The empty promises of an army under siege

 

The US army spends billions on touring schools and recruitment offices with promises of college fees and thousands of dollars in bonuses to meet its quota of 100,000 recruits a year. A group of war veterans, however, say that the targeted teenagers are only getting half the story, writes MANCHÁN MAGAN.

THE SANTA FE PLACE shopping centre in New Mexico is like any other US mall – clumps of teenagers in skater-boy or emo-girl clothes slurp oversized drinks as they wander aimlessly around Gap, Victoria’s Secret and Radio Shack, yet at the far end, between JC Penney and the Pretzel Zone, is something quite alien: a line of army, navy, marine and air-force recruiting offices, all with glossy airbrushed images of gung-ho young recruits in high-tech battledress and Apache helicopters looming overhead.

“Are you army strong?” demands a sign above a panel of photographs of local youths who’ve just enlisted. Their names, schools and the unit in which they will serve are listed – as well as the most important line, the cash bonus each receives upon entry and the extra funds promised for college education. A mischievous-looking Hispanic boy from Mesa Vista High School is getting a $20,000 (€15,418) bonus as well as a possible $37,000 (€28,524) for his college education, while a curly-haired blonde girl from Santa Fe Community College gets a whopping $37,000 (€28,524) for joining a mortuary-affairs unit.

That morning on NPR radio a woman recounted her experiences in mortuary affairs in Iraq. “I saw brains leaking out from heads, and saw eyes that had been popped out of sockets,” Charlotte Brooke recalled. “Bodily fluids dripped on my boots.” Could that be worth a $37,000 bonus – even in a poor US state such as New Mexico where the average annual income is less than that?

Inside the army recruiting office the atmosphere is ebullient. The team of recruiters, which covers 27,000km of mostly desert, has been unusually busy all day with kids looking for information. Senior officer sergeant first class Pilar Sauceda says the army would like him to think that this is due to a recent $1.35 billion (€1.04 billion) “Army Strong” advertising campaign, but he isn’t so sure. He’s just glad of the break. His job has been getting increasingly difficult as the number of dead service personnel continues to rise – last year was the highest since the war began. As recruit numbers decrease the army has had to lower its acceptance criteria, allowing in more high-school dropouts and applicants with low aptitude scores and criminal backgrounds, and also giving more waivers for medical problems, such as attention deficit disorder.

The army needs 100,000 new recruits each year, according to Sauceda, and he and his men are expected to meet a recruitment target each month – the pressure gets higher as the month goes on. If they don’t succeed they may find themselves strapping their battle-gear back on and being shipped out. Amid allegations of unethical behaviour, the US army closed all recruiting offices for a day in 2005 to retrain them in proper practice. Sauceda promises his men behave well. He wants to shake off the image of recruiters as “used car salesmen”.

“People expect the truth,” he says. “The parents and girlfriends will look me in the eye and insist, almost threaten me, to bring their boy back alive.”

Most of the recruiters’ time is spent going around high schools, youth events and public festivals – anywhere they’re likely to come upon young people who are uncertain about their future. The army’s recruiting manual outlines that each student should be contacted at least three times. “First during the summer . . . this plants awareness of the army in their minds. Remember, first to contact, first to contract . . . You will probably need to tailor your sales message.”

THEIR WORK IS made more difficult by “counter-recruiters” – voluntary groups of concerned parents and disillusioned military veterans who aim to inform students about the recruiters’ “misinformation”. Tim Origer is a Vietnam veteran who helped devise a full disclosure recruitment programme for the organisation Veterans for Peace. They use it when the visit schools to provide information in response to the recruiters’ pitches. Origer says the “truth” offered by most recruiters follows the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

Unless you ask the specific “right” question you will not be told, for example, that the contract you sign is binding only to you, not the army, and that the fees promised for college are not guaranteed. Only 5 per cent of recruits get the full amount offered, while two-thirds get nothing at all.

“War is not about winning hearts or minds; it’s about killing the enemy before they kill you,” Origer and his fellow Iraq and Vietnam veterans tell the teens in schools. “Kids need to know it’s not just smart bombs and surgical strikes – the building you blow up might contain an insurgent, but women and children too. You have to live with that for your life.”

Despite their differences, Sauceda and Origer have much in common – both proudly list youngsters they have managed to “convince” in the last few days. Origer accepts that he cannot compete with the recruiters’ resources: they tour schools and public events with Nascar sports cars, mobile rock-climbing walls and military Humvees equipped with computer games and rifle simulators; he relies on what he calls the students’ “inner bullshit detector”. He tells them how he is still haunted by the memory of the night he and his men blew up a Vietnamese shack because it had a candle burning inside – only later to discover that it was occupied by an elderly man who had got up to go to the lavatory.

“They know we’re telling the truth,” Origer says. “We’ve no quota to fill.” But he readily admits that his group aren’t as engaging as the recruiters, who are specially chosen to be the army’s poster-boys – the brightest and best. They are the “sort of person you’d trust – the friend you’d want to have,” Origer says. On a MySpace page, one of Sauceda’s recruiting officers describes himself as having “a Bachelors degree in being smooth and a minor in slappin the taste outta yo mouth”. Another says he’s a “quiet, shy guy . . . you know, the kind that holds on to a red stapler and you’re kind of weirded out by because you know he probably has guns . . . lots of guns”. In contrast, Tim Origer describes himself as “a grizzly Vietnam Vet with a prosthetic leg”.

As the Iraq war becomes increasingly unpopular, Sauceda finds it more difficult to gain access to schools, particularly in wealthier areas. Principals and guidance teachers restrict access, although by doing so they endanger their funding.

In 2002 Donald Rumsfeld enacted a law that gave recruiters free access to all public secondary schools and made it compulsory to provide them with pupils’ private contact details as part of the “No Child Left Behind” initiative. This, backed up by the Pentagon’s Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps database (which contains details of 30 million 16-25-year-olds, including e-mail addresses, mobile numbers, ethnicities and extracurricular activities) allows Sauceda and his men to target students individually.

Sauceda says that at first, he looks for students with a bold, determined gaze – patriotic, flag-waving youths. After that, he tries to find the ones who need help paying for college. His aim is to become a friendly, trusted figure in the students’ lives and to inform them of the options available.

THE ARMY PROVIDES a stable, rewarding career and, for many, it’s their only hope of college. Sauceda acknowledges that the $400-a-month wage is low, but says the cash bonus, healthcare and college fees make for a fair offer. He is always upfront with the recruits. The first question they ask is, “will I end up in Iraq?”, and he admits that in all likelihood they will. After their nine weeks’ basic training they could be shipped out within 72 hours if they are in a rapid deployment unit. He tries to avoid the students who are obviously afraid of him, the ones who think he is out to ensnare them.

Tim Origer says that he often finds himself face-to-face with recruiters as they trail each other around various schools and youth events and he realises that they have a lot more in common than they would like to admit.

Both groups, he says, recognise that army life is brutal, that 18 US soldiers commit suicide each day, that post-traumatic stress disorder means many veterans are not fit for college, even if they do end up getting the promised funds, but the basic truth is that for many young people in New Mexico the army offers the only chance of escape from the spiralling poverty that entrapped their parents and grandparents. It’s a risk worth taking.

As one of the teenagers hanging around the mall said when I asked him what he thought of the recruiting offices, “they’re still trying to draft us, the only difference is that now it’s an economic draft”.