Dressed in his spotless Class A uniform, Army Reserve Col. Gerald E. Brunn stood quietly at the front of a Merced High School classroom with a stack of glossy, colorful brochures in his hands.
"Have you had any exciting speakers today?" the colonel asked the class, which had spent the morning listening to adults talk about their careers. Most of the students replied with either a groan or a rolling of the eyes. He then told them by the end of this class, he hoped they could answer that question with a "yes."
Brunn, who has been in the reserves for 21 years, sits on the admissions board for the Army's military academy at West Point and helps students in this area's congressional district navigate the admissions process. Though technically not considered a recruiter, Brunn is one of the many people the Army relies on to speak to teenagers about a future in the armed forces.
High schools have long been a major stop on military recruiters' tours. And while many might think it's getting harder to persuade America's teens to sign up during a time of war, recruiting goals continue to be met year after year. In the Army alone, more than 900,000 Americans have joined and about 700,000 have re-enlisted since Sept. 11, 2001.
Last month, Department of Defense officials reported every branch of the armed forces, except the Army National and Air National Guard, had met or exceeded last year's recruiting goals.
It's unknown how many of those recruits were first approached in high school, but there's no coincidence that recruiters put up their biggest numbers in July, August and September -- when recent high school graduates are looking for options.
As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have dragged on, casualties climbing steadily, anti-war critics, including some educators and parents, have questioned the ethics of letting recruiters roam freely on high school campuses. Moreover, some critics charge that recruiters lure teenagers into uniform with promises that can't be kept ("You'll never see a battlefield"), standards that have been lowered (criminal and poor academic records brushed aside) and temporary financial perks clearly targeting low-income students and families. "Recruiters are selling the sizzle when they aren't even the ones who have to deliver," said Dan Yaseen, member of the Fresno-based Central Valley Counter-recruitment Coalition.
Since 9/11 and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, some 300 Merced County residents have been deployed overseas, 48 of them deployed as of Aug. 31. "Merced County is a fairly military friendly community," said Merced County's Air Force recruiter, Staff Sgt. Brandon Faias. "There's never a lack of interest."
America's military has been an all-volunteer force since 1973, the year the draft was abolished. By law there can be no coercion by the military to enlist civilians, and clearly the vast majority of recruiters operate ethically and even patriotically. Nevertheless, in one of the poorest counties in the state, with discouraging prospects for local decent-paying jobs, it's only logical that some teenagers would be susceptible, and even vulnerable, to recruiters' pitches. "Recruitment at a high school, where you have your audience captive, is not a desirable thing," said Ralph Sherlock, a World War II veteran and retired assistant superintendent in the Merced Union High School District. "There's no one there to refute lies a recruiter might say. ... They don't explain to them they could come home without arms and legs."