he was visiting a relative in the Army. “It was the size of my palm.…I held it for like three seconds, then I threw it because I’m like shaking. But I threw it. Throw it high, but you have to throw it long at the same time so when it hits the ground it just explodes. Pretty cool. It had like a 12-foot crater.”

(Portrait by Darrow Montgomery)

Joshua Emerson
Age: 21
Air Force
From: Bristow, Va.
Ship-out date: Oct. 9
Destination: Lackland Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas

Emerson tried community college, but it didn’t take. He worked at Wal-Mart and then a golf facility. He wants to be a doctor. He says he joined in part because of his girlfriend, who is away at a college near Miami. “This is also my way of actually bridging the gap between us,” he explains. “I used to visit her a lot, and I’d rather just be with her permanently. She’s there. I’m here. [This will be] making a difference in my life, taking control of things.” He plans to propose after he finishes basic training. His mother gave him her mother’s 2-carat diamond ring. “I plan to take her to a certain spot she said she always wanted to go.” It’s a spot along the beach, a secluded spot. “It will probably be nighttime,” he adds. “I checked an almanac. The moon should be out. It will just be us two near some rocks.”

(Portrait by Darrow Montgomery)

Jaquaille Outlaw
Age: 18
Air Force
From: Bladensburg
Ship-out date: Oct. 9
Destination: Lackland Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas

Outlaw has heard a lot of shit about Iraq. “My cousin has been over there,” he says. “And my uncle has been over there, Iran—one of those places, Afghanistan or something. They’ve been over there. My female cousin, she tells me sometimes it’s really hot, and it’s smelly, and sometimes it’s very sandy when the wind gets blowing. She said sometimes it smells really bad for some reason.…One person said they loved it, but, you know, I think something was going on. I need some shade, you know? I don’t want to be in the hot desert all day.…I would not want to go to Iraq. I hear it’s a lot of stuff going on about depleted uranium.” On the plus side, his cousin told him they still have pizza and Pepsi and Coke. “She said they try to make it as much comfortable for you as possible, and I thought that was good. So I know if I do go, I know that they will try to make you comfortable.”

(Portrait by Darrow Montgomery)

Jeshaun Williams
Age: 17
Army Reserve
From: Fort Meade, Md.
Ship-out date: July 15
Destination: Fort Knox, Ky.

Williams’ father is a supervisor in the Army. Living on base, he says, took some getting used to. But he’s grown to like it. His long-term goal is to go into broadcast journalism. The Army, he says, is his way of getting to college. There’s still the obstacle of basic training and the rest. “I keep hearing from people in the Army it’s not that bad,” he says. “Still got little butterflies. Don’t know what to expect. But after basic training, it looks like smooth sailing.”

(Portrait by Darrow Montgomery)

Sarah Dick
Age: 19
Marine Corps Reserve
From: Cumberland, Md.
Ship-out date: Oct. 15
Destination: Parris Island, S.C.

The night before her ship-out, Dick met a couple of other female would-be Marines. They agreed to support one another. “We can do it. The females that I met today and last night are good,” she says. “They’re tougher than me. They have a lot of confidence.” But she was still alone when it came time to sleep. She says she ended up counting sheep, getting up to 47 before finally settling down. The next morning, she lit her last cigarette, a Marlboro menthol. “Depressing,” she says. “I smoked it this morning after I ate breakfast at the hotel. It was about 4 a.m. I knew I wasn’t going to get any more….I smoked two.”

(Portrait by Darrow Montgomery)

Karon Neal
Age: 20
Marine Corps
From: Alexandria
Ship-out date: Oct. 15
Destination: Parris Island, S.C.

Neal attended Langston University in Langston, Okla., for about a year. He liked the independence it gave him. “I guess I was a true adult. Had a part-time job, buying myself groceries, clothes. Being my own sole provider,” he says. But money got tight, and he returned to live with his mother and her rules. “Same rules that she had when I was 12,” he explains. “I didn’t have much control.” By joining the Marines, it’s his way again. “I always figured the military was going to be my backup plan,” he says. “I guess Plan B is in effect.”

(Portrait by Darrow Montgomery)

Stephen J. Fennell Jr.
Age: 19
Marine Corps
From: Annapolis
Ship-out date: Oct. 15
Destination: Parris Island, S.C.

Fennell signed up to work in military intelligence. If he has a chance, he says, he would volunteer for Iraq. But first there’s basic training. “I know that I’ll do well in it. I’m more worried that something will happen out of my control that will send me home. Like I’ll break an ankle…or something in my background will pop up. I don’t have any police involvement, so I don’t know what could. It’s like that worry—something’s going to go terribly wrong.” Already one task had been surprisingly difficult: saying goodbye to his father. “I’m my dad’s first son, so I guess he holds me dear, and he started [getting] a little emotional and that makes me [emotional]. But I’m like, ‘Come on, I’ll see you in three months.’”


View an Audio Slideshow including additional portraits and interviews.