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In the Army... NOW?

May 21, 2008, 12:00 am
As the Army's recruitment of students intensifies, so does its opposition.
The first question potential recruits often ask Sgt. Jeffrey Love when they enter the Army's Santa Fe Recruiting Station is whether they will be deployed to Iraq. Love says he tells them without hesitation: Yes, there is a 100 percent chance.

Love, a 35-year-old native Brooklynite now in his third year of recruiting, believes if someone isn't ready to face the idea of being in a combat zone, he or she isn't ready to enlist.

But Love doesn't sit in the recruiting office at the Santa Fe Place mall waiting for potential recruits. As the war continues, the Army has stepped up its efforts to recruit young men and women throughout northern New Mexico-by creating a heavy presence in area public schools.

The effort is part of the Army's response to the recruiting slide it's been battling for the last three years. While many men and women leapt at the opportunity to help their country in battle after 9.11, by 2005, the gung-ho attitude had evaporated: The Army came up short 6,627 soldiers that year.

So the Army changed tactics, upping recruitment bonuses, creating a $1.35 billion "Army Strong" ad campaign and talking to youth years before they are even eligible to enlist. This year, the Army is on track to hit its 80,000-soldier recruitment goal.

As the Army has increased its presence in schools across the country, exposure to recruitment has become a part of daily life for area teenagers. The understaffed Santa Fe Recruiting Station still manages to cover more than two dozen schools across northeastern and central New Mexico, some as often as once a week. Students and teachers allege that recruiters have walked into classrooms unannounced in order to speak with potential recruits.

***image3***In response, anti-war activists also have found a place in the classroom.

For the past 3½ years, the local chapter of the non-profit Veterans for Peace has been visiting schools to offer a different view of military recruiting. Love may be candid about the prospects of a recruit going to war, but VFP believes there is a lot military recruiters don't tell students.

"We are the Consumer Reports of military recruitment," Veterans for Peace coordinator Nathaniel Mahlberg says.

As a result, today in Santa Fe-area high schools, the war of beliefs and reason between recruiters and former soldiers is intensifying with every kid who chooses to join the service and every soldier who comes back to the states dead or wounded.

On a recent spring afternoon, Sgt. Love is talking to students in Capital High School's career center, a blue, cinderblock-walled classroom filled with computers and bookshelves. Love wears a green combat uniform, has close-cropped hair and long, mantis-like fingers. He is short and muscular, and looks 10 years younger than he is. One 17-year-old girl describes him as "the hot recruiter guy."

The two sophomores Love is meeting with today are both 16-too young to even take the Army's aptitude test, the ASVAB, but old enough to warrant the recruiter's attention. The male student, who has short black hair and sports a faint moustache, slouches in his chair, not making eye contact with anyone, mumbling only when spoken to. He plays with a pencil. He and a fellow female student sit at a round, wooden worktable.

"What do you know about the military?" Love asks.

The female earnestly replies, "They kill people?"

Nervous laughter follows. The exchange doesn't go much deeper. Love asks ***image4***them what they want to do with their lives, and why they might want to enlist ("I'm thinking about being a sniper person," the male says). Love soon finds out both students are failing at least one class, and one of them has been to teen court.

Nevertheless, Love speaks optimistically and smiles constantly. After the two sophomores leave the career center, he approaches more students about signing up, hardly missing a beat.

Love visits Capital up to four times per month. "Each recruiter hits two or three high schools a week," he says later. They criss-cross a recruiting area that includes 27 schools, stretching from Santa Fe to Taos to Las Vegas and Clayton. On a day like today, Love hangs out in the career center, talking up potential recruits and basically making his presence known.

The US Army Recruiting Command's school recruiting handbook recommends activities for recruiters that will help reinforce a positive image of them on campus, such as keeping score at school basketball games. The bottom line is, the more they are around, the more comfortable kids will be.

Love asks Cindy Rogers, who runs the career center, about recruiting a student named Omar.
"No, not Omar," she says. "He's going somewhere and it's not the Army. If there wasn't a war I'd have people for you. But I'm not gonna send my babies to get killed."

"Me neither!" Love says, grinning. "If I find them in a bassinet I leave them here."

Rogers is a self-described "old hippie." She's gray-haired and just as passionate as Love is, albeit from a different perspective. She disapproves of the Iraq occupation and war in general. Rogers occasionally sends kids to Love, but adds candidly that she'd feel some responsibility for a student's death if she encouraged them to enlist and they didn't come home from the battlefield.

Rogers believes that the Army, with its 180-plus jobs, is one of only a number of options for kids. She calls colleges-mostly New Mexico-based, because of the lottery scholarship-and invites them to speak to kids. By contrast, Army recruiters show up whether invited or not.

She reckons most kids join for the following reasons: Either they are "your rah-rah God-bless-America guys" or they know they will not make it in college.

***image6***But the students who refuse the Army's overtures make up the bulk of Capital's student body. Aaron Deshazo is one of them.

"They're like, 'Support your country,' and I say, 'Go and defend your own country,'" the 17-year-old says. Fit and clean cut, Deshazo appears well-suited for the military. Physically, anyway.

He accuses the Army of preying on certain students. "They shouldn't be here because they don't go to Santa Fe Prep," Deshazo says. (The Army does not go to private schools; its access to public schools is tied to government funding and the federal No Child Left Behind Act). "They come to lower-class people instead of rich families," Deshazo says.

Jaime Ferrera, also 17, has long dark brown hair that covers his face, and wears bright red Converse All-Stars. He says he wouldn't enlist because recruiters only tell one side. "They should include things they're not including," he says. "There should be a warning that you might die and that someone you become friends with might end up dying, too."

Cat Figueroa thought about enlisting after first being approached by recruiters when she was 13 years old. Now 17, she says the US government is "a joke."

"One day they tell us we're in a recession and the next day we're not. Then the next day we're at war. It's retarded." She and her classmate Desarae-Aaron Deshazo's sister-get most of their information about politics and world events from class discussions. Neither watches or reads the news ("Adults read newspapers," Desarae says, giggling). Neither has thought about enlisting, though they've seen Love in the hallways talking to students numerous times.

As to the Army's financial incentives, career center matriarch Rogers offers some perspective: "When they're in high school they want money to go to prom," she says. "They want the revolving-door jobs-JC Penney, Mervyns, Albertsons."

Sgt. Love works hard to convince students to think more long-term, but he admits the Army is a tough sell these days, and the one-page fact sheet given to recruiters by US Army Recruiting Command states clearly: "Desire to enlist [is] at its lowest point in two decades."
The Army doesn't have quotas for its recruiters, but there is a "mission" of two new recruits per month as a goal. With three years and seven months of recruiting duty, Love should have signed up 86 soldiers. So far he has signed up 40. "I'm still here," he says.

The Army met or exceeded its recruitment goals every year between 2000 and 2004. Sgt. 1st Class Pilar Sauceda, who runs the Santa Fe-area recruiting office, says that, right after Sept. 11, "it was insane. A lot of people joined the military."

Now it's different: The war is in Iraq is grinding along (4,065 US deaths as of this writing), with an unpopular president and no clear strategies for withdrawal.

Love glances at a newspaper: The front section contains a story about two US soldiers dying in Baghdad. "You can rationalize a lot of stuff," he says, "but you can't rationalize death or debate it."

The death toll, Love believes, is the simple answer for the drop-off in recruitment.

"It's like watching a Rocky movie," he says. "You get hyped up, but then you see the fight scenes and it's like, 'Ugh, he's getting beat up. I don't want to be a boxer anymore.'"

And, Love admits, the military is not for everyone. Likewise, not everyone is for the military. USAREC estimates less than three out of 10 17- to ***image8***24-year-old Americans are fully qualified to join the Army, which targets a particular kind of recruit. Recruiters like seniors and recent graduates, Love says, because "they haven't had time to make that many mistakes. As they get older they start experimenting in drugs. They're not cutting it in life."

Yet the Army will also take those who didn't cut it in life. According to Dr. David Segal, a University of Maryland military sociologist and the director of the Center for Research on Military Organization, "Clearly they've had to reduce the quality of recruits, in terms of people in lower acceptable mental categories. We've got more people not making it through entry-level training, and I'm hearing from small unit commanders in the field that they're having problem soldiers in their unit."

The Army's School Recruiting Program Handbook suggests to recruiters, "Focus on the freshman class because they will have the highest dropout rate. They often lack both the direction and funds to fully pursue their education."

The sign-on bonuses and education benefits are indeed tempting. The US Veterans Affairs Department has doled out a total of $329,461 to 52 Santa Fe-area recruits for college last year. At the high end, students can receive more than $70,000 for college, though that is by no means guaranteed.
Back at the recruiting office, Love pulls out a freshly signed contract. The recruit, a soon-to-be motor transport operator, ships out on May 29. His bonus: $25,000. By contrast, Love, who enlisted in 1991 and will retire in three years, received nothing when he signed up.

Love didn't enlist for the bonus anyway. He signed up out of concern over the draft. When he graduated from high school in June 1991, Operation Desert Storm was in full swing. "I thought, well, if there is a draft, I'd rather be a trained soldier who gets to pick his job."

The job he picked was infantry. Specifically, Love is a Multiple Launch Rocket System crew member, a specialization he never got to try in the field.
The sergeant has made the most of his career, lack of sign-up bonus aside. The Army paid for his education. He earned a degree in computer science while enlisted. His wife is also in the military. Being 35 and three years from retirement has its perks as well.

Still, Love admits that aspects of his Army experience bother him. He knows his job as infantryman is not applicable to civilian life. He muses, "Doing this has been a blast. I can say when I retire, 'I've fired rockets and missiles.' But can I get a job doing that?"

He also regrets never seeing action on the battlefield.

"With 20 years in artillery and never seeing combat-that bothers me," he says.

As for worrying about death, as many potential recruits do, he dismisses the idea. "You're here for a short time anyway," he says. "I'd rather do something important than be safe and try and hide in a hole."

Tim Origer would disagree with Love.

As a soldier in the Tet Offensive of 1968, Origer knows too well the distinction between vets who saw action and those who did not. He lost a leg in combat.

"A lot of generals sit around saying we can nuke Iran, but a lot of these guys never saw combat anywhere," he notes. "Most combat vets won't talk about it and won't deal with it, so all these issues come back with them."

Origer joined the Army for the same reason Love did. He had been offered academic scholarships to college, but felt he owed his service to the country. ***image10***Now, with 40 years of hindsight, he is dealing with the consequences of what he calls a "misconception about our national foreign policy." He does not want kids today to make the same mistake.

Thus, Origer and others created the Veterans for Peace program in the schools. They have not always been welcomed in classrooms.

VFP coordinator Mahlberg says that at first, Española High School's administration was hesitant to give them access to students. Origer describes what he calls "sins of omission"-high school principals habitually postponing access to Veterans for Peace until the semester is over.

It is improving, however. Mahlberg says that teachers who were afraid to speak up and invite them before are now coming forward. Veterans for Peace has spoken at Peñasco High School, Los Alamos High School and Española High School.

Just a few days after Love visits Capital, Origer and three other members are back at the school, meeting with approximately 40 students.

He and three other members of the local Veterans for Peace chapter are speaking with 40 or so Capital High School students, just upstairs from where Sgt. Love quietly chatted with students days before. The kids are quiet as ***image11***Origer and his fellow VFP members show a video from the March 2008 Winter Soldier conference. In the video, former Marine Jon Michael Turner describes scene after scene of gruesome behavior. He has killed innocent people and had the words "Fuck You" tattooed in Arabic on what he calls his "choking hand." The guy is young, not much older than the students watching the video.

When it ends, GI Rights Hotline coordinator (and Veterans for Peace member) Maria Santelli asks students what they think.

"It's different from what we see on TV. It's more freaky and scary," one girl says.

What do kids see on TV? Most likely, it is part of the "Army Strong" campaign, the result of a $1.35 billion effort launched in 2006, a year after the Army saw recruitment numbers drop below expectations. The commercials and posters depict soldiers at wartime, many fighting in a desert environment. The slickly produced TV spots and posters are inspiring, depicting soldiers valiantly walking across tarmacs and jumping from airplanes.

"What they don't tell you is that, when you're jumping out of that plane, people are shooting at you," Santelli says.

Santelli is joined by Vietnam vet Origer, First Gulf War vet Daniel Craig and journalist Zelie Pollon, who has been to Iraq twice to cover the war (and written about it for SFR).
Craig tells students of how he has killed soldiers, and of how the First Gulf War differed from the current one in a single significant way: Back in '91, the enemy was in uniform. This time around, the enemy looks just like everyone else.

"When recruiters show up, they'll talk about valor, honor, country. Those are all valid and healthy traits," Craig says. "When you sign the contract though, know that you may be asked to shoot an 80-year-old unarmed civilian."

Santelli chimes in, "Why were we told we were going to war in Iraq?"

The students give textbook replies.

"Because they had weapons?"

"Because of al-Qaida?"

"To put in a democratic government?"

Santelli goes on to debunk each of these. No WMDs were found, al-Qaida was not in Iraq when the war began and democracy has not exactly blossomed there yet, more than five years after the invasion began.

At the end of the presentation, Santelli tries to start a dialogue with the kids. No one raises a hand to ask questions; none tell stories about friends or ***image13***family in the military. Nevertheless, she, Craig, Origer and Pollon do their best to get the kids to think about the consequences of recruitment after they leave the session.

Leaving them with a final thought, Craig says, "The government is counting on you to stay ignorant. If you don't educate yourself, someone else is controlling you." The bell rings and the students all leave.

Mike Costello is responsible for bringing the truth-in-recruiting group here. A stout, 53-year-old special-ed teacher with gray hair and a love for Hawaiian shirts, he invited the veterans for reasons that weren't just political. This is a personal cause for Costello. His brother came home from Vietnam with alcohol problems and an illness related to Agent Orange, from which he eventually died. "When my brother came home, my dad said, 'Mike, all your protesting was right.' It made me feel justified."

Costello, who has been teaching for 16 years, says recruiting "is much more intense than it used to be. It was a much different attitude eight years ago. [Recruiters] would put their posters up, and people would come by and talk to them. But now, with the Patriot Act and No Child Left Behind…students are almost required by law to meet with them."

No Child Left Behind requires schools to grant the same access to recruiters that they do to post-secondary schools or prospective employers. Students' names, phone numbers and addresses are given to recruiters, unless their parents or school requests otherwise.

Costello says the question he hears most from students is, "Is there some form I can get to get these guys to stop contacting me?"

Sgt. Love is the guy whose job it is to contact students. He averages 30 phone calls per hour-two calls per minute. His do-not-call list is extensive, ***image14***too. For example, of the 5,669 students enrolled at Santa Fe Community College last fall, roughly half of them requested the Army not call them.

The recruiters, Costello says, have gotten bold enough to interrupt classes just to pull students out into the hall and talk with them. Sgt. Sauceda says, "It doesn't happen with my guys." But if the recruiter knows the teacher and the teacher has made it clear that they can come to class, then it is alright.

And, of course, some students seek out the recruiters as well.
Sean Coblentz just signed up for the National Guard. His original reason was to help pay for his education, though there is also something deeper, a sense of patriotism, he says. Seventeen years old and lanky, wearing a heavy metal T-shirt and a National Guard hat, the Capital High senior speaks of doing something worthwhile the same way Love does when reminiscing about his own reasons for enlisting. Coblentz is being shipped off to South Carolina next month.

"I actually approached the recruiter after 2½ months worth of thinking," he says. "I talked to my brother, mom and dad about it."

Sean's brother, Miguel, a Marine who is in his seventh year and is currently on his third tour in Iraq, strongly supported his decision. "He enjoys the hell out of the military. Traveling, great pay. Everything."

Sean will train to be a wheel vehicle mechanic, a job for which he is getting a $20,000 bonus. He will train for four or five months, come back and get his associate's degree, then maybe go on active duty after that. "It's pretty legit," he says. "My recruiter tells me everything that's going on."

There is a hole in Sean's right arm, a souvenir from the physical exam he took in Albuquerque the day before. But as prepared as Sean is to ship off, ***image16***there's one problem: He failed the test he had to take to get in. "I have to go and retake [it]," Sean says. "Then I can swear in."

Mike Costello knows both Sean and his brother. He says he spoke with Miguel about a year and a half ago, more than five years after the elder Coblentz enlisted. Costello had quite a different conversation with Miguel.

"He was talking about how horrible it was in Iraq, the lies that've been told," he says. "He was near tears talking about it."

Costello is somber, leaning forward in a chair in his office, processing the news that Sean, too, has enlisted. He looks heartbroken.

"What can I say?"


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