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Front Page > Issues > 2003 > December

Who's buying? The military steps up its act

Military recruiting ads still sound like pitches for vocational school, but with casualties mounting in Iraq are these still working for recruiters? Alliance reporter Ramona DeNies, with the assistance of her brother, Charles DeNies, decided to find out.

By Ramona DeNies

The gangly eighteen year-old trudged through the parking lot and pushed open the glass door. He wasn’t sure what to expect — before yesterday he had never thought he’d have found himself at the 82nd Ave. Armed Services Recruiting Center.

The Navy recruiters present seemed used to awkwardness and uncertainty. They greeted my brother warmly and immediately asked him to share his hopes and plans for the future. They created a list of his vague replies. They were concerned and receptive, but not pushy. It was hard to remember which party here was truly purchasing the product.

They requested his personal information — that inspired a momentary cautiousness. My brother was assured that the information was simply to have on file if he returned, like a repeat customer. They turned to his list of desires and skimmed over “independence” and “happiness” to alight on “education” — a word my brother had said was suggested by the recruiter himself.

“He talked about pay scales and tuition assistance, which seemed pretty good,” my brother said, recalling the amount mentioned as being around $50,000. “Then he convinced me to take a short 20-minute test — there were word problems and math problems, and questions that asked you to find synonyms for words like obliterate and seize.”

After acing the test, he was told he would be capable of almost all navy jobs. My brother wasn’t positive what most people did in the Navy, so the recruiter sketched out some possibilities.

“It sounded like most of the jobs were technical, like engineering. They didn’t talk about things like pilots or gunners. But they said that they wouldn’t arrive at a career for me until they knew it was the best fit for my needs.”

One recruiter then showed him a scrapbook filled with pictures of him in Europe — on the Champs Elysées, the Arc de Triomphe, the Coliseum, playing baseball in Spain. This, he said, was his tour of duty.

“I asked him where I’d be going and he said it was pretty much my choice,” said my brother. “I asked him about the Middle East and he seemed confused. He said there were places like that I could go if I wanted. But he said I could choose where I wanted to go.”

Mentioning an interest in Japan, the other recruiter piped up, saying he would shortly be going to Japan himself, and was looking forward to it.

My brother left with the recruiters’ last words in his head, that he had given them the impression of someone the Navy would be proud to have and that would be fulfilled, in turn, by Navy life. He was mildly enthused, and rebuked me for implying it was a web of lies they’d woven. My little experiment had gone slightly awry — it was I who had sent my brother there as a test subject.

Alarmed, I turned to a neighbor of mine named Duane Barringer, whose active Army duty ended a hair’s breadth from the onset of the first Gulf War. I asked him what his experience had been. Were the recruiters obfuscating the truth? How much was up to my brother — could he go where he wanted and choose his job?

Not surprisingly, Duane’s personal experiences didn’t particularly buoy up the recruiters’ promises.

Duane told me he’d had the option of choosing between two attractive jobs because of his high score on the ASVAB (the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery), and that most others weren’t so lucky. When he arrived in Germany, the communications equipment he’d been trained to use was on the ground — and non-functional. The illusion of cutting edge military intelligence was disturbingly shaken. He admitted that had there been a war at that point, the 26,000 troops for which his team was responsible would have been severely compromised.

“Basically, once or twice a year we would travel to Stuttgart to practice our jobs. That’s the only time we did what we’d signed up to do. In the two and a half years I was in Germany, I was a courier, did guard duty, KP, and worked in the gymnasium handing out basketballs — that was the best job I had in the army,” said Duane.

The hope of choice relinquished, I thought nevertheless that on the surface of things, military life might retain a few redeeming points. Killing and dying aside, there was, after all, the siren’s song of education funding.
I next talked to John Grueschow, coordinator of the Military and Draft Counseling Project of the War Resister’s League, Portland Chapter. If anyone had solid cautionary advice, I thought, it would be him.
“The main message I try to get across is that there are no guarantees,” John told me. “The recruiter can make promises, but you’re signing up for the military, not for a college program.”

John said that of the youth he counsels, maybe 80 percent cite money for college as a primary reason for enlisting. But according to data from the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, only about 35 percent of recruits receive any education benefits from the military. Education benefits are predominantly accrued through the Montgomery G.I. Bill, but money paid by enlistees into the program cannot be accessed for those without an honorable discharge — something 20 percent of servicemen and women have in common. The rate of remission and other stipulations further confound the process of applying stated benefits to the education program of choice. The process reads like a credit card bill, it seems, full of obscure charges, minor penalties, waivers and restrictions. Duane estimates that of every ten kids with whom he served, maybe two went to college and finished, as he did.

“They got out and there was so much bureaucracy and paperwork on top of the fact that they had gotten out of practice. They’d been out of the education loop for two or three years — things get rusty, they were intimidated,” he said.

John saw a deeper problem in the glibness. “These are often kids without a lot of options, and a lot of high school kids aren’t used to people taking advantage of them. The military touts itself as an alternative to college, as a jobs-training program. But once they’re in, it’s welcome to the real world,” he said. “It makes me really angry when I see kids getting ripped off, wasting their time and health, even coming home in a body bag.”

While the recruiters drew my brother’s attention to education benefits and exotic travel, they shied away from any reference to what should be the most pointed concern of current recruits: the Middle East, where they are very likely to serve — and suffer the consequences of becoming America’s newest generation of vets.

Perhaps it’s understandable the recruiters should obfuscate — in avoiding a recurrence of the draft, they have no choice but to step up their efforts as the Bush Administration threatens to expand its own.
“I think [the recruiters] are going to do what they can. Already they’re overusing their troops,” said John. “They need more troops — they’re failing in their mission [in the Middle East. But the problem with a draft is that it will really get opposition built up to what they’re doing. Middle class moms and dads don’t want their kids over there.”

Evidence of increased pressure on recruiters and even rumors of draft activity have nevertheless cropped up. In early November, reported that the Pentagon had quietly begun filling local draft board vacancies. The story was picked up by numerous other news outlets and promptly denied by the White House. A press release detailing the request for applicants has since been removed from the Department of Defense web pages sourced in the Salon article. If I didn’t trust that even the good Bush knew his limits — do I? — I might think further mayhem was in the works.

I should admit my brother remains skeptical of my insinuation that recruiters are prepared to lie to him about the facts of an army career, even in the face of a series of resource-sucking foreign occupations. He feels that he has leeway to choose the product if he wishes, as an informed customer. I haven’t the heart to remind him of what he hopefully already knows — that he’s the choice product being bought, and once he’s bought, it’s the military, the real customer, that is King.

Ramona DeNies is a writer, activist, and Portland Alliance volunteer.


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Last Updated: January 29, 2003