The rising price of patriotism

Sunday, October 21, 2007
Army Sgt. 1st Class Matt Hampton, left, operated a video simulator as Army privates Justin Sullivan, center, of Jackson and Jonathan Chai of Cape Girardeau practiced shooting technique Tuesday in a tent behind the recruiting station on William Street. (Fred Lynch)

During World War I and World War II, a famous military recruiting poster depicted Uncle Sam saying "I want you for U.S. Army" while pointing directly at the Americans who would see it.

Today the Army is fighting unpopular conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and a shadowy global war against terrorism while competing for high school graduates whose options include ample university scholarships and jobs. Attempting to increase its active duty force by 65,000 troops by 2010, today's Army is appealing to more than patriotism.

"The propensity to enlist is at an all-time low. This is one of the greatest challenges in the history of the volunteer Army," said Army Capt. Richard Pless, who is in charge of a company of recruiters that extends from St. Louis to Poplar Bluff.

Last year, the Army paid almost $1 billion for advertising and recruiting bonuses. This year the service has been putting even more money on the table for recruits: a $20,000 bonus for recruits who agree to leave for training within 30 days of enlisting, up to $72,900 for college, and up to $65,000 for paying off student loans. While on active duty a recruit can get $4,500 per year to be used for tuition assistance.

One proposal would offer recruits $40,000 tax-free over a career that could be used to help buy a home or develop a business.

U.S. Army Capt. Richard Pless discussed new recruiting opportunities in his Cape Girardeau office. (Fred Lynch)

The U.S. military's oldest and largest branch -- currently 482,000 troops -- has a much bigger recruiting force than the other services, and more recruiters have been added. But the Army isn't leaving all the work up to them. Anybody who is not a recruiter is eligible for a $2,000 referral bonus. The person who refers the recruit will receive $1,000 when the person ships off to boot camp and the other $1,000 when the recruit completes basic training.

Recruiters often contact prospects through high school phone lists and sometimes go to the schools with a portable rock-climbing wall or a Hummer with the Army logo. No school in the region has prevented recruiters from coming on campus, Pless said.

Tuesday, a tent erected behind the Armed Forces Career Center on William Street in Cape Girardeau housed a video marksmanship game. Inside the office, the aroma of pizza stacked in boxes greeted new recruits and the potential recruits they were asked to bring to the open house. About 20 people showed up.

After missing recruiting goals in May and June, the Army met its goals in July and reported making its goals for the fiscal year that ended in September. The local company has contributed to that success, making its goals for the year.

The war in Iraq inevitably comes up when talking to a potential recruit, said Staff Sgt. Matt Hampton. "Generally people bring it up, or we'll do a temperature check to see how they feel about it."

Recruiters tell them that no matter what job they do, they could end up in a war zone. "If we sense concerns, obviously we address those concerns," he said. "We can look at different jobs and options that significantly lessen the chance of going. But the basic role of a soldier is being deployed."

Said Pless, "We won't ever tell someone they're not going to be deployed. It's based on the needs of the Army and the unit's deployment cycle.

"Some may never be deployed. Some may be deployed two or three times."

Twenty-three of the 33 recruiters in the company have been deployed themselves, either to Iraq or Afghanistan. Hampton was in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. "We try to connect them with people who were there or just came back so there is a complete flow of realistic experiences," he said.

Pless served in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 as well. He has commanded the company since March 1, coming from Fort Knox, Ky. He is married and has three children. He joined the Army at 18 as a way to get money for college. "I had no idea what I was getting into. It was a leap of faith," he said.

Army Staff Sgt. David Husbands showed a video on basic training during an open house Tuesday at the Armed Forces Recruiting Station on William Street. (Fred Lynch)

'The Army is a cause'

Since then he has learned to develop his leadership abilities. He has found it to be more than a rewarding job that can impart valuable experience. "The Army is a cause," he said.

The company the 34-year-old Pless leads also covers Southern Illinois. In Missouri, he is in charge of recruiting stations in House Springs, Farmington, Cape Girardeau, Sikeston and Poplar Bluff, and in Southern Illinois stations in Carbondale and Marion. Cape Girardeau is the headquarters.

To meet the higher recruitment goals, the Army brought in former recruiters -- three temporarily joined Pless' company -- and in the past year has changed some of its recruitment standards. In the fiscal year just ended, 11 percent of the recruits needed waivers because of past troubles with the law. That's up from 7.9 percent in 2006.

Anyone with two or more convictions of driving under the influence must get a waiver to join. "Any patterns of misconduct require waivers," Pless said.

Educational requirements can also vary. A high school diploma or GED are the basics, but someone working on a GED can enlist tentatively. Everybody who wants to join the military must take the ASVAB test, which helps determine the jobs they can qualify for.

Hampton calls these variables "legal algebra. There is not a set yes and no for eligibility."

Robert McCarty is a homeschooled Fruitland resident who expects to get his GED in February and then go to basic training. He likes working on cars and driving them fast. No troubles with the law threaten his military eligibility. "Just car wrecks," he said.

McCarty, 17, came to the recruiting station Tuesday with Max Morgan. Both work at a Dairy Queen. If McCarty joins the Army, Morgan will be eligible for a $2,000 bonus for referring him.

Morgan enlisted in the Army earlier this year through a program called the Split Training Option and received a $6,000 bonus and has $24,000 for college. He completed his basic training over the summer and will report for job training in December after he graduates early from Jackson High School.

He says he joined for a specific reason. "I have always wanted to serve my country. It's not for the money or to get more girls. I did it for my country," he said.

He grins when he admits that some girls do prefer a man in uniform.

'They're like your brother'

Both McCarty and Morgan have considered the dangers of going to a war zone and have talked about them with their parents. McCarty said his parents are concerned but think the Army will help him find a career. Morgan said his father supported his decision to join more than his mother did. She didn't want him going to a war zone. "But she knew I was going to do it anyway," he said.

Basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., began with physical training every day at 4 a.m. Morgan wasn't prepared for the difficulty. "You're asking yourself, 'What did I get myself into?'" he said. But the experience made him fall in love with the military. "It's the camaraderie," he said. "Whether you know a soldier or not they're like your brother."

When he gets out of the Army McCarty hopes to become a patrol officer for the Jackson Police Department. "I'd be going from street racer to road officer," he said.

Morgan will be a mechanic working on light-wheeled vehicles after completing advanced individual training. He joined the Army Reserve, which means he is committed to the Army through 2014.

For some, the good news in the eligibility changes is the age increase to 41. Former Cape Girardeau resident Dawn Griffin had wanted to enlist in high school but didn't because her family and friends disapproved. Now 39, Griffin intends to enlist in the next few days.

"It's one of those pride-in-your-country-type things," she said.

There are other factors. Her best friend joined at 38 and is now stationed in Germany. And her fiance just joined the Army. Griffin, a former office manager and travel agent, now lives near Fort Campbell, Ky, where he is stationed. She has a 3-year-old child and knows she and her fiance may not be assigned to the same base. "We decided we can deal with that," she said.

She hasn't told her parents about her decision to join yet. "I don't necessarily want any feedback -- positive or negative -- at this point until it's a done deal," she said.

Being sent to Iraq is "almost a given," she said. "You have to resolve that issue in your head before you sign that paper."

In a concession to the fact that about 30 percent of Americans between the teen years and 34 have tattoos, in 2006 the Army began allowing tattoos as long as they aren't racial or derogatory. The tattoos can't be on the face or visible on the front side of the neck. "You have to maintain a military presence," Pless said.

Though the standards have been lowered, only three of 10 people between the ages of 17 and 24 can qualify for the Army.

Pless said the recruiters in his company focus on their mission, the recruits and their families. "We are always doing it with integrity. By the book."

The recruiters promote the Army "face to face on the street," Pless said. "Each recruiter has a different take on how to sell themselves. It's just like any other business."

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