Selling the Army in Wartime
For many recruits, enlisting used to mean cash for college and few risks. But 9/11 and the war in Iraq have made signing up a more complicated decision.
Avenamar Cruz grew up in Atopoltitlan (Ah-toh-poh-tee-TLAHN), a little town in the Mexican state of Puebla that he left when he was 17. Cruz, 36, now lives in New York and works in a wholesale produce market in the Bronx, but he continues to take an active part in the life of Atopoltitlan, helping to raise Last June, Katherine Jordan was filling her scrapbook with memories of her high-school years. By the end of August, she was set to graduate from U.S. Army basic training in South Carolina. Jordan, 18, says she joined the Army because she wanted to be part of something bigger than herself, bigger than her hometown of Lyndon, Kan., pop. 1,000.
Thirty miles from Lyndon, in Topeka, James Nelson, 19, got the idea of enlisting from his probation officer. Slated to start basic training this month, he hopes the Army will help him to straighten out his life and to stop, as his mother says, doing nothing all day aside from playing CD's and smoking cigarettes.
And down the road, in Lawrence, Julie Reese, 23, recently laid off from her job mowing lawns, feels the Army will help her find her way. She is hoping the Army will overlook her low scores on her entrance exam and allow her to enlist.
Jordan, Nelson, and Reese are a few of the people being recruited in an unremarkable office building in an anonymous strip mall in Kansas, one of more than 1,600 Army recruitment stations across the country.
The Impact of Iraq
The world of recruiting has shifted significantly. Gone, recruiters say, are the people looking mainly for easy cash to pay for college. Gone also, they say, are those who covet signing bonuses of up to $20,000 but hope never to leave their base. And gone are those who think enlisting in the Reserve or the National Guard will mean a few weekends of training in a park.
The war in Iraq has changed the implications of signing up, and some potential soldiers' families have tougher questions when recruiters call — or do not want to hear the pitch at all.
"Parents will tell us all the time that 'Johnny's not joining!' and just hang up on us," says Sgt. First Class John J. Stover, a recruiter at the station in Topeka. "The difference, "Stover says, "is that no one has ever recruited during a sustained war."
Officials at Army Recruiting Command at Fort Knox, Ky., have said the Army is on pace to bring in nearly 100,000 soldiers for active duty and the Reserves by October, but military officials worry about meeting recruitment goals in the years ahead, with the Army's continuing presence in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the world.
To attract candidates, recruiters are pitching shorter enlistments, of 15 months instead of 2 years; a buddy option, which lets enlistees serve alongside a friend; and a reminder that many of the Army's 211 jobs are far from the front lines (euphonium player in the band, for instance).
For some recruits, the prospects of war and the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have become powerful motivators to sign up. "I didn't sign up to sit behind a desk," says Andrew Limbocker, 18, of Eskridge, Kan., who reported to the Topeka office not long ago.
But others, like Jordan, Nelson, and Reese, say they haven't thought much about Iraq. Although administration officials have said they will keep 135,000 troops there through 2005, these recruits are philosophical about the dangers that may lie ahead.
"You could get shot going to the gas station," says Jordan.
Captain Eric O. Hinckley, who commands recruiting in the 41,000 square miles that make up the northern half of Kansas, says his 22 recruiters should never lie, especially when it comes to the question of service in Iraq.
"I challenge my guys to be honest and say there is a possibility that you may be deployed," he says. "A soldier should not be told that he was never going to deploy. However, it would also be false to promise, 'You are going.' I guess the key is to say, 'You might be called up at some point, but you may not.' "
Most recruits require six months to two years of training to be eligible to be sent to war, Hinckley says.
He declined to say how many recruits his region is assigned to find in a year, though he acknowledged his recruiters try to enlist one or two soldiers each month. He says he prefers not to think of people as numbers.
Rolling a Doughnut
Still, numbers are a reality in the recruiting business. A month-by-month breakdown is posted in Hinckley's conference room. His recruiters swap stories of their best months and their worst, when they failed to sign up anyone, or "rolled a doughnut," in the language of recruiting.
Even in wartime, Hinckley says, the Army has not lowered its standards. All recruits must take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery examination, a standardized test like the SAT; a physical test; and a criminal-background check. Drug use and tattoos that show outside their uniform are barred.
Nelson, the recruit from Topeka, was convicted last year of misdemeanor battery (he says he punched someone trying to attack his girlfriend). Recruiters say his misdemeanor shouldn't prevent him from enlisting.
Waiting for a Decision
Reese, the woman laid off from her lawn-mowing job recently, has failed the Army's entrance test five times, due, she says, to a learning disability.
In June she asked the Army to waive the test requirements — something it does in a small number of cases. Now she's waiting to hear the decision.
A friend of Reese's returned from Iraq recently. He told her that if she is sent to Iraq, she should be ready to see things she has never seen before. But Reese says she has spent little time weighing his words. "To be honest," she says, "I really haven't thought about going over. "For now, it is all about getting in.