Lance Cpl. Allison Gilbert said she supports a war with Iraq but doesn't discuss the prospect with her colleagues.
"We don't really want to talk about such sad things when we have to go on the next day and try to be all happy," she said. "And especially with all the young kids, we don't talk about things like that."
At 15, the Desert Mountain High School freshman is one of the oldest members of the north Scottsdale-based unit of the Young Marines, a nationwide organization for youths ages 8 to 18 that has raised its profile in the East Valley over the last few years, with one unit each in Scottsdale, Mesa, Chandler and Apache Junction, and more expected.
As members of a youth organization that strives to build character and discipline through quasi-military drills and other activities, the Young Marines view the brewing war with Iraq from an unusual vantage point.
Gilbert said she feels the case for disarming Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is strong enough to warrant going to war, and the skills she has obtained through the Young Marines would help her if she needs to help defend her country in the future. But for now, she has no plans to pursue a military career.
Misty Dudley of Mesa is one of the youngest members of her Mesa-based Young Marines unit, but the 10-year-old's presence fills the cavernous National Guard armory where the group meets. She's also the youngest Young Marine sergeant in the organization’s 45-year-old history.
She said she has wanted to be a Marine since she was 2 and is now studying for her staff sergeant exam, even though she can't take it until she turns 12. And like any loyal soldier, she stands behind her commander in chief.
"I think we should go to war so no one is able to hurt us, and to protect our freedoms," she said one recent evening between drills at Mesa's National Guard armory. At the armory, she seems to be channeling Gen. George Patton while commanding her unit, whether she's inspecting her troops by peering up into their faces or barking "Quiet!" when the noise level rises above an acceptable level during meetings.
She wants to be the first female Marine commandant, as well as the first woman president. When asked if she's ever pondered the worst-case combat scenarios of injury or death, she said firmly, "You aren't supposed to think about that."
When asked what a warrior is supposed to think about instead, she suddenly sounds her age: "I don't know."
The organization strives to build good citizens more than to be a farm team for the U.S. Marine Corps, said Jim Geiser, a consultant and ex-Marine who acts as "commanding officer" of Scottsdale's Soaring Eagles. "We focus on teaching them values, respect for elders, respect for teachers, community involvement."
But in life during almost-wartime, military fact and military fiction can't help but intersect. The East Valley Young Marines more or less take over the Mesa armory most Wednesday nights for two hours of drills, meetings and sports, but a couple of weeks ago they were relegated to a classroom on the north side of the building and an outdoor storage area. Elsewhere, a classified inventory of the armory's contents was being conducted, in advance of 400 National Guardsmen being assigned to various posts in Arizona.
Frank Alger of Mesa, the ex-Marine who has commanded the East Valley Young Marines since he founded the unit more than two years ago, said he didn't see a surge of interest with the swell of patriotism that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"They really didn't care about 9/11. They didn't know what it was all about," he said. "All they wanted was to be part of something, and I'm giving them an alternative to the gangs."
Most of the youngsters in his unit may be on the apolitical side, but many find themselves following international news more closely.
The Young Marines surveyed generally seemed to support President Bush's apparent plans to attack Iraq, but 11-year-old Whitney Gray, the student body president at Salt River Elementary School, expressed some reservations: "I think we should — I kind of think, but kind of not."
He said he agreed with the positions Bush outlined in his State of the Union speech — that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein intended to harm Americans and may already have through cooperation with terrorists.
But he has reservations. "I don't think we should attack all the people of Iraq, just the people who attacked us, like Osama bin Laden," he said. "That's why I think we should send out ground troops to find them before we send out helicopters."
He said he wants to follow in his dad's footsteps and become a Marine photojournalist. He's not sure whether that job would involve any combat role.
Many other Young Marines come from military families, among them Jared Brooks, 15, an ROTC member at Gilbert High School, where he's a sophomore. He supports doing battle with Saddam.
Once, he said, he and his friends decided the perfect Marine "is a little bit psychotic, a little bit sane and really patriotic." The "psychotic" element was inspired by World War I fighters who continued charging at the Germans after they had lost a limb, he explained.
Now, he said, he has two brothers in the Mideast, one in the Army and another in the Marines. Brooks, who also plans to join the Marines, said he's not too worried about his brothers.
"Not really," he said. "They're both crazier than I am, so I think they'll probably make it out OK."