At times, he uses bravado to get past the worry—especially at home, when he knows he can get a rise out of his mother by saying he can’t wait to feel the adrenaline rush of combat. Zambarda’s father spent twenty years in the NYPD, and knows what it’s like to have a gun pointed at him. “I’ve only heard the sound of a bullet flying past my head once,” says Mark Sr., “and it’s not a good sound.”
Mark’s mother, Nancy, an administrator at Merrill Lynch, absently clutches a large pillow to her chest as she talks about her son’s last chance to turn back. Midway through West Point, all cadets must make a decision: They can leave up to two years into their military education, but if they choose to stay, they commit to active duty. “I encouraged him to get out if he could,” she says. “As the reality of it started setting in, as a parent, I really got scared. I said, ‘If you have any doubt at all, get out.’ Many times. Many times.” Mark filled out an application to Cooper Union, where his best friend goes to school, just to remind himself he had options. He never submitted it.
Mark’s next choice thrilled his mother even less: He wanted to “branch” infantry. Zambarda had excellent grades; why not, his mother suggested, apply to medical school? The Army needs doctors, and five more years in classes wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Or, his father said, how about artillery? At least that’s twenty miles from the front lines. Infantry, Mark insisted, and, as always, he backed it up with logic. “He sold it to us that, if you’re gonna be over there anyway, infantry guys are the best trained,” Nancy says. “And if you’re going to be career military, infantry is almost a requirement. He sold it to me. A little bit. I’m a little better with it now.”
The Zambardas are inviting dozens of friends and relatives to celebrate Mark’s graduation. He’ll wear his class-of-2007 ring, with an engraved image of the Twin Towers and the class motto ALWAYS REMEMBER, NEVER SURRENDER.
“This coming summer, I have 60 days of leave, and my best friend from back home, he asked me if I wanted to go on a trip with him to the Dominican Republic,” Zambarda says. “It’s basically seven days and seven nights of drinking and partying. The person I was before I came to West Point, that would have been the perfect trip. But it doesn’t interest me now.” Instead, he’ll use his leave this summer to backpack in Europe, one last spasm of being a regular kid.
Lately, though, he spends a lot of time thinking about the day he departs for Iraq, and what he’ll say to his mother and father.
“I will just tell them I’m going to do everything I can to come back alive, and bring every single soldier I have alive,” Zambarda says. “I’m gonna do my job. And if I die on duty, that I’m sure I died doing something I’m proud of.”
He takes a deep breath.
“I know that if I die, that doesn’t affect me so much. It’s more worrisome for me that my parents will live the rest of their lives questioning ever letting me apply here.”