HAUSER LAKE, Idaho – The countdown is over. Robert and Matt Shipp’s childhood ends today.
The identical-twin brothers will be picked up from their parents’ home this afternoon by a U.S. Marine, who will drive the 18-year-olds away from the forest and the lake that have been their playground for as long as they can remember.
Tonight they will sleep on a mattress in an air-conditioned hotel room in Spokane. Shortly after sunrise Monday, the quiet, rail-thin twins will raise their right hands and promise to defend the nation against all enemies. Then, it’s a quick flight to San Diego, where they’ll spend the next 13 weeks attempting to become Marines.
Fulfilling this longtime dream almost inevitably will result in another plane ticket from Uncle Sam – this time to an Iraqi desert 6,500 miles from Idaho. That’s just what Matt and Robert want. That has been their dream during war games on countless weekend camping trips in the mountains of North Idaho and during all the late-night combat movie marathons in the living room of the tight-knit family’s home near the end of Ragged Ridge Road.
The twins are walking the same path as an estimated 180,000 other recruits to the military this year. Each is volunteering during a time of war. They will all leave behind loved ones torn between fear and pride. The Shipp twins, like the other recruits, know their decision holds the potential for extreme personal growth, as well as the possibility of deep tragedy.
Matt and Robert both wear buzz cuts and share the same DNA – they even swapped identities for a day back in the fifth grade – but the twins have unique personalities. Robert is more of a rebel. He wears his sleeves rolled up and enjoys a wad of Copenhagen and the occasional shot of Jack Daniels. Matt, with his long record of good grades, is something of a bookworm. He’s more shy and spends a lot of time with his longtime girlfriend, Jessica Whetstine.
Last year, Robert dropped out of high school for a short time and considered going to diesel mechanic school in Wyoming. Instead, he enrolled at Mountain View Alternative High School in Rathdrum for his senior year. Robert flourished at the small school. He earned a spot on the honor roll, “which I’ve never had my entire life,” he said on a recent afternoon, while tinkering with his mud-caked Jeep in a garage at the family home.
The twins often used the vehicle for their frequent weekend camping and hunting trips. It has transmission trouble, among other mechanical ailments, and Robert was under direct orders from his father, Dennis, to make sure the garage was cleared before boot camp. As he grunted and pried at the vehicle, his brother stood alongside. With barely any prompts, Matt handed Robert whatever tools were needed.
As he worked, Robert talked about how the goal of becoming a Marine alongside his brother had kept him in school. It’s nearly impossible to join the military without a high school diploma. This is especially true for the Marines, the smallest of the service branches, Robert explained. “They’re the best.”Matt has always wanted to be a Marine. He began hanging out at the recruiter’s office in Coeur d’Alene as a sophomore. A year ago, with his parents’ begrudging blessing, Matt signed a contract for a four-year enlistment. Robert signed several weeks later.
They will be in the same platoon during boot camp but will split afterward. Robert hopes to attend infantry school and eventually train as a sniper. Matt wants to become a forward observer, a duty that will put him into the guts of combat, directing artillery and gunship fire. “I’d rather be up close,” he said.
For all their differences, Robert and Matt spend much of their free time together. Like most other young men their age, they don’t use many words talking about emotions or their relationship. With a bit of pressing, they admit to holding out hope for serving together in combat.
“That’d be kinda cool,” Robert said.
Matt nodded his head and looked down at his feet. “Yeah,” he said. “That’d be cool.”
Dennis and Leslee Shipp moved their family from California to Hauser Lake when the twins were toddlers and their first-born daughter, Lacey, was just beginning school. Their house is surrounded by pine trees and overlooks the small lake northwest of Post Falls, near the border of Idaho and Washington. It sits on a piece of land big enough for Robert and Matt to plink at targets from a makeshift, private rifle range. When the twins aren’t working at the Hauser Lake Resort, the family’s restaurant and bar across the lake, they like to shoot replicas of Marine combat weapons.
Robert claims to be better hitting targets at long distances with help from a scope. Matt prides himself on being accurate with the naked eye. Last year, he shot a whitetail buck from 150 yards using open sights.
The twins worked together last year to shoot and track a small whitetail buck. Matt wounded the animal. Robert hit it the second time. The deer was down but still alive. Many hunters would dispatch the animal at close range with a shot to the neck or vital organs. Robert saw the incident as a chance to test himself. He slit the animal’s throat with his K-BAR knife – standard-issue combat weapon for Marines.The twins didn’t grow up hunting. They picked it up on their own, often through trial and error. Their parents have tried to make sure the boys get enough time away from the restaurant each fall to pursue the hobby.
Dennis and Leslee Shipp have always tried to give their sons the freedom to explore the wilds of North Idaho. They’ve supported most every adventure the twins have embarked upon, but the idea of Robert and Matt joining the Marines has caused considerable heartache.
“They were going to do it anyway,” Dennis said, standing next to his sons on a recent afternoon in the parking lot of his restaurant. “I tried to talk them out of it.”
“They still do,” Robert said.
“All the time,” Matt added.
Back in 1969, Dennis had similar plans to join the military and go off to war, but he was unable to enlist after a motorcycle crash wrecked his knee. He said he wanted to fight to avenge the death of his cousin, who was killed after stepping on a land mine in a Vietnamese jungle. “He was like an older brother to me,” Dennis said.
Last month, he told his sons to cut back on their hours at the family business, where they have worked since age 10. “They need some free time before going in,” he said.
As he spoke, CJ, the twins’ 14-year-old kid brother, buzzed past on a three-wheeler. As usual, CJ wore a big grin. He lobbed a pine cone, hitting Robert in the shoulder, prompting a shout and a chase.
“I’m going to miss the hell out of them,” Dennis said. “I just hope they don’t go to Iraq right away.”
Matt stood off to the side, his arms crossed. “When you’re going to join the military, you should expect some kind of war,” he said.
A patron leaving the bar shouted to Robert, “Did you get that tattoo yet?” Most of the regulars at the Hauser Lake Resort know about the twins’ impending departure.
Robert flipped open his cell phone and showed the man a photo of a Marine “devil dog.” In World War I, German soldiers gave the Marines this nickname for their ferocity. Robert wants the image etched in ink on his right arm. He also wants to have a smiley-faced grenade tattooed on his back. Robert explained to the man he needs to wait until after boot camp for the tattoos.
Several days before Matt graduated from Lakeland Senior High School in Rathdrum, the school held a scholarship ceremony where dozens of awards were handed out. The National Wild Turkey Federation gave away $300 to a student. Another received $500 from 4-H. Others were presented with large athletic scholarships from faraway universities.
Then, a Marine recruiter called Matt’s name and announced that he would eventually receive $37,224 in college money for enlisting. Matt walked to the front of the hall, taking long, lanky strides. Robert, who didn’t have as sterling an academic record and who will receive a slightly lesser amount, applauded from his seat in the back row. The sleeves of his white T-shirt were rolled up, as usual.
As Matt returned to his seat, school counselor Frank Vieira told him, “We’ll be watching your progress as you go into training and beyond. Our prayers are with you.”
In the hallway after the ceremony, CJ approached his big brothers and asked, “How many days left?”
“Eighteen,” one of the twins said.
The answer prompted a pained expression from their mother. Leslee took a deep breath and said, “I’m starting to freak out.”
CJ shrugged. “I’m happy for them, but I’m sad,” he said. “I think they’ll have fun. As long as they’re having fun, it’s fine with me.”
Meanwhile, the recruiter, Staff Sgt. Jonathan Rickman, talked with the Shipp family. He said he spends nearly every night in late May and early June attending high school graduation and scholarship ceremonies. “I go there in support of my guys,” he said.
The college money is a powerful lure, Rickman said, but the prospect for adventure and combat remain the top draw for recruits.
“That’s why every Marine joins,” said Rickman, who served in Iraq during the initial invasion in 2003. He said there is a “95 or 96 percent chance” that the twins will also end up there.
Marines make up about 15 percent of U.S. armed forces personnel in Iraq, according to the most recent data from the Department of Defense Web site. But Marines have served in the toughest battles – a fact borne out in Pentagon casualty statistics. Nearly one in three Americans killed in Iraq has been a Marine.
Matt and Robert want to see combat. That’s why they picked the Marines. Like other military branches, the Marines offer opportunities for specialized training. But unlike other branches, the Marines require every officer and enlisted man and woman – from cook to office clerk – to be trained as a rifleman. Matt and Robert are well acquainted with the Marine Corps creed, which begins, “This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life.”
For the last several years, the twin brothers have fed themselves a steady diet of stories of Marine heroism in battles ranging from Iwo Jima to Khe Sanh. They’ve watched just about every war movie ever made. Not long ago, they watched “Born on the Fourth of July.” The movie is based on the true story of a young Marine who becomes an anti-war activist after being shot and paralyzed in Vietnam.
“I don’t think that’s cool,” Matt said. “You’re loyal to your country. You shouldn’t turn your back on it.”
“We’ve always been ‘love it or leave it,’ ” Robert said.
The war in Iraq was the most popular discussion topic this year in Taylor Skidmore’s classes at Robert’s school, Mountain View Alternative High School. Skidmore, a history teacher, said many students come to class and simply repeat the pro- or anti-war stances they hear at home from their parents. Not Robert.
“He kept an open mind,” Skidmore said, taking a break from eating lunch during an end-of-the-year picnic for students at the school. “Robert would stay after class to talk about the war. He had a lot of questions.”
At the picnic, the school’s head teacher grilled burgers and hot dogs. At Robert’s table, there was talk of his probable service in Iraq. Sophomore Roland Williams had recently come across a Web site where videos had been posted that show torture tactics used by insurgents in Iraq.
“They do a lot of crazy stuff over there – cut off your tongue, blow you up while you’re still alive,” Williams said. “It’s crazy, crazy, crazy.”
Robert didn’t comment. His focus was on chewing his hamburger.
Several students at the school are openly anti-war. One drives a car spray-painted “No Bush!” Robert doesn’t harbor strong feelings either way about the president.
“We’re not going to fight for Bush. He’s our boss, but we’re fighting for our country and the people back home and also the people that fought for us before,” he said.
John Klingaman, head teacher at Mountain View, said he hasn’t tried to sway Robert one way or the other about joining the Marines. “When he came to this school, his mind was already made up,” Klingaman said.
He coached Robert in basketball several years ago. “He wasn’t the most gifted athlete, but he worked his butt off and wanted to be part of a team.”
As with any student joining the military, Klingaman just hopes Robert is fully aware of both the benefits and risks. “I’m always concerned at that age that they really know what they’re getting into.”
Hours later, when Robert was told of Klingaman’s concern, he replied, “Nobody can know what war’s like unless they go.”
Friday night, less than 48 hours before Departure Day, Dennis and Leslee Shipp hosted a going away party at their bar and restaurant. Dozens of friends from school showed up. Longtime Hauser Lake residents stopped by, dropping off cards for the twins and offering firm handshakes or hugs. A neighbor worked the grill, cooking up stacks of burgers and hot dogs. A band played on the deck. A Marine recruiter showed up and sang karaoke.
The twins drifted through the crowd, always peppered with the same question: “You ready?”
Both said they were itching to board the plane Monday morning for San Diego. “I can’t wait,” Matt said. “I’ve been waiting for this for so long.” About the only admission of anxiety came from Robert, who knows he will have to kick his chewing tobacco habit for boot camp.
Mom and Dad seemed to carry most of the worry Friday night. Both spent a lot of time back in the kitchen, keeping busy with cooking. Leslee Shipp’s eyes were glassy with tears much of the night.
A neighbor from across the lake hugged Leslee and told her, “I just can’t believe it. I remember these boys when they were little. I just can’t believe they’re leaving now. They’ve been such good boys.”
Leslee buried her face in her neighbor’s shoulder. “I know,” she said, trying to stop crying, “I know.”
A lightning storm caused the band to pack its gear and chased the crowd inside. It also darkened the mood of Dennis, who had done everything in his power to give his sons the best sendoff party possible. The clouds eventually cleared, and the party kept going. Later, Dennis used the karaoke microphone to quiet the crowd and call his sons to the bar.
“They were real small and now look how big they are. They’re almost as big as me,” Dennis said, his deep, hoarse voice beginning to break. The bar was quiet. Robert and Matt kept their gaze at the ground. Dennis handed each son a shot glass full of whiskey.
“If they’re old enough to fight for our country, they’re old enough to have a shot of Jack Daniels!”
The bar erupted with applause, whistles and shouts of “Semper fi!”
“Matthew, you don’t drink, but you gotta force this down,” Dennis said, clinking glasses with both sons. “Here’s to the boys! Congratulations, I love you. I’m very, very proud of you boys. You’ll do this well.”