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April 6, 2005

About a Boy


by Ilana Mercer

The (unrequited) love of my life did his basic training in an elite Israeli commando. Once, after he had been characteristically belligerent, his "merciful" commanders made him stand in the rain throughout the night, bed on back. At 19, he was a powerfully built six-foot-three. Although temperamentally not suited to obedience, no one doubted his suitability to withstand extreme physical exertion.

The very opposite can be said of the late 19-year-old Jason Robert Tharp, a Parris Island Marine recruit. Video footage of his penultimate day on earth, captured accidentally by an NBC affiliate in Columbia, S.C., is heartrending. The ungainly, gangly youth was petrified, shaking in his military boots, as a Marine drill instructor first challenged him, and then thumped him hard, infuriated by the bumbling boy's refusal to plunge into the practice pool. The next day, Feb. 8, Tharp was dead. He drowned during water survival training.

The little we know of this small-town West Virginian ought to have been sufficient for a recruiter (unencumbered by rapidly falling enlistment rates) to disqualify the boy from the start. Jason lacked "the warrior spirit." He was shy, soft spoken, and bookish. He wanted to study art, and liked to draw cartoons, not blood. He had never left home before, except for a weekend at a friend's. Wishing to spare his parents the expense, Jason joined the Marines to earn money for college. Before enlisting, he had worked for Wendy's.

As the Washington Post reported, "The Army is offering bonuses of as much as $20,000 to enlist on active duty for four years." We don't know if Jason was that lucky. Maybe all his recruiter needed to entice him was more money than he'd made flipping burgers. Whatever the case, he was both vulnerable and fragile. His parents knew he was not Marine material, although it isn't clear what they did to dissuade him from joining the Corps.

Nevertheless, that's where he wound up. And that's where he died.

"I don't know how they could treat my son the way we saw on that video," Jason's father told the press, rather gullibly. "We just want justice for Jason. … To get some kind of bill passed to where this won't happen to another family."

Better, however, that parents and teachers be aware that their young charges are more likely than ever to be sucked into the military's maw – be aware and militate against such an eventuality. "Army officials," the Post continued, "see worrisome signs that young American men and women – and their parents – are growing wary of military service, largely because of the Iraq conflict. Never before has the all-volunteer Army deployed to war zones in such large numbers for multiple, yearlong tours." The encouraging signs are that potential recruits and their loved ones realize that a withdrawal from Iraq is not imminent and are thus not as eager to volunteer for the service. In response, recruiters have intensified their efforts.

In addition, because "the active-duty Army is failing to meet its recruiting goals … [it] is rushing incoming recruits into training as quickly as it can," having "cut by 50 percent the average number of days between the time a recruit signs up and enters boot camp."

Was Jason improvidently recruited?

Although he has called the drill instructor's conduct "an assault," Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice, counsels caution. In an e-mail exchange, Mr. Fidell told me, "Recruiters operate under the pressure of a quota, and from time to time we learn of questionable recruiting decisions." He suggested that whether this was such a case cannot be determined based on the information currently available. "I'll be interested to see what the investigations find on the recruitment as well as the drowning and the run-up to it," he added.

Getting information out of the military is a lot like frisking a wet seal. So far, military officials have acknowledged the video clip suggests a breach of regulations. They've launched an internal investigation and have suspended the manhandling Marine and five instructors – onlookers who failed to intervene. Other than that, Jason's death certificate is sealed from the public… for 50 years.

Still, parents and potential recruits ought to be aware that, although there is some ground for discharge once in the military – medical, psychiatric, sexual orientation, conscientious objection, and hardship – "once you sign up and enter active duty, you cannot ordinarily simply opt out – not during a war," as Mr. Fidell explained.

Jason wasn't a very effective advocate for himself. As I've said, he seemed fragile. His letters to his parents are all the more touching and tragic because he was so unspoiled and understated. Once, while on a long march, he saw a Pizza Hut in the offing. That prompted him to write that when he finally got home, that was where he wanted to eat. He also wrote of how he liked going to church on Sundays. There he'd seek solace from the drill instructor's screaming. "These drill instructors have been targeting on me when we have to yell, because as you know, I am really not the talkative type," he told his parents.

Always reserved and respectful, Jason indicated in his last letter that he was not coping with the training, and was getting sicker and sicker, coughing up blood. "If you can get me out I will be forever grateful. … I am serious this time and I will use all of my power to try and get out, too. Thanks if you help me." And again, plaintively, "If you can find it in yourself to help me out of here, I would be grateful. Thanks. Love, Jason"

And finally, faint, pitiful, and polite: "And, another thanks if you can help me."


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Ilana Mercer is a contributor to Antiwar.com. Her new book is Broad Sides: One Woman’s Clash With A Corrupt Culture. To learn more about Ilana and her work, please visit her website.

 

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