Originally published in Details.
I Need You for U.S. Army
Stretched to the breaking point in Iraq, the U.S. Army desperately needs troops, but finding fresh meat has never been harder. Inside the military’s new recruitment machine.
Lawton is a lonesome town carved into the red Oklahoma dirt. Stretched taut amid cow pastures and cotton fields, it is pinned down by a mall and a hot-dog factory the size of a football field. On Friday nights, high-school boys cruise the Strip – a heartland stretch of fast food chains and dollar stores – only to end up at Wayne’s, an old drive-in burger joint right out of a John Mellencamp song. Their loose talk of sex and football is perforated by explosions from Fort Sill, a U.S. Army artillery base a few miles north of the town center. During the day, the boys watch caravans of sunburned young men, freshly demobilized from Iraq, racing past in family SUVs that bear signs reading WELCOME HOME, SON! And then, right beside these caravans, somber buses of raw-faced recruits, shipping out to take their place. With nothing much to do, the Lawton boys sometimes get to thinking.
That’s when SFC Joseph Flores, who mans a tidy desk next to the mall’s JCPenney, and who is the Army’s top recruiter in the continental United States, can quickly become their best friend.
“Lawton’s a trap,” says Flores, a gym-muscled 35-year-old with gold-framed glasses and a perpetual smile. “If these kids don’t go to college on a full ride, they’re gonna either work at one of these little $6-an-hour jobs or work at the hot-dog plant. That’s it, man.” He adds, “If you can hang out with them and BS with them and joke around with them, you’re in.”
For years, the young men of Lawton, and towns like it, have been low-hanging fruit for Army recruiters. But the branches are getting bare. Even guys like Flores, who enlisted more new grunts than any other of the Army’s 5,000 domestic recruiters last year (a total of 56), are feeling the drought. The reasons are as evident as a TV news montage of corpses and smoldering tanks. Grinding out tube steaks 9 to 5, it turns out, might be preferable to death. As a result of such awareness, the Army, who has accounted for 1,000 of the 1,500 troops killed in Iraq and needs 100,000 new soldiers over the next year, fell short of its monthly boot-camp quota in February by nearly one-third, the first time in almost five years. Army brass have called the shortfall a dire sign and say the war has affected the military’s ability to enlist new troops. The Marine Corps, which provides 21 percent of the 150,000 troops in Iraq, has also missed quotas. As the war grinds into its third year, this is the first time since Vietnam (when the lack of volunteers was offset by a draft) that the military has faced such a crisis. “There’s no question that there is a strain in the force,” says John Ullyot, spokesperson for the Senate Armed Services Committee. “I think the question is: What’s the best response to that?”
Nationally, the Army is trying to stoke interest among would-be warriors through a number of outlets. Its $200-million-a-year ad campaign, which runs up to eight different TV spots a day, includes sponsorships of a Nascar team and an all-star high-school football championship. It spent $16 million developing a video game, America’s Army, to help lure gamers from make-believe to deadly real (the game has a link to a recruiting Web site). The Army is desperately trying to sweeten its appeal, bumping the top tuition allowance under the G.I. Bill from $50,000 to $70,000, sending forth waves of new recruiters, and authorizing its rank-and-file Floreses to dangle $20,000 signing bonuses. That’s $5,000 more than last year, when it spent more than $1 billion on recruiting ($16,000 for each new soldier). Military experts question whether such tools – useful in peacetime – can work, since they’ve never been tested during a prolonged war with such deployments.
The Army is also looking to guys like Flores, to his crackling energy, his chest-thumping Hooah! (Army-speak for “anything and everything except no”), to refine its pitch. Last March it decided its dress uniforms had a Willie Loman reek. Now it’s full camo, part of a studied attempt to appeal to patriotism and to portray soldiers as unafraid to soil their hands fighting democracy’s fight in the Middle East. “You can tell Mom and Dad all day long about college money and bonuses,” says Frank Shaffery, deputy director for recruiting operations at the Army Recruiting Command (USAREC), which is pumping out twice as many recruiters (2,066) as it did two years ago. “But they’re not interested. They read the newspapers every day. They want to know how the Army prepares their son or daughter for harm’s way. It’s no longer about walking in and laying a brochure out.”
On a Monday in March, Flores rolls up to Eisenhower High School in his “G-Jet” (a government issued gold Dodge Stratus). Inside, he sets up a folding table near the lunchroom. Kids scurry around with packs of Fritos, snapping up his Army pencils and key chains. “Where do you see yourself in five years?” he asks them. “Goin’ to college? How you gonna pay for it?” Flores spots one of his “maybes,” a bleached-blond 18-year-old named Adam Spencer. The maybes are the kids who look hungry, who ask about “adventure.”
“When are you going to join the Army?” he says to Spencer.
Spencer, trying to be cool in front of his buddies, eyes Flores suspiciously. “I’m not,” he says.
Flores lets it go. Can’t yank the hook. At six four, in black, shiny combat boots, Flores dwarfs the little card table like a linebacker in a kindergarten class. His appeal to kids is in affable toughness: Vin Diesel just shooting the shit. “He often plays Linkin Park videos on his office DVD player. “It makes the kids more comfortable,” he says, “when they come back here and you’re jammin’ music they like.”) Wherever Flores goes, kids clump around him, mesmerized. He speaks with cheery bravado. He’s always happy. And he’s a self-described loather of bullshit. “You wanna join the Army?” he’ll ask, grinning. “Can you kill people?”
DEEP IN THE GRAY LABYRINTH OF THE ARMY’S RECRUITING and Retention School near Columbia, South Carolina, a roomful of camo-clad trainees are learning to make cold calls. It’s part of a six-week course that teaches sales techniques and Army doctrine to recruiters before they’re dispersed to high schools, colleges, and shopping malls at a salary of roughly 40 grand a year. Each takes a turn at the front desk, calling the instructor on a prop phone. One conversation goes like this:
Ring Ring. Hello? Hi, Lewis, how are you? Tired. Tired? What’ve you been up to? Working. Working, huh? Where? McDonald’s. Not a high-paying job, huh? No. Well, it’s a good thing I called you, then, Lewis. Tell me, what would you do with a large sum of money? Well, I’d probably pay off my debt. How much do you owe? 10,000. That’s a lot of work at McDonald’s! Well, Lewis, the U.S. Army has guaranteed pay and enlistment bonuses. I don’t want to go to war. I understand how you feel – there are many jobs in the Army where you don’t have to be in war and you can still pay off your debt – how does that sound, Lewis? Sounds good. You don’t have to take the bus, Lewis – I’ll pick you up!
Ka-ching. That’s a sale. As the trainee nails it, Sergeant Herbert Murphy, the instructor, cranks “U Can’t Touch This” on his laptop. The class explodes into cheers. Hooah!
“You always want to ask a question that gives them an opportunity to talk, not a yes-or-no question,” Murphy explains. “People like talking about themselves. That’s why we ask open-ended questions. That way we can find out what they really want, because we’re going to bring it back later.” The atmosphere is not unlike that of an Amway conference, but with hugely muscled sales reps. Just as with Amway, you’re never really selling the product. You’re selling yourself; you’re selling a relationship, and an idea of who the buyer wants to be.
So this year the school is pushing recruiters to infuse their pitches with personal war stories. Stories that can erase the indelible images of grinning soldiers straddling stacks of naked Abu Ghraib detainees. Instructors are also targeting a crucial audience: the influencers, in recruiter parlance – parents and others who might tell the applicant his head’s on crooked if he’s thinking of enlisting during a war. “You’re not just recruiting the kid anymore,” says one recruiter. “You’re recruiting the entire family.”
To prepare trainees for this battleground, the school uses a mock college library (with wallpaper that looks like bookshelves), a phony dining room (with a vase of silk tulips and issues of Southern Living placed on a big wooden table), and its newest addition, a living room straight out of Lawton (with plaid couch, plastic ficus, and a faded oil painting of a horse-drawn buggy fording a stream). “By going to the home, we’re in their comfort zone, where we can get them to relax a bit more,” says SFC Eugene Arcurio, an instructor. “We can find out what they truly want in life, and preferably have the influencers in the house – the mom, the dad, the grandpa – during the interview. That way, if Mom’s hesitant about Johnny going to war, we can overcome it right then and there.”
NESTLED BEHIND THE ARCHIPELAGO OF WIND-ROUNDED boulders known as the Wichita Mountains is the one place that gives Joseph Flores the creeps. Job Corps, a compound of classrooms and dorms where dropouts (ages 16 to 24) and others learn vocational skills, is a Valley of Lost Children. When Flores rolls up in his G-Jet just before sunset one March evening, he is set upon by a couple of corpulent, bored-looking women who hit him up for free key chains. The women remove their sandals for Flores and display their feet. “No way,” says Flores, shaking his head. “You both have flat feet?” Then the blonde asks if she can borrow a dollar.
With many felons, single moms, dropouts, and the physically lame excluded from the get-go, rural recruiters aren’t left with much Grade-A meat to cull from the herd. And lately, places with better pickings aren’t always so welcoming either. In February, protests broke out at the University of Wisconsin to disrupt Army recruiters’ efforts. That same month, windows were smashed at an East Orange, New Jersey, office housing five recruiters. In January, a student mob chased recruiters off the campus at Seattle Central Community College after the recruiters had the bad luck to show up during an anti-inauguration protest.
“Recruiters are going to have to get even more aggressive,” says Oskar Castro, who coordinated counter-recruiting efforts for American Friends Service Committee, an antiwar outfit. His group distributes pamphlets with a camouflage background, designed to look like Army recruiting brochures. “Am I willing to kill…and be killed?” they ask. “Am I trying to escape my own problems?” With the war on, says Castro, “it’s almost a guarantee that most kids are going to be told lies.”
Castro says that a common misconception is that once a kid signs up, there’s no getting out of the contract. But until that kid gets to boot camp, he can change his mind. For recruits in the Army’s Delayed-Entry program, which gives them up to a year to finish school or turn 18, that leaves a lot of time to consider the consequences. Michael Hoffman, founder of Iraq Veterans Against the War, says talking about consequences is what recruiters try to avoid. “The recruiters are really good about talking about the good things, but they skirt the bad,” says Hoffman, 25, a former Marine who fought in Iraq. “It’s one thing when you’re selling a toaster or a car, but it’s another when your life’s at stake.”
It’s a Tuesday, and a new Flores recruit is getting on a white bus in front of the Lawton mall. Brian Young, a slow-talking 22-year-old who’s spent his life in Lawton, is on his way to boot camp. He’s wearing a shirt with a U.S. flag on the front. After working at Garfield’s restaurant, just past the food-court Chick-fil-A, he finally decided he was ready for a change. “It took me a year to convince this guy,” says Flores, whose bosses sweetened the deal with a $7,000 signing bonus. (The Army is pushing recruits into service at record speed, cutting last year’s average of 110 days to just 50 this year.) Young has already earmarked the money for a black Z28 when he returns.
“Give your mom a kiss,” says Young’s dad, taking out a camera. Young surveys the nearby recruiters and, rather than kiss her, puts his arm around his mother’s waist. The flash goes off. Young’s mother turns to Flores and says, “Take good care of him.”
“He’s in good hands,” says Flores. “Trust me.”
This article originally appeared in the May, 2005, issue of Details.