With their numbers of enlistees falling, soldiers-turned-salesmen in Reno, NV, work the phones and pound the pavement.
Field Report, Daniel Savickas, July 6, 2005
With their numbers of enlistees falling, soldiers-turned-salesmen in Reno, NV, work the phones and pound the pavement.
By Daniel Savickas
Army recruiters failed to meet their enlistment quotas for the fourth month in a row. And now, the Washington Post reports that the Defense Department has begun working with a private marketing firm to pull together a database of eligible high school and college students who could potentially be recruited.
Reading the news, I tried to imagine how hard it must be to recruit people to join the Army with over 1,740 U.S. military casualties in Iraq and recent polls showing that around 60% of Americans now oppose the war.
So I called the nearby Army recruiter’s office in Reno, NV. I explained that I worked for a small newspaper and that I wanted to tag along for the day to see what being an army recruiter is all about. After waiting several days, and getting permission from both the main office in Salt Lake City, Utah, and the Reno office, I was finally cleared to spend a day shadowing army recruiters in Reno.
I had prepared an unforgiving litany of questions for the recruiters, from what they made of the Downing Street memo to whether they felt unnecessarily put in harm’s way. But, when I arrived at the Reno Army recruiter’s office at 8 a.m. for their morning meeting, my perspective shifted.
Out of an office of eight recruiters, only one of them was there by choice. The other seven sergeants were there by assignment. Some of them were mechanics by trade, others were weapons specialists, but when they received their assignment to report to Reno, NV, for the next three years of their lives, they became Army recruiters.
If you took away the camouflage uniforms and pictures of assault rifles hanging up in some of the cubicles, it would pretty much look like most offices in America.
At one point during the day, Sgt. Hunt, who was in charge of the office and had served in the first Gulf War, explained to me, “We’ll just be calling people to see if they’d like any information on the Army and we have to hear their political views. I apologize and say, ‘I’m sorry, we’re just trying to do our jobs.’”
It was at that point that I decided it might be unfair to ask some of the more politically charged questions. It would’ve been like inquiring into a telemarketer’s political views just because their job required them to call and ask me if I was for or against the war in Iraq. They are just doing their job, they’re trying to pay their bills. The only difference is the telemarketer agreed to take that job—these men were assigned to it.
Oh, and did I mention that a typical work week in the life of an Army recruiter is six days a week with up to 64 hours in that work week?
Sgt. Hunt began the day with the weekly meeting, talking to his staff about their recruiting techniques, focusing on the importance of timely follow up before outside influences could convince potential recruits not to join.
“You have to get them quickly,” Hunt said.
Later in the day Hunt told me that the hardest part about signing someone up for the army is getting his or her mother’s approval.
Hunt granted the group a five minute break. Hunt came over and introduced himself to me and took the opportunity to sum up their morning meeting: “It’s all sales,” he said.
When the group reconvened, they read from an Army manual, which discussed proper recruiting techniques. The manual continually called the recruiters salesmen.
“I’m not a salesman,” said Sgt. Zirbel, who sat in the middle of the room. “I’m a soldier.”
Hunt explained that the manual was outdated and for the rest of the time that he read from the manual he tried to leave out the term “salesman.”
At one point in the meeting a man in his late 20s came in.
“I’m here to volunteer. I’d like to join,” he said.
Sgt. Martian explained to him that they were in the morning meeting and told him to come back in 15 minutes to half an hour. The man never returned.
Hunt pulls out a dry erase board with a calendar on it. He then goes around the room one sergeant at a time to see who is working on what. They discuss which recruits they have shipping out that week or month, which people they’ve had a sit down meeting with, which ones they are going to have a sit down with or are trying to get a sit down with, and what complications if any they are having with their recruits.
Sgt. Hunt has a one-on-one meeting with each of the seven recruiters. During this meeting Sgt. Hunt explains to me that due to the Solomon Act, the Army has the same rights to information as any employer. This means that the Army receives a list of phone numbers and addresses for every high school and college student in the nation.
The Army then breaks up the schools into regions, and then assigns each region to a specific recruiting office. Then each recruiter from that office is put in charge of a specific school.
“I know I said earlier that this is all about sales, but we really care about these kids and I’m always thinking, ‘do we have a program to help them achieve their goals?’” Sgt. Hunt said.
These meetings will last until noon. While one recruiter is meeting with Sgt. Hunt, the others are making cold calls to people on their list; this is referred to as P1.
“A lot of people think we’re going for the dirt balls of the earth to join the Army,” said Sgt. Hunt. “ But most of the time the people interested in joining don’t meet either the medical, moral, or test requirements it takes to join the Army.”
“A lot of times people will tell us that the Army is their fall back plan,” said Sgt. Fletcher. “But 70 percent of the time these people aren’t qualified to serve in the Army.”
The general consensus of the recruiters was that most people joining the Army today are either doing it to help pay off college debt, or to pay their way through college. The Army will pay up to $36,000 under the GI bill or 100% of college loans up to $70,000. Add up to $20,000 in cash bonuses and you might start to see the allure of the Army to lower income families.
Samantha Babey, a 17 year old from Reno who stopped by before shipping out to basic training, explained that the Army was a way to pay for college and to explore the world. “I’ve lived in Reno my whole life,” said Babey. “It’s a way to get out of here, explore, and get some culture.”
Babey will spend the next four years in active duty as an imagery analyst, and then she will have another four years of inactive duty to serve.
While Sgt. Cano made cold calls, we discussed how most of the people he talked to as potential recruits felt about possibly being shipped off to the war in Iraq.
“Most of them are all for it,” Cano said. “They want to do what’s right, it’s the parents that don’t want them to get hurt.”
I asked Cano, who volunteered to go to Iraq but got sent to Reno, if the war was a major concern amongst most of the enlistees.
“Surprisingly, no,” Cano responded. “There are those that aren’t interested because they want to stay in school and try and find jobs when they get out.”
Cano really emphasized the word try. One of the Army’s major selling points, even against the other branches of the armed services, is that it will guarantee you a job in writing. That job is dependent upon availability and soldiers’ scores on the ASVAB (Army Services Vocational Aptitude and Battery test), but if the soldier is qualified and the job is open, then he or she is guaranteed that job.
I asked Sgt. Cano about Babey’s chances of being shipped to Iraq. He explained to me that it really depends on what jobs the Army needs filled at the time and what job the soldier took. Sgt. Cano has been a recruiter for nearly three years and he has only had one of his recruits go to Iraq thus far (each recruiter signs up anywhere from one to five soldiers a month).
Cano told me the story of how he signed up twin sisters for the Army. One of the sisters, who did not want to go to Iraq, ended up getting shipped out.
“I talked to her and she loves it,” said Cano. “She’s got her own room and she’s staying outside of one of Saddam’s old palaces. They’ve got an Olympic size swimming pool, Burger King, they’re living the life.”
I didn’t have the heart to ask about the 1,740 U.S. troops that have lost their lives since the U.S. occupation of Iraq began.
“Her sister is mad because she’s stuck at a hospital in Kentucky,” Cano said.
Sgt. Brittian is the newest member of the recruiting team, and the only one there by choice. He is making cold calls.
“A lot of the time you’ll ask for someone and they’ll tell you they’re there until they find out who you are, then they tell you the person left” said Sgt. Brittian.
Here is what I heard from Sgt. Brittian’s end while he made a typical cold call:
“Hello, is (INSERT IGNORE name here) home? Hey, I understand you’re a junior at UNR. What are you studying? Biology? Oh, you want to be a pediatrician? Do you know that the Army has pediatricians? Would you be interested in sitting down to hear about some of the programs the Army has to offer you? You would? Can I ask you a few questions?”
Sgt. Brittian then went on to ask questions like the person’s height and weight just to be sure they would be physically fit to serve. He then asked if they had asthma, tattoos, allergies and so on. The information then goes into a folder to refer to in case the person does not show up for their meeting.
The section of the day known as P3 begins. This is where recruiters have sit down meetings with people who expressed interest over the phone. If people skip out on the meeting, this is the time when recruiters will go and “hot knock” at the potential soldier’s house, apartment, or dorm room. If the recruiters have no meetings they can use this time to hit the town and try to schedule meetings by talking to people out in public.
At noon I sat in on a sit down meeting with Sgt. Brittian and a potential recruit—Matt Riddle. Riddle, 27 years old, was interested in joining the Army in order to try out for the Special Forces. For nearly 45 minutes Sgt. Brittian assured Riddle that he was just what the Special Forces are looking for, physically fit college-educated young men.
After the meeting I had a chance to talk to Riddle and find out why he was interested in joining the Army.
“It’s one of those things I’ve always considered. I’m patriotic, I love my country, but I don’t always agree with its politics,” said Riddle.
I then asked Riddle what his fears would be about joining the Army during these times and also if he agreed with the war in Iraq.
“Well, I could lose all of my arms and my legs, all of my limbs,” said Riddle. “But what is life worth to you? I agree with all of its (the war) principles, but I don’t agree with how it’s ran. I do support it, because I am an American. It’s an American venture and I will support it because of that. There are some good things coming out of it.”
“Such as?” I asked.
“Some of these terrorist networks that would rather come here and bomb us aren’t coming here, they’re going there. We’re not having to go all over, they’re coming to us. Unfortunately the crazy thing about it is that the other day I saw thirty innocent people were killed in Iraq.”
The newly appointed Iraqi government is reporting the Iraqi civilian death toll as over 12,000 people, while other independent sources are reporting the deaths of over 25,000 Iraqi civilians.
I drove over to the Reno Job Corps with Sgt. Hunt. The Job Corps helps its students earn their G.E.D. or high school diploma while learning a trade.
Sgt. Hunt noted the decline in enlistees. “The kids that are born soldiers, the ones that played with bb guns and G.I. Joes as a kid, are still joining. We’re losing the kids that were looking to join as a means to pay for college,” Sgt. Hunt said. “Those kids are hanging back for a few years to see what happens.”
Despite that, every recruiter I talked to agreed that most people were joining to get money for college.
At the Job Corps we met up with Sgt. Suter, Sgt. Zirbel, and EI ranking Barnett, a 21-year-old Reno local just out of boot camp. Barnett is along to talk to the kids and answer any questions they might have about boot camp.
We entered a room where six kids waited to take practice tests for the ASVAB. In order to join the Army one must score a minimum of 31. The higher the score the more likely it is that enlisting in the service will come with a hefty cash bonus. This test score also helps the Army decide where to place the new recruits.
Over the next few hours, 13 kids in all would take the practice ASVAB test. Only two of the kids received a passing score, but the young lady scoring the highest was ineligible to join the Army due to weight restrictions. Sgt. Suter and Sgt. Hunt still encouraged the young lady to keep taking the practice test and working on her scores, encouraging her in her plans to lose the required weight.
Back at the office, the recruiters return to the P1 part of their day—cold calling people on the telephone. Between phone calls and meetings, the recruiters stay in the office until 8 p.m. They work 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. four days a week, Fridays they’re let out at 5 p.m., and Saturdays they work until 3 p.m.
As Sgt. Zirbel pointed out, “It’s better than being shipped out where you’re there for six months and up for 24 hours straight. I still get to go home and sleep in my bed.”
I called it quits and headed back to my home in Truckee. Spending the day with the recruiters certainly shifted my perspective on what they do for a living, though I couldn’t help but notice that they never brought up ongoing military operations in Iraq or Afghanistan to any of the recruits. To me, it’s like a police officer telling recruits that they’ll learn to drive a car at high speeds, shoot guns, make good money, and meet interesting people; but at no time mentioning that their lives will be put in danger.
I know a lot of people joining the Army are trying to earn money for college or pay off college loans. I know that an education can provide a better life. But I just don’t know if it’s worth dying for.
Daniel Savickas is a Michigan native struggling to keep his head and the head of his independent monthly newsprint magazine, The LowDown, above the icy cold waters of Lake Tahoe in California. He and his magazine have been treading water for over a year and a half.
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Illustration: Matt Bors