© St. Petersburg Times, published April 10, 2003
TAMPA -- On the same day a group of Iraqis toppled a statue of Saddam Hussein, Ryan Tate sat on a stool outside his father's pizza place on Davis Islands, resting his spiked blond hair on a soccer ball. To his left sat Plant soccer teammate Obed Flores.
Together they talked about what they thought the toughest thing about joining the Marines was going to be.
"Leaving all my family and friends," Tate said. "I have a pretty serious relationship with my girlfriend ... and a little brother and sister who look up to me."
Added Flores: "Leaving my mom. I'm her only child, she's a single mother and, even though this is the best thing for both of us, it's going to be hard on her."
Neither one talked about the three months of boot camp they will endure beginning 16 days after graduation. There was no mention of the images that flash across your television screen, unmistakeable as they are unforgettable.
Tate and Flores have seen the tanks storm across the desert, dodging Bedouin encampments and herds of goats. They've heard the repercussions of exploding bombs and seen the giant plumes of smoke on the Baghdad horizon.
The pair of 18-year-olds knows all about the fallen fighters, burning ditches of oil and charred vehicles on both sides of the street as armored trucks plow through the sand.
They're more worried about their families. More impressively, they're worried about the rest of us.
"People tell me I'm crazy for going into the Marines now," said Flores, who enlisted Feb.25, three weeks before U.S. and British forces invaded Iraq. "I'm not afraid of dying. I could die right here, right now. Everyone has to die sometime. I'm ready to go over there. I'm glad to protect my country."
For them, June9 can't come soon enough. That's when they and a Plant classmate will ship off to Parris Island, S.C., for 12 weeks of boot camp. After that it's back home to South Tampa for two weeks and then a month of infantry training in a place to be determined.
Another week at home and Tate's off to aviation technician school where he'll learn to fix and maintain helicopters and aircraft in places such as Baghdad, Afghanistan, North Korea or wherever duty sends him. Flores will begin studying to become a neurologist.
June9. The day that, despite the horrors relayed via satellite and video phone from Iraq and the nightly death toll, can't come soon enough.
"It boosts my morale a lot watching it on television," Tate said. "I want to get over there even more now. It makes me pretty angry with what the Iraqis are saying, what their head people are saying about us. I just want to be with those guys. I just want to be helping."
Helping is what Tate and Flores feel the armed forces are all about.
Tate recalls Sept.11, 2001. That was the day he knew he would do something involved with the armed services.
The midfielder/forward remembers how he felt after seeing airplanes smash into buildings in New York and Washington. The feelings that ran through his body when he watched New York's signature buildings crumble still run through his mind almost a year and a half later.
The Marines will provide his chance to act on those feelings.
It's virtually impossible to get a count on the number of Hillsborough County high school students who will enlist in the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines after graduation. Most recruiters don't like to talk exact figures though one said it's safe to say the number of recruits will be in the hundreds.
The fact that the war is on television 24 hours a day, seven days a week hasn't really affected those numbers. It seems more students are willing to enlist but the number of parents stepping in to counsel them has countered the enthusiasm.
In Tate's case the television reports have done nothing but confirm his thoughts.
As uncomfortable as he is with the rocket-propelled grenades that zip past U.S. troops, he is emboldened by the fact that he is soon to be part of the most powerful military in the world.
"It's a little bit nerve-wracking," Tate said. "But when you think about it, somebody has to do it so everyone else can live their lives in the United States."
As he said it you knew he was thinking about the girlfriend, little brother and little sister. Flores was no doubt thinking about his mother.
Rarely have four people stood for so much more.