When President Bush declared an end to major combat missions in Iraq in May 2003, every branch of the armed services was on its way to a full recruiting class. The military, after barreling through Iraq in 42 days with fewer than expected casualties, had no problem signing up America's youth for the fight.
But two years later the Army, the main provider of ground troops, is about to miss its fiscal-year recruiting goal for the first time since 1999. The Army National Guard, itself playing a more involved role in combat, is going to miss its recruiting goals for the third year in a row.
What happened? More than 1,800 troop deaths happened, dampening the rah-rah mood. Yes, we still "support our troops," but we're not sending enough of our sons or daughters, brothers or sisters anymore because post-Saddam Iraq, for all of W's planning (cough, cough), is not the safe place we thought it would be by now.
An overlooked consequence is that the Army business has suffered. Recruiters are having a hard time selling a life in the army that is more and more likely to end in death. Orlando Weekly wondered what recruiters would do to sign up a recruit during these enlistment shortfalls. Would they play it straight or go all car salesman?
I was enlisted to find out.
A bit about the ground rules of the story. I wanted to be treated like a potential recruit, not a journalist doing research, so I didn't tell the recruiters I talked to I was working on a story. Therefore, I feel it's only fair not to use their names. But I used my real name when I talked to them, and I used the real circumstances of my life at present: I recently graduated from college, I'm delivering pizzas for a living and I want to find out what the armed forces have to offer (somewhat true). So, no lies, but I didn't offer up more truth than needed, either.
The sergeant knew I was coming, and he shakes my hand as I sit down. He has a barrel chest, buzzed black hair and surprisingly warm brown eyes. "Let me ask you a question," he says, jumping right into his pitch. "Do you have student loans?"
I tell him I have about $19,000 in student loans, which is true.
"You've got to go active," he says, referring to the distinction between active duty and reserve duty. "We'll pay it all off for you."
Picking up on my genuine interest, he pulls out a piece of scratch paper and writes "Army" on one half and "pizza" on the other half. Under "pizza" he writes $1,200, my current monthly income, then subtracts the cost of my rent, food, utilities and insurance. By his calculations, I'm left with $440 at the end of each month. Under "Army" he writes $1,612, the monthly salary for a college grad coming in as a specialist. With taxes taken out that total is around $1,400, which he writes below, and because the Army pays for everything else, he subtracts zero. I look at the two monthly totals.
"That's a thousand dollars difference," he says. Actually, $960, but I get the point. He stands up and continues. If I were to sign up now, I would receive a minimum $7,000 signing bonus. That number could be as high as $20,000, though, depending on the job (infantry enlistees, for instance, get this amount). He waves his arms at certain times to emphasize the big money; he is in full sales mode. And did I want to go back to school for a graduate degree? They could pay for that, too. He sits back down, scribbles all the money the Army could offer in the Army column and pauses to let the amount sink in. I've been in the office five minutes, been offered more than $60,000 to sign up and haven't heard a word about what the Army life entailed.
Not sweet enough. As the Army took recruiting blows in the past year, it tried different measures to increase enlistment. They asked Congress to raise the maximum signing bonus to $40,000 (no answer yet). In March the Pentagon raised the age limit for the Army National Guard and Reserve from 35 to 39. Then in May the Army unleashed 1,200 additional recruiters onto the streets to drum up numbers. And among those enlisting in the Army this year, 90 percent are high school graduates, a 2 percent drop from past years.
Throughout my time in the Army office, I hear the word "money" two dozen times. I don't hear the word "Iraq" once. Later, when I'm put in a back office to take a pretest, I see a wall of Polaroids taken of recent enlistees. Underneath each of the nearly 30 photos is the amount the recruit received. Some have figures like $35,000 for education, $10,000 signing bonus. Others got less education money and a greater signing bonus, but the message is clear: There's some green to be had in the Army.
On a shelf outside the office are white binders with titles like "Colonial '04" and "Boone '05" on the spines. Little-known section 9528 of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 requires high schools to provide student names and contact information to military recruiters, a rule that does little to bolster our fledgling education system but does help the armed forces get to the people most likely to be influenced by the money: high school students.
ARMY NATIONAL GUARD
At the Army National Guard I'm greeted by a young, completely bald sergeant who asks me right off why I'm there. I tell him I want to see what the Guard has to offer.
"You need to have some reason, some higher calling to serve your country," he says. "Because money's not a good enough reason."
I'm surprised. He then talks of his experience in Iraq "It's not that bad" and how the Guard serves dual state and federal roles, which means I'd get the pleasure of having both Jeb and George Jr. as my bosses. He says ideas such as honor, duty and courage are better reasons to join. I have to ask him about money, and even then he only hands me a flyer with the compensation chart.
"But I'm going to shoot straight and tell you there's a good chance you'll end up in Iraq," he says. He's right, too, as nearly 40 percent of our forces in Iraq are National Guard. "In the end you've got to decide if this is something for you."
And that was the end of our conversation. Other branches took anywhere from an hour to two and a half hours to lay out their plans. I was done with the Guard recruiter in 15 minutes. For a military branch that hasn't reached its recruiting goals in three years, it was a surprisingly sparse, money-free talk.
The staff sergeant takes me in the back room and makes small talk before handing me a stack of 11 plastic pieces the shape of Trivial Pursuit cards. Each has a phrase on it like "self-reliance, self-direction, self-discipline," "education," "pride of belonging" or "technical skills." I put them in the order of what I would most want to get out of the Marines. My top card (I'm making this up on the spot) is the "self-reliance, self-direction, self-discipline" card. He smiles and says that was one of his top choices when he was recruited. He pulls out a driver's license from nearly 10 years ago. The boy in the photo looks nothing like the man in front of me: A thick 'fro and sex-repellent Coke-bottle glasses corroborate his story of being a dork in high school. The Heidi Klum lookalike in the wedding photo on his desk is testimony enough that things changed.
"I'd still be that kid if it weren't for the Marines," he says. So: Join the Marines, get a hot wife. I like this so far.
At the turn of each card he asks why I want this or that. Why do I want money for education? Why do I want physical fitness? I know he's trying to get me to sell myself on the Marine life, but by the time he asks me why I want financial security (one of the cards), I feel like a greyhound following the rabbit around the track. At the talk of money, the staff sergeant beams. He says he started at $25,000 eight years ago, then hands me a piece of paper he pulls out of a binder on the desk. It is a pay stub showing he's going to make more than $60,000 this year.
In addition, after reaching a certain rank, Marines can live off-base, and this staff sergeant bought a house at age 21 with the living expenses he received. And just for good measure he also got his associate's degree on Unca Sam's dime. His eyes go from big to giant as he talks more and more. There is, as in the Army, a lot of money to be made, and his enthusiasm for all the dough makes me think he cares little for what the other cards say I could gain through the Marines. But then, as quickly as he got rolling on the subject of salary, he cuts off the monetary talk.
"The money's good, but it's far from the best reason to be in the Corps," he says. With that he continues with the rest of my cards, and we don't talk of money for the rest of the 30 minutes. Yes, money is a significant slice of the Marine recruiting pie, but, unlike the Army recruiter's presentation, it's just a slice.
The Navy and Air Force both blew away their recruiting goals this year as more and more people considering the military headed for branches less involved in combat in Iraq. (Together, the Navy and Air Force have sustained 44 deaths, a fraction of the American death toll.) Maybe that's why all three local Air Force centers didn't return my calls to set up an appointment; they just might not want me. And the Navy recruiting center feels noticeably more laid-back when I walk in.
The recruiter, with the brashness and smile of Cuba Gooding Jr. in Jerry Maguire, shakes my hand and asks, "So what do you want to know?"
I offer my standard answer: "I want to see what the Navy has to offer."
Instead of the standard pitch, he spends the next 15 minutes talking half to me, half to another seaman in the office about escapades at sea. According to him, the Navy is "a total blast" that involves little more than traveling the world by sea and hanging with friends. He ends every little story with, "And I get paid for this," and then he lets out a throaty laugh. There is little talk of duty to country and much talk of what the Navy did for him. (The other seaman in the office would later refer to the cash by saying, "I've worked the system real good. I get all sorts of shit from it.")
The Navy, however, doesn't offer the large signing bonuses or loan repayments that the Army, Army National Guard and Marine Corps do, but my recruiter doesn't seem embarrassed to admit this. Instead, his voice rises as if he couldn't wait to bring up that point.
"What would you rather do? Get a couple hundred `dollar` signing bonus and have a great time or get the $20,000 signing bonuses, the $15,000 signing bonuses and die like those motherfuckers over there?" he asks, pointing to the Army and Marine offices next door. "We're in the sea hundreds of miles away `from Iraq` just making sure they have enough food and supplies. We're not the ones dying on TV."
He can see that Iraq is what I really want to hear about, and he lowers his voice. He tells me he knows a sergeant in the Army who says every recruit who enlists in the Army now will have to serve in Iraq. It's never presented that way to the enlistees, but at some point, no matter what job you do, you'll be in Iraq; or so says this Navy recruiter's Army friend.
I don't know if this hearsay from my Navy recruiter is true or not. But after our talk, I realize just how much Iraq is at the forefront of all recruiting visits. It's used by the Navy as a deterrent to enlisting in other branches. It's on the minds of Army and Marine Corps higher-ups, who increased recruits' money to blunt the trepidations about heading to Iraq. Either way, said or unsaid, it's part of the pitch.
I was done being a recruit, done saying, "I want to see what the (fill in the military branch) has to offer." Each visit differed from the last. The Army was more car salesman than the rest, but the National Guard didn't offer as much money as the Army and therefore couldn't use it as effectively as a recruiting tool. And the Navy and Marines met their recruiting goals this year and didn't need to be as pushy. Maybe the Army was just putting forward its best foot (money) in order to ease serious troop deficits.
After a few days away from all the recruiters, I pulled out the Army/pizza chart and looked at all the money: $1,400 a month pay; free rent, food, utilities, transportation and insurance; $19,000 for my student loans; paid schooling for my master's or doctorate degree; and $20,000 just to sign my John Hancock. Damn, I could go from $20,000 in the hole to having a cool $20,000 in the bank. I have a four-year university degree and career options in which I'm interested, but still the allure of that much moolah is strong. What about kids recently out of high school, with few job prospects and no money for college? That deal should sound "pretty fucking sweet" indeed to them.
Apparently, it doesn't. The abundance of money available to potential troops has done little to increase recruiting numbers, and the shortfalls continue, a sign of just how bad Iraq has become.