Nineteen-year-old Jose Lopez is joining the Army in October. Following six weeks of boot camp at Fort Benning, Ga., he expects to join the infantry and be in Afghanistan by year's end. In only 10 years, he will have run the gamut from illegal-immigrant status to serving overseas in the U.S. military, defending the country his parents once dreamed of living in.
"My parents always told us they came here to make a better life for us. I want to follow that. I have always wanted to be in the military. I am nervous, but I am also excited because I am going to be a soldier," he says.
Lopez was brought to the Wood River Valley from Jalisco, Mexico, when he was 8. Speaking no English, he was enrolled, along with his younger brother, Luis, at Hemingway Elementary School in Ketchum. His mother is a natural-born U.S. citizen who has worked at Atkinsons' Market and as a housekeeper. His father is a house painter. Lopez, his father and Luis became legal U.S. citizens within a year of arriving.
"It was easier to do back then before 9/11. I have heard that it is much harder to do now."
Lopez says there are immigrants from Mexico attending schools in the valley, but he doesn't know how many.
"We never talk about it," he says. "It's much easier if you are legal. You feel safer. There are less hassles from immigration."
Lopez dropped out of his senior year at Wood River High School two weeks shy of graduation when his son, Eduardo, was born. His wife Tanya, a 17-year-old Wood River student, lives in Bellevue. She worked at Domino's Pizza until being laid off recently.
Lopez lives with his mother in Ketchum. He worked as a barista at the coffee bar in Atkinsons' Market in Ketchum for a while, the only steady work he has had, other than some work on landscaping crews. He is looking forward to military service and would like to make a career of it.
"I was really bad in school, a slacker I guess. I've always wanted to be in the military. The recruiters for the Army, National Guard and the Marines always came to the high school and I talked with them. I passed the test for the infantry, so I think I will be one of the guys on the front lines carrying a gun. I don't really know what I will do in the Army, whether it will be a machine-gunner or what."
Lopez said he expects to make $15,000 to $18,000 per year in the Army. His wife and son will get health benefits.
"That's half the reason I'm joining," he says.
"My wife is worried that something will happen to me, or that I will leave her for someone else. All my mother thinks about is war, that they are going to send me off to another country to get killed. It's a mother's instinct. She said once that she wishes she never left Mexico, that we had it pretty good there."
Lopez said his father supports his decision, and wishes him well.
Until Lopez's parents divorced two years ago, the family took annual trips to visit extended family in small towns near Puerto Vallarta, on the Pacific Coast. Last year, the Lopez family home was foreclosed upon. Lopez says there isn't much work these days.
"Some families are returning to Mexico because there's no work here. It's harder here than it was there for some. They have no life here and only work their butts off for a few bucks."
Lopez sees the Army as an exciting alternative. He has gathered some advice from older veterans in the valley over the last few years. A Vietnam War vet told him to do whatever the drill sergeant tells him to do at boot camp.
"He said they can make your life miserable, and to make friends with the cooks."
A Korean War veteran told Lopez to "choose Airborne," and become a paratrooper.
He is also watching YouTube videos about basic training to get an idea of what he's in for. He knows he has two distant cousins in the military, but is not in touch with them.
"If you have a boring life, it's a great way to travel the world and have an adventure. Joining the military is a way to stand out from normal people."
Lopez was in fifth grade at Hemingway Elementary when the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were attacked by al-Qaida. He said he knew something bad happened, but didn't understand it at the time. In some ways, his decision to join the military stems from that day that rocked the world when he was 10.
"I want to do something for this country. I'm not saying I'm a killer or anything, but I want to get the bad guys that caused 9/11."