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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Opting for the Army
A Tampa 18-year-old sees service as a way to a better life and to prove his worth.
By BEN MONTGOMERY
Published June 17, 2007
Jason Scowden is enlisting to begin a military career, escape dead-end jobs and leave bad influences behind; but he has more to prove to himself.
[Daniel Wallace | Times]
First in an occasional series.
TAMPA - Jason Scowden shows up at the Army recruiting office on Dale Mabry Highway on the same day President Bush is rallying the troops at MacDill Air Force Base, 16 miles south.
The president's address is carried to a big TV in the Army office, where the next kid to join the war stops fidgeting in his chair long enough to listen.
"History has called on great nations to assume great responsibilities," Bush says. "We must go on the offense, stay on the offense, and take the fight to them."
Scowden, 18, with IRISH tattooed down one forearm and PRIDE down the other, is here on the first day of May, which would become the third-deadliest month for U.S. troops in Iraq since the war started.
The newspapers in the boxes outside tell the story of Staff Sgt. Michael "Bubby" Thomas, who grew up riding skateboards a few miles away. Thomas was killed in Afghanistan, one of more than 3,800 who have come home in caskets from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Despite those risks, young men and women continue to join the armed forces. Thousands a month walk into offices across the country to sign up.
Scowden looks around the room where recruiters, telephones pressed to their ears, poke at laptop computers. Here in the city where the war is run, one of the country's most successful recruiting battalions is trying to meet its goal in the shadow of those casualties.
They search street corners and school hallways for kids with a reason to join, or those who can be turned into heroes.
Scowden doesn't want to be a hero. His decision has little to do with protecting his country or fighting for freedom. He doesn't want you to think it's that simple.
There's a kind of strength that goes beyond 9 to 5, says the poster on the wall.
"This is what's right," says the kid sitting beneath it. "It's just time."
- - -
Here stands Jason Scowden a year ago, on the roof of a two-story house. A video camera is rolling, and friends are on the grass below, laughing and hollering as Scowden, stoked on Mountain Dew, runs toward the edge.
They call him Skee McGee. No one is sure how he came by that nickname, but Skee McGee is always pulling doofus stunts. Running through the park blindfolded. Kicking soccer balls at a redneck's pickup truck. Faking a street fight using food coloring for blood until good Samaritans -- and, later, a cop -- stop to help.
But this? A front flip off a two-story house?
If his friends know anything, they know there's no stopping Skee McGee once he's accepted a challenge. Here he goes, somersaulting into the blue, landing hard on his knees in the grass.
And there he lies, no feeling in his legs. His friends help him up and he smiles and starts laughing, and for a moment the jackass stands at the center of attention, where he wants to be.
Blame it on being the middle child of five, his brother A.J. says. He couldn't measure up to his siblings, could never get the approval he wanted from his parents. So he sought acceptance wherever he could get it.
His father was a career Air Force mechanic, strict with his kids, but Jason and A.J. idolized him. He taught them to shoot a rifle and to defend themselves. They helped him drop an engine into an '84 Chevy Suburban. They pretended their bunk beds were airplanes in need of repairs.
Then his parents split up a few years ago and Scowden bounced from high school to high school -- Pinellas Park to Tampa Tech to Freedom. He fell behind and dropped out his senior year. It's not something he's proud of, but it's something that led him to the military, so he doesn't want to skip this part of the story.
He got kicked out of his mom's house, then his dad's, then he lived with his brother until he moved into a spare bedroom in a friend's house. He talks to his mom occasionally, but says his father doesn't answer the phone.
All of a sudden he wound up where he doesn't want to be.
"He wants to prove to his parents that he can do something," says his friend Kyle Neupauer, 19.
One day at Sonny's Barbecue near the house where he's been living, Scowden says: "What I have, I own. Everything I have I've worked for. Except for this shirt."
His inventory: a sheet, pillow and the plaid blanket his mom gave him. A BB gun. His cell phone, two pairs of shoes, a ball cap that says Murphy's Irish Pub, sunglasses, and a watch. The shirt, the one he's wearing, says ARMY, and he got it for free during a halftime ceremony at a Tampa Bay Storm game.
"I'm poor," he says. "And that's no way to live."
- - -
Jump back three months.
Here sits Jason Scowden, on the patio outside his brother's apartment. He's been smoking marijuana, not every day, but a lot, and he's been thinking about how it feels like he's standing on a dead end street, dark space in front of him.
"All of the sudden it hits me," he says. "I'm 18 years old and my friend is 20. He's unemployed and I'm working a job that pays minimum wage -- Little Caesar's. ... I've got another two friends ... and he's working security and she's pregnant and works at 7-Eleven, you know, and they struggle. ... If I stay with Little Caesar's, I'm never going to get that car. ... It just hits me that, no, I don't want to be here."
So he fires up the computer, surfs the Web for the military, and lands on the Army. He makes an appointment the next day, and borrows a friend's pickup to get there.
Don't do it, his mom says. You'll get hurt, or worse.
Do it, his brother A.J. says. "It's what we know, what we've lived."
Scowden can rise from the water without making a noise. He has practiced for as long as he can remember. He once ran away from home and lived in camouflage across the street.
Don't do it, Neupauer says.
"I had a friend last year go to the Army -- Brewsky. So it's kinda like my last best friend leaving, again. I was depressed."
Scowden gives the company line. The Army is a good career, with insurance, 30 days paid vacation and help with college.
"Yeah," says Kyle, "but what are you going to do when you go to war?"
Do it, says his friend Patrick Wigmore, 20. "A lot of our friends see him as just being a teenager. He's nearing 20 and he's just doing some bad stuff, so this is good for him. It's going to get him straightened out."
And in the end, there's no stopping Skee McGee.
- - -
Not all come like him. The Army recruiters have to work to meet their goal in this office - about eight recruits per month -- so they fan into businesses and colleges and public schools, like Leto High School, where one day at lunchtime the bell rings and kids spill into the courtyard.
Sgt. William Judge and Sgt. Alex Correa erect a table near the room where graduating seniors pick up their caps and gowns. The tablecloth says Yo Soy El Army.
The chatter of salesmanship soon breaks the white noise of the school hallway, the Army competing with the forces at work in teenagers' lives. Selling the armed services is a tall order, especially during wartime.
Sgt. Judge spots young, thin Bryan Venzen. Judge tries to make small talk and the 18-year-old humors him.
Out of earshot, Venzen says: "I got a lot of things in my future and none of it has anything to do with the military. To help your country is great, but I'm not joining the military."
The pull for some is irresistible. Lowell Tamayo is a junior from a long line of men with military experience. He ships out to basic training this summer, and will return to finish his senior year.
Tamayo sports a Dickies shirt and baggy jeans. His boots say business and his chin hair says machismo.
"I don't want to be like, go to college, get a debt, get a job and then try to pay the debt," he says. "The military is different." He wants to join the Special Forces -- "the best," he says.
His recruiter, who goes to Tamayo's mom's hair salon, helped get him in the door. "He's like family," Tamayo says.
Sgt. Correa is now surrounded by a pack of girls. If she weren't wearing camouflage, the 24-year-old recruiter would look just like one of them. She chaperoned the school's prom. She forges relationships with the students, learns the names of their boyfriends, all to gently steer them toward the Army.
One girl is campaigning for prom queen. She slips a necklace of yarn and construction paper over Correa's head. The sign -- "Vanessa for Queen" -- rests against the soldier's fatigues.
Nearby sits Cuban-born Maylin Martinez. She committed to the military, then backed out.
"They were trying so hard to get me to join," she says. "I'm not a strong person. ... My counselor was like, 'You're not doing that.' "
Her mother, too: "What if you die?" she asked.
Martinez carries a 4.28 grade point average. She thinks now she might be a doctor.
On the way back to the office, Judge scans corners for loiterers, potential recruits. He thinks it may be too hot.
Scowden, he says, is one of the easy ones, a young man who shows up ready to sign. Most take some convincing.
Back at the office, another young man has come to explore. He tells Judge he's a University of Tampa student looking for extra money for medical school.
"What do you think about the military?" Judge asks.
"What do you mean?" he replies.
"If I came to you and said, 'I'm in the military,' what would you say?"
"Well, I'd support you, but it wouldn't, like, make me want to join."
"Hold on," Judge says. "Nobody said anything about joining." He pulls a pen from his pocket.
"Let me tell you about this pen," he says, rolling it between his fingers. "Anything you write with this pen from now on will make you want to be a soldier. And guess what? I'm going to give it to you for free."
The young man takes the pen and studies it.
"Go ahead and fill this out for me," Judge says, sliding a form for contact information across the desk.
"What's this for?" the young man asks.
"It's just to show I worked today," Judge says.
- - -
Watch Jason Scowden run.
He's up early, clomping out of the driveway for a lap around the block, his skinny arms cutting the heat, the Insane Clown Posse on his iPod. He has to get in shape if he wants to survive basic training.
Why is he pushing so hard?
His answers range from juvenile to heartbreaking as he runs the tattered curve to change the direction of his life.
"It would be cool to come home and say, 'Hey. I have a helicopter,' " he says one day.
He wants to be able to afford a pack of Marlboros and save up for a twin-turbo all-wheel-drive Subaru WRX STI. He wants a job not Little Caesar's and a house (not his friend's extra room) and a wife (not the girls from the neighborhood) and none of that is going to happen unless he gets some things straightened out.
And then there is this: "My dad always told me I'd never be able to do anything -- I'd always be a piece of s---," he says. "But I'm doing it."
Here he comes down the block again, slower this time, lungs burning, mouth dry, and there he goes, inside the house, and here he comes, back outside, lighting a cigarette and wiping away sweat between drags, a foot in each world.
He takes off his shirt, drops in the hot driveway and starts doing pushups. The tattoos show his story:
A rosary, in case there is a God.
A flower under the sun, rebirth.
And that's why he's doing this.
"When he comes back," says his friend Pat, "he's not going to be Skee McGee anymore."
He's been trying to find a niche for himself, his brother says. "This will be good for him."
A few weeks before he ships out to basic, Scowden changes his voicemail. The phone rings to rock music, then a click and a voice says: "You've reached Private First Class Jason Scowden."
- - -
Here sits Jason Scowden on June 12, in the office where it all started, on his last day as a civilian, foot tapping, clock ticking, COURAGE bracelet on his wrist.
He had just passed the test to qualify as a private first class.
All his possessions are stuffed into four bags at his feet. He'll leave three in Army storage and take one to basic training in Fort Benning, Ga. From there, who knows.
Over the weekend he had visited his mother and siblings, called his friends and went by the Boys and Girls Club where he used to hang out to say goodbye.
When it's time, he stands and shakes hands. Sgt. Judge hugs his neck.
"Make us proud," someone says.
"He's gonna be crying in the hotel," jokes someone else.
He takes the passenger seat in a car with government plates and heads to the hotel where he'll stay the night with other recruits before shipping out. As some parents drop their young soldiers off, a recruiter lets Scowden out. A quick handshake, goodbye, and he's gone.
When the sky grows black, Scowden chases some Tylenol PM with Mountain Dew to calm his nerves. He needs to sleep. He says he isn't scared of getting shot. He is worried about needles, and someone told him they draw blood at basic training.
The next morning, he's up before the sun, eating bacon from the breakfast buffet and smoking his last few cigarettes. Two charter buses idle outside.
Before long the breezeway in front of the hotel is full of faces in the dark. Twenty, 40, 60 of them, young, sleepy and scared, all here for their own reasons.
"Everybody get on the buses!" a man shouts. "Good luck!"
Tomorrow's soldiers toss their cigarette butts into the flower beds and march toward their future. Pfc. Jason Scowden grabs his bag, snuffs out his smoke, and joins the long line.
Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2443.