It’s sunny at the Greyhound bus station in downtown Los Angeles. Dressed in his service alphas (khaki shirt, olive-green service coat), Private First Class Rogelio Mendoza arrived here this morning on a bus from Bakersfield. Now he’s waiting for the 11:45 a.m. departure to Oceanside, where he is scheduled to begin training at Camp Pendleton.
The 19-year-old Marine sits in a blue-plastic chair, the type they have in elementary school playgrounds and in hospital waiting rooms, this one arranged in a short row. His hands, holding his ticket and perfectly folded cap, rest on his knees, which shake occasionally as he talks. His shoes are so shiny, they make the surroundings look even dirtier.
Mendoza, who wears glasses and got a 3.9 grade point average in high school, comes from Lamont, a city 10 miles west of Bakersfield. According to the latest census, Lamont has a population of nearly 13,000 and a median household income of nearly $25,000. He describes it as “just a little town with nothing but gangsters and a lot of trouble.”
“I had to get outta there,” says Mendoza, who enlisted this past August. “I was getting in trouble, doing a lot of drugs and just getting arrested.”
Born in Los Angeles, Mendoza lived here until 1995, when his neighborhood started getting too dangerous and his father decided to move the family north. When they first moved to Lamont, it was a safe area. But then it started getting overrun with gangs. Now, he says, besides a tiny area where his family lives, the rest of Lamont is “trashy, ghetto.”
His parents, both immigrants from Mexico, didn’t want him to join the military.
“They don’t like the war,” explains Mendoza, who has never voted or had a political discussion with either of his parents.
Do you believe in this war?
“I believe for one point it’s good, ’cause of the oil. The thing is, I don’t even think we are there for the oil anymore. Yes, we are trying to stop Iraq from getting into a civil war, but why do they have to send a lot a lot of troops just to make it stop? I don’t know, I can’t explain. It’s really hard.”
You think we went to Iraq for the oil. Why? To get it? To protect it?
“To protect it. I know it’s not ours. I just consider it, like, a battle to regain something we lost. That’s what it looks like from my point of view. We lost something and we are trying to get it back and the only way we can get it back is by shooting people.”
Do you believe in George W. Bush?
“Somewhat, and somewhat not. I heard from my staff sergeant that we already took over Iraq, so I don’t understand why [Bush] still has troops there. First we were fighting for something, now we are fighting for something else — right now it’s making me lost. Like, my staff sergeant told me, ‘You are gonna get lost, and you are gonna have a lack of information. Just go with the flow. If they give you orders, just do it. Even if you don’t like it or understand it.’ If they say, ‘Go in that house and shoot who is in there.’ That’s my job and I have to do that.”
You’re prepared to do that?
“Basically, yeah. Even if my consciousness says no. I have to erase that, like a robot.”
Mendoza knew people who killed other people back in Lamont.
“I had a lot of friends who were killed just for not giving [drug dealers] their money or something.”
And you saw people die before?
“Yes. I had friends lying there dead.”
What was the reason, a drug deal gone bad?
“Yes. And on a speed chase . . . what was the reason? I can’t remember. Something to do with the homie’s sister getting raped and we went after the guy that raped her.”
You were in a car?
“Yeah. He took a wrong turn and flipped over. He got out of the car okay and the homies just blasted him.”
How old were you then?
Mendoza says he decided to change his life this year. Since he’s enlisted, he gets more respect from people, the same people who he says used to hate him: teachers, neighbors, old friends. A few minutes ago, when he was waiting in line to ask a Greyhound employee about his departing bus, a fellow traveler issued him respect by allowing him to go ahead of him. Dressed casually, the older black gentleman shook Mendoza’s hand and told him that he had served in Vietnam.
Do you have a girlfriend back home?
“Yes. She was crying last night. I asked her if she wanted to wait for me. She said ‘yeah.’ If she does, [after training] hopefully I can get married. Her parents already said yeah. She doesn’t know.”
I won’t print that, then.
“It’s okay. I don’t mind.”
Mendoza, who in high school did best in economics and government, is making $1,040 a month and is, in his estimation, in the best shape of his life. Money and physical fitness were two of his goals when he enlisted; the political reasons behind the war were something he only began thinking about later.
So you feel as if you were taking care of yourself by enlisting, but the bigger political picture you don’t really understand?
What is a good reason to go to war?
“Fighting for something you believe in. If you believe a country is not being right and torturing people, then take it over and make it how we are.”
What do you mean by ‘how we are’?
“Either Democrat or Republican.”
Did you enlist in part to save your life?
“Yes, to save my life, if I can. If I can’t, I will give it back. They train me. The only way to pay them back is . . . well, hopefully not to end my life.”
The door to the terminal opens, and a young woman in Army fatigues walks by carrying a large duffle bag. She looks at Mendoza as she passes. Her shoes are shiny like his.