Courtesy of Jordan Sherwood
A chance encounter
An hour after he decides to leave home, he drives away with his suitcase, his $2,000 debit card and his father's bottle of Jack Daniels. His father is stunned, but just says: OK, be careful, son, as though he's heading out for the night and not the rest of his life.
Jordan considers Mexico, which sounds exotic, but he doesn't speak Spanish, so he heads toward Missouri, where he hopes a friend can get him a job.
During an ice storm, his car breaks down near Olathe, Kan., an old stagecoach stop on the Sante Fe Trail and the birthplace of the cowboy hat. He decides to stay for no other reason than he's running out of money and the people there seem nice, the prairie city welcoming.
It's another stop on his restless, impatient path; he has grown up in Roanoke, but also lived for a time with his father or mother in Arizona, North Carolina, Richmond, and now he's alone in Kansas. He knows no one there, in the middle of nowhere, midway between his loving parents, one with too many rules, one with too few.
He gets an apartment, a job at a bagel shop in a shopping mall and enrolls in another charter school. One day, a Marine recruiter walks by the bagel shop.
U.S. casualties in Iraq since March 2003:
SOURCE: Department of Defense, Associated Press, Congressional Research Service, GlobalSecurity.org
Jordan looks up: Damn, he thinks, look at that guy, look at that uniform, he looks sharp. Jordan, who's now 19 and debating what to do with life, hasn't considered the military until this moment, even though his father, grandfathers and uncles served hitches from World War II to Vietnam.
In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, many young Americans are enlisting for patriotic and practical reasons. Jordan likes what he hears from the recruiter -- the job skills, college aid, tradition, respect -- so he joins the Marines' delayed entry program. After years of adolescent floundering, he finally feels connected to something beyond his own angst.
As the months pass, the recruiter pushes him to do better in school, to be more disciplined. When Jordan misses a meeting, the recruiter leaves a note on his windshield: Do you want to be a Marine or not? Quit being stupid and focus!!!
Jordan thinks: Whoa, three exclamation points -- this dude's serious.
A year later, at 20, Jordan graduates from high school. He laughs at the ritual of his cap and gown: Thank God this part of my life is over.
He enlists in the Marines for four years of active duty -- starting pay of $15,600 a year -- and another four years of inactive duty. He doesn't tell his parents beforehand. He knows his mother will just worry and tell him not to be impulsive.
In May 2003, two months into the Iraq war, Jordan leaves for boot camp. He thinks he may go to Iraq, but the Marines tell him there's little chance of that, given how quickly Saddam Hussein's regime collapses.
Jordan doesn't give the geopolitics of the war much thought. He doesn't care whether they send him to Iraq, Afghanistan or Timbuktu. Being a good Marine is what matters to him now.
That same month, President Bush declares major combat is over in Iraq.
But a guerrilla conflict is emerging, threatening to draw in more U.S. ground forces, including Jordan.