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Their country called again, they said yes

They'd already left the military. But when the Marine Corps asked if they'd go to Iraq, two bay area men couldn't say no.

Published May 15, 2004

[Times photo: Leonora LaPeter]
Ken Rainey, left, and Ben Pieper are headed to Iraq. Discharged from the Marines in 2002, they agreed to return to active duty for a year.

SARASOTA - It hits him most at night. He looks over at his girlfriend sleeping peacefully, thinks about the life they have created, how happy they are together.

He has a job at Radio Shack, goes to school for engineering, adores his Wheaten terrier.

But he has a choice to make.

Should he go to Iraq for a year's worth of combat service? Or should he stay and focus on the life he's building here?

He's already been discharged from the Marines. He served four years and helped with the ouster of the Taliban in Afghanistan two years ago.

So as he lies there in the darkness, Marine Cpl. Ken Rainey thinks to himself, "I'm leaving this to go over there. I'm dumb."

* * *

The call came about two weeks ago when Rainey, a 23-year-old graduate of Lakeside Christian School in Clearwater, was working. Two friends who served with him in Afghanistan, one now in Michigan, the other in Maryland, also got the call.

It was a captain who explained that the Marines were trying to find volunteers to replace injured troops in Iraq. Would they be willing to go for a year?

Since Sept. 14, 2001, when President Bush signed an executive order calling those who've served their enlisted time back to active duty, the armed forces has the right to pull these folks, known as the ready reserves, back into service at any moment.

The Army and the Marines make up the predominant forces in Iraq and have taken advantage of this order the most, military officials say. More than 1,000 Army soldiers and more than 3,500 Marines have been asked to come back to duty since Bush's order was signed.

Typically, enlisted men and women serve their time and then remain on ready reserve for a period of time. In the case of Rainey and his friends, all of them corporals, that time frame was four years and it runs out in 2006.

The call to duty is supposed to be involuntary. For example, about a year ago, Rainey was ordered to serve as an MP at Cherry Point, N.C., for three months after security was increased at U.S. military bases following war with Iraq.

But this time, the military was seeking to fill the slots it needed with volunteers, before forcing those on ready reserve to report. For these young men, the decision to go to Iraq was voluntary. And they said yes.

* * *

After he got the call, Rainey called the buddies he served with in Afghanistan. All four had enlisted at about the same time, served on the USS Shreveport, and ultimately ended up being among the first Marines to enter Afghanistan and secure Kandahar Airport in December 2001.

Three had been called to volunteer. A fourth, Ben Pieper, 24, had changed his phone number, but he called the Marine Corps and volunteered. The four young men - all operators of anti-tank weapons - asked to serve together again in the same squad. They heard they will serve as riflemen with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force this time and that they will leave for Iraq sometime in July. They are being told they will serve together.

They leave their friends and family June 13 to go train at Camp Pendleton in California.

"They're all so young, it's like they're going on a boys' trip, and I'm going, "not exactly,' " said Rainey's mother, Marcia Corbett, 47, who lives in Siesta Key.

She's worried about her son, but she understands. She enlisted in the Army when she was 18 years old and married Rainey's father, an Army specialist.

Ken Rainey enlisted when he was 17 years old, taking the recruiter to both his mother and his father to sign the recruiting papers so he could join the Marines. He celebrated his 18th birthday at boot camp on Parris Island in South Carolina.

He said he likes his life outside the military, and doesn't see himself as a career military man. But he feels he has to go to Iraq.

Rainey's girlfriend of a year and a half is upset with him for going. She cried when she learned of the phone call, pleaded with him to reconsider. She feels like she doesn't have a say. She's stopped talking about it.

Rainey explains it this way.

"There's no way to not go. It's not an option. This is a decision, if we say "yes', then it's a terrible thing for a year. But if we say "no', you have to live with it for the rest of your life. "The only thing I regret if I go over there and I get killed, what I'll regret is leaving this life."

All four young men have assumed new lives outside the military. Besides Rainey, Pieper just got hired as a Bradenton police officer five months ago. Casey Worth, 27, is a firefighter and a diver for a search and rescue squad in Lansing, Mich. Bill Howley, 26, has been going to college for a business degree and working part-time in landscaping in Columbia, Md.

One day recently at Rainey's apartment, his mother cornered Pieper and asked him to look out for her son, the youngest of the four.

"I'm glad to have this moment to give you instructions to take care of the little boy," she said. "Don't let him do anything stupid. I'm not thrilled about him going, but I'm glad you guys are going. I'd hate to see anything icky happen to any of you boys."

Quickly, she corrected herself: "MEN."

- Leonora LaPeter can be reached at (727) 893-8640. Staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

[Last modified May 15, 2004, 01:00:35]

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