Dontrell Lendsey didn't seem destined for the Marine Corps.
He planned to go to college and maybe play Division I basketball. His adoptive mother is a Jehovah's Witness who believes God frowns on belonging to any kind of militia. Mostly, the 19-year-old from Colorado says, he was simply selfish. He couldn't envision the sacrifice joining the military would entail, especially in service to a country he saw as materialistic and self-absorbed.
Then the World Trade Center towers fell.
Mr. Lendsey had already been talking to a Marine Corps recruiter, moved by some urge he didn't understand. But as the attacks unfolded on Sept. 11, Lendsey vowed to enlist.
A month later, Lendsey traveled to Denver to take the physical, drug test, and other exams required of military enlistees. At the end of a 12-hour day, he stood with four other recruits, removed his twin earrings, bracelet, and other jewelry, raised his right hand, and swore to serve his country.
"I wanted to just be somebody, to know I have done something in life that meant something to my country, not something just for me," he says. "I had never been a patriotic person until I made that commitment."
Most other young men and women of Lendsey's generation have not followed him in taking the ultimate oath of allegiance to their country. Despite some statistics to the contrary, though, there is also ample evidence that the patriotism stoked by Sept. 11 continues to fire a substantial number of young Americans.
Since Sept. 11, Lendsey has seen pride and patriotism surface where he thought there was none. His view of the country has been turned on its head.
"I used to think this country was just money-hungry," says Lendsey, who spent much of his childhood bouncing around foster homes. "I see now there is more to this country than meets the eye."
Already, his decision has not been without hardships. The rift between Lendsey and his adoptive mother over his enlistment eventually led to him to move out. He has moved in with a friend and begun preparing himself for the 13-week Marine Corps basic training by running, pumping weights, and playing basketball to build up his 5-foot, 10-inch, 154-pound frame.
He leaves for the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego in four days. But first, Lendsey intends to celebrate July 4 with friends. They might drive around with flags on their cars and attend the city's annual Independence Day celebration.
"July 4 is the one holiday I can say people are really friendly to each other," he says. "It's when I feel one with my fellow man."
Not all of Lendsey's friends share his patriotism, though. On a recent night, they peppered him with questions: "Why are joining? Don't you know there's a war? Aren't you scared to die?"
Lendsey has thought of all these questions and is at peace with his decision. But he understands his friends' doubts. In time, he thinks they will see serving the nation differently. For now, the future marine offers doubters a simple response: "This is your country, too."