Editor’s note: The following is a true story, but all the names have been changed.
New York, NY
At 4:00 p.m. the phone rang. It was the Army recruiter, Sergeant Preto.
“We’re a block away. We looked at a map and found your apartment, so we’ll just come by.”
I was scheduled for 4:30. I explained that my apartment was a mess and I needed to send an e-mail. I’d be outside in ten minutes.
Sergeants Preto and Mack drove up, both in uniform. Mack was about 25, white, with a slow Southern drawl and a gap between his two front teeth. The other was Latino, a few white hairs on the side of his short black hair. He had a youthful face and demeanor.
Sergeant Preto started talking about money the moment I sat in the car. He asked how many loans I had.
“Do you want to make that balance zero? We can show you how to do that.”
I had decided to stay as close to the truth as I could. I told them I was temping at $8.00 an hour in a doctor’s office at a boring secretarial job. I had no health insurance, and I had about $60,000 in loans. Some small lies were necessary, though. I said I was 21 (I am 25), and had completed three years of college (I have a master’s degree). The recruiters knew that I, like so many of their young targets, was in financial trouble.
As we drove down the West Side Highway toward their Chambers Street office, I awkwardly said, “My mom told me I had to ask about getting deployed. She does not want me going to Iraq.”
“This is not the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts,” he said sternly, as if my question was ridiculous. “Sergeant Mack went to Iraq for five months. I can’t say you will or won’t go. But women don’t serve in combat. Well, there’s only one woman I know who’s in combat.”
I had interviewed several soldiers and their families who said recruiters had promised them they wouldn’t see combat. I suppose the ongoing war in Iraq has made the Army address this question differently. Now they use veiled taunts of cowardice, an especially effective tool when recruiting adolescent boys.
Then Sgt. Preto steered the conversation back toward his golden ring: money.
“How much do you pay in rent?”
“About $650. But it’s a studio, and I have a roommate.”
The Army could help me there too. I could live rent free.
But the real sales pitch didn’t begin until we got to the recruitment office.
Once inside, I was introduced to the other recruiters, who seemed exceptionally happy to meet a stranger. I was asked (two times) if I needed anything to drink.
The recruiters then explained that I needed to take a pretest to help determine my ASVAB score, which is what would indicate which jobs and programs I’d qualify for. While they were setting up the test, another recruiter asked how many college credits I had. He said I’d get a $7,000 bonus.
After I finished the test—a series of vocabulary and math word problems—Sgt. Preto sat to my right, Sgt. Mack to my left. At this point I was barraged by Sgt. Preto’s insistence that the Army would make me financially secure. He promised it would cancel my debt. If I went back to school, the Army would pay 100% of my tuition. I would work until 4:30 and go to school at night. His friend was earning $60,000–$70,000 after he left the Army. I would have full medical and dental. Thirty days paid vacation. Unlimited sick days. Live rent free. He pulled out a chart divided into a hundred little boxes. He pointed to the numbers in the boxes and showed how my pay would go up and up and up. I’d earn about $1,400 a month—more than my total rent. He said soldiers had received a twenty percent raise since Bush was in office.
He pulled out a piece of paper and split it into four boxes. He wrote: Education, $, Training, and ASVAB. He said, “You can fax this to your mom.”
I could get all the tests done by Saturday, get my paperwork rolling this week.
“What other job would promise you you’d be debt free, fully insured, and making $1,400 a month?” he asked.
But I hesitated. I told him I still wasn’t sure the Army was for me. (I had already said I wasn’t athletic and could maybe do 10 push-ups. I was wearing a preppie black-and-white skirt with a black sequined tank top. Why would they want me anyway?)
“Why?” he asked.
“I’m just really concerned about going into combat.”
“So you’re scared?”
I felt so embarrassed.
“That’s the first thing you mentioned,” he said, in a teasing tone. “I don’t want to go to combat.”
He pointed at Sgt. Mack: “He went for five months.” And then at a recruiter across the room: “He went for a year. They went. They’re OK.”
“You’ve never been deployed, right?” he asked another recruiter. “And I’ve never been deployed.”
I didn’t have anything else to say about it.
Then more teasing began. He asked me if I had an 8:00 curfew in high school. He said I was probably the sort of kid who was locked in my house on a Friday night.
As I sat in the office, several teenagers who looked about 18 or 19 walked through. All were either black or Latino. Each was greeted warmly and with affection.
I asked him about his job. Like any salesman’s job, he said, it’s stressful. He said he didn’t have to meet a quota of new recruits. I asked if he received bonuses for signing people up. He asked, “How much are you worth?” I stammered. He said, “See? It doesn’t make sense to offer bonuses.”
Then laughing, he took Sgt. Mack’s pay slip, which showed $5,000 per month. “That’s my bonus. Two people, that’s $2,500 apiece. One is $5,000.”
After some more lecturing about my eternal job prospects and endless financial possibilities, he was finally wrapping up. He told me which jobs to avoid if I didn’t want to get deployed. I didn’t know what time it was, but I had surely been there for a couple of hours. Sgt. Mack told me that Sgt. Suarez wanted to see me.
I walked into his office. His desk was adorned with photos of his family. A small candy dish contained some Starburst Fruit Chews.
Sgt. Suarez was a smiling, flamboyant, well-groomed man with carefully gelled hair and a weak handshake. He told me he grew up in Puerto Rico in a blue-collar household. He now had a college degree, he said, pulling out a white binder and flipping to a plastic-covered diploma. He had two houses. A Mercedes. He had traveled all over the world.
He told me I could choose any job I wanted (provided the test qualified me). If I didn’t get the job I wanted, he would get on the phone and make sure I did. I could travel to Germany, Hawaii, Alaska.
Again I was bombarded with promises of thousands of dollars.
He asked me what I thought when he said Army.
“That’s what 99.9% of people who come in here say.”
Then he pulled out a large stack of white papers. Each listed a name, a money bonus, and a job assignment. He was trying to show me the variety of jobs I could do that had nothing to do with war. I was busy trying to memorize the names, wondering if I’d see them in the newspaper listing Iraq’s wounded or dead.
At some point in his monologue he began to rail against the news media for talking about the war’s dead and, strangely, for using the word “insurgents.”
“Insurgents! What’s that? What’s an insurgent? They’re not insurgents. They’re terrorists. They came over here on 9/11 and attacked us. We’re fighting them over there so we don’t fight them over here.”
I told him my mom was worried about my going into combat.
“You could get shot—God forbid—in front of your apartment. More people were killed in New York last week than Iraq.”
And he told me I needed to cut the umbilical cord. Everyone would tell me not to join, he said. I had to make the decision.
Finally, he asked, holding one of the sheets he showed me before, “What can I do to get your name on this piece of paper?”
Sgt. Mack was standing in front of Suarez’s desk.
“I don’t know,” I said.
He seemed confounded. He’s offering me money for school, employment, travel, etc. What more could I want?
“She’s being greedy,” Mack said, with a laugh.
At this point I wanted to leave. But every time I expressed doubt or hesitated to arrange my tests, Suarez launched into a friendly tirade. Finally, I relented and agreed to set up the tests. They needed my birth certificate and Social Security card, which were at my parents’ house in New Jersey. Sgt. Mack would drive me to Jersey on Thursday and even meet with my mom over lunch. Suarez wrote it in Sgt Mack’s schedule.
Sgt. Suarez got up to smoke. I got up to get the hell home. It was about 8:00.
Here are some of things that I wasn’t told.
Recruiters do receive incentives, sometimes economic, for how many recruits they sign up. They’re not pushing so hard for their health.
According to the Committee for Conscientious Objection, two-thirds of all recruits don’t receive any money for college. To qualify for college money you have to pay $100 a month for a year. Most recruits are too exhausted to go to school at night.
The Los Angeles Times reported last year that half the recruits going through Fort Benning will be deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan 30 days after finishing basic training. More than 1,500 soldiers have been killed in Iraq. About 4,000 suffered injuries that prevent them from reenlisting. Soldiers are coming home with amputated limbs, eye injuries, and mysterious illnesses from exposure to toxins.
The New England Journal of Medicine reported that about one in six soldiers returning from Iraq experience mental health problems. Military families are often abandoned by the Army and forced to fight for proper medical care, as well as deal with the financial pressures of deployment, extended tours, and illness. The Bush administration has cut funding to VA hospitals and soldiers’ combat pay.
Needless to say, the truth is not an effective recruiting tool.
Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg is a writer based in Manhattan.