Four Good Men: High school buddies join Marines

They have lit their feet afire with tiki torch fuel and held a blazing kick fight. They have jumped off a second-story roof into a pile of sand. They have commandeered family cars for secret midnight road trips.

And those are just the printable escapades these four recent Modesto high school graduates will share with outsiders.

But within the week, these thrill-seeking teenagers will set sail on quite a different journey, courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps.

William Charles Howard decided in March that he would join the Marines. By August, he had convinced three of his closest friends -- Logan Heilman, Jay Davi and Michael Wormuth -- to do the same. They report for basic training Sunday.

No one at the Marine recruiting station in Modesto could remember four friends enlisting together. If it's happened at all previously, it was your father's or grandfather's war.

Staff Sgt. Isidro Zamudio recruited Howard and the others. They represent about a third of the recruits he has signed in Modesto since he arrived earlier this year.

Zamudio is unable to connect the dots between his recruiting gold mine and the lives his charges have been leading.

What was it that Zamudio saw that made him believe Howard and friends were made of the right, gung-ho stuff? And when did Zamudio first see it?

The sergeant looked far off, shrugged and shook his head. "I don't really know, sir, when that moment was, but I'm sure they will make good Marines."

There is some intrinsic motivation behind Howard's zeal. His recruiting referrals will earn him the rank of private first class while he goes through boot camp. That means an extra $300 a month in pay.

When Zamudio came to Modesto, Howard was the first person he called about joining the Corps. He got Howard's name from a list of prospects for the armed services developed by school districts.

"We screen applicants to see what they are about," explained Zamudio of the interview he conducts.

The Marines are looking for disqualifying characteristics, such as tattoos and criminal records or physical and mental deficiencies. Then the prospective recruits take tests that are designed to show how they will score on military placement exams. The battery of tests measures language, math and problem-solving skills.

About 40 relatives, friends and Zamudio gathered two weekends ago at Granada Park to honor their loved ones before they leave for boot camp. Sandwiched around expressions of love and pride, several folks told stories.

Charlotte Howard threw the party for her son and his friends. The plasticware for the barbecue was wrapped in red, white and blue or Marine red and gold. U.S. and Marine flags served as a table centerpiece. She tied four yellow ribbons to the corners of an awning. Each ribbon had one of the boys' names and a Scripture attached from Psalm 121:

"The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil; He shall preserve thy soul.

"The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even forever more."

"They're good boys," Charlotte Howard said. "They are all like my own."

She means it. When Heilman had to leave his foster home during the school year, the Howards took him in. He has lived with them ever since, after being in seven foster homes.

"When I was in the fifth grade, my mother came home and said she couldn't take care of me anymore," Heilman said.

For a long time, he said, he cried himself to sleep at night. But the experience did not erase his love for his family. His mother and older sister accepted his invitation to the barbecue.

"I'm very proud of him, but scared, too," said his mother, Stacey Heilman.

Sister Nakita, 20, was uncomfortable with her brother's career choice.

"I don't approve. I already have a brother in Afghanistan," she said, referring to their brother, Scott, 22.

Wormuth comes from a military family, but his decision to join the Marines was a surprise.

"We're all Air Force," said his mother, Mary Jane Wormuth. "Ultimately, it has to be his choice. He'll come out of it OK. He'll get the best training and discipline."

Zamudio said because it's military service, everyone knows an ultimate price could be paid. "But we don't focus on that. We focus on opportunity."

'You can't live in fear'

If fear was on the minds of family members, it didn't register with those who would soon be carrying weapons. Neither Howard nor his friends expressed concerns about the price military service might require.

"I'm not scared," he said. Each of his friends gave similar short answers.

Charlotte Howard said that was how she raised her son.

"As a mom, I've taught Wil-liam that you can't live in fear," she said. "Life is too short. When it's your time to die, you will go no matter where you are."

She added that she admonished her son to live life to the fullest, "follow your heart and your dreams, because if you don't, you will always wonder, 'What if?' "

Howard said she was against her son joining the Marines at first, but relented and signed the consent forms when he was 17. "I see good things for him by joining the Marines, the experience and adventure of serving our country and to see places he (otherwise) never would in his lifetime.

"We are proud he made a decision to better himself."

There might have been five friends joining together, but Frankie Looney has a bad ankle. He was the first friend William called, but Frankie couldn't pass a military physical.

"I like that (my friends) are going, that they are serving our country," Frankie said. "It's good that they are joining the Marines because they are the best, (the) most prestigious."

When the four men were asked what they would like to do in their last days and nights before going to boot camp, they would collectively smile, joke and hint at parties.

Only Davi offered a deeper look.

"We've done everything I want to," he said, while friends nodded in agreement. "I've busted (wasted) enough time. It's time to do something with my life."

Bee staff writer Roger W. Hoskins can be reached at rhoskins@modbee.com or 578-2311.