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."
Brunn didn't mention the loss of any limbs on his visit to Merced High, but he did tell the students about the financial perks that come along with pursuing a military career. "But there is a payback, and it's a serious payback," he told the students. "It's called commitment." If accepted to West Point, students get a free education, but must agree to five years of active duty after graduation and three years of the reserves.
"The payback isn't that tough, in my opinion," Brunn continued. He said he considered his service time -- after receiving a four-year ROTC scholarship to attend the University of San Francisco -- a blessing. "I looked at it as an opportunity," he added.
That is just how Merced High School senior Max Masood regards his recent enlistment in the Air Force. The 17-year-old, after graduation this June, will head to basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. "August 26," the Merced High basketball forward proudly stated, is his ship-off date.
The only son of a single mom, Masood said he joined the Air Force for the college benefits. "They pay for your schooling," he explained. "You don't have to have worries."
Masood first started thinking about joining the Air Force when he heard Faias speak at a Merced High School career day his sophomore year.
After their original meeting back then, Masood followed up with Faias, who eventually helped him enlist. Faias has since been working with the teenager to prepare him for basic training. "We have a meeting with him every week," Masood said of himself and other area Air Force recruits. "We run along Bear Creek, do push-ups, sit-ups. He weighs us."
While Masood started pursuing a future in the Air Force his sophomore year, he didn't inform his mother of his plans until his junior year. "She was sad, but overall she knows it will be better for me," he said. After a pause, he added, "I think it's mostly my being away from home that scares her."
He said when people first hear he has joined the military, "they think you're automatically going to war, busting down doors." It's not like that, insisted the senior, "it's just a job."
The attitude of Masood's classmates might be one of the reasons Faias prefers to recruit a slightly older bunch. He said most of the people he recruits are around 20 years old. Another reason is that Merced County's possible enlistees have one of the lowest "pass rate" percentages in the state. Many of the young men and women Faias recruits have to be turned away because they don't meet academic goals set by the Air Force. "I have to disqualify nine out of 10," Faias lamented.
Faias, who works out of the Armed Services Recruitment center on G Street, is the only Air Force recruiter assigned to Merced County. Out of that same office work three Navy recruiters and a handful of Army and Marine recruiters. Faias covers about 15 high schools and makes about one school -- high school or junior college -- visit a week. Faias said he joined "just like Max" as a senior in high school, looking for a chance at a college education and usable job training.
Masood has signed up for a "delayed entry" program, which prepares its recruits for the next few years of their lives. Faias said the transition program takes recruits on base tours, works them out physically and watches their grades. "Every quarter we usually meet with their (high school) counselor, make sure they're passing all their classes," he said.
After basic training, Masood says he will go to a technical school for firefighting at Goodfellow AFB in Texas. He will then attend a university closest to the place he is assigned to do that job. When he is done with school, he reckons he will only have a year left of commitment to the Air Force. "I want to be a physical trainer," Masood said, which is what he will study in college.
But Masood is aware that at any time during those eight years, he could be required to go overseas. "There's always a chance," he said. But he added that he has been told if sent to the Middle East he wouldn't be doing combat missions -- he would serve as a firefighter on a base.
Yaseen of the counter- recruiting group said these are typical tales that recruiters tell their recruits, but it often doesn't play out the way the pitch has gone. "Anything that is promised in that contract can be taken away," said the activist. Yaseen and his group visit Fresno high schools, much as recruiters do, to help inform students of the negative effects of enlisting in the delayed entry program. For example, the research his and other counter-recruitment groups across the country have done shows that most students will not qualify for nearly enough of the military's money to pay for college. "The average person gets about $2,200," he said.
Money for soldiers is also almost always used as an incentive for joining up. In its Army Strong brochure, the Army mentions that enlistment bonuses of up to $40,000 are available to potential soldiers. It also says that active duty soldiers qualify for up to $72,900 for college or up to $65,000 to pay back student loans. "To attract interested young men and women we know that we must have cutting-edge enlistment and retention options to acquire and retain America's best soldiers," Lt. Gen. Michael D. Rochelle, the Army's deputy chief of staff said in a press release.
But Yaseen said you only qualify for the highest amount of college dollars if you end up in law or medical school: "Most people don't do that. They go where? Merced College."
Other incentives include an expiration date, encouraging a sense of urgency for recruits looking to hit a jackpot. For example, the U.S. Army's Recruiting Command unveiled a $20,000 "quick-ship" bonus for aspiring recruits in August. If these new recruits agreed to report to basic training within 30 days of enlistment, the $20,000 was theirs -- as long as they signed up by Sept. 30.
These kinds of practices are exactly what Yaseen's group opposes. "Schools should be places to get an education, not a place where you (are exposed to) high-pressure sales tactics," he said.
But Atwater High School senior Carolina Ballesteros said she has never felt pressured by the recruiters who visit her school. "I have never been approached by a military recruiter, but there has been a Navy recruiter who has shown up to my English class," she said. And while the senior doesn't have any plans to join the military, she does have a few friends who are looking into it. "I think that recruiters should have the opportunity to be on campuses in search of those who are willing to sign up," she said.
Masood, however, doesn't think the average student on his campus shares Ballesteros' opinion. He said when schoolmates hear about his own plans after high school, some call him crazy. "They all think I'm going to get shot, when it's nothing like that." he said. "People aren't informed as much."
What people are informed of are the 4,343 Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since the beginning of the war in 2001. Sixty-nine of those killed were in the Air Force.
The Department of Defense reported that June 2007 was the second month in a row that the Army missed its active recruiting goal, but by September 2007, it had exceeded that goal by 6 percent -- recruiting 10,126 people when its quota was only 9,600. In fact, every branch met or exceeded its goals by that month, signing up a total of 17,918 recruits. By the end of fiscal year 2007, recruiters in every branch had met or exceeded quotas -- signing up 181,172 Americans.
In June, when the Army didn't meet its goals, the branch took a few steps to counteract the recruitment slowdown. The Army announced in July that it had increased its advertising budget by $30 million, hoping to publicize its "Army Strong" slogan to possible recruits.
The Army also hired more recruiters and beefed up promotion of its $2,000 referral bonus program. The program offers the money to soldiers, Army retirees and civilian Army employees who refer a recruit who completes his or her training.
While the promise of a payday is a popular incentive, Faias said most of his recruits sign up for the schooling and training provided to them by the Air Force. "Education is a big factor," Faias said. "Job training is probably the second-most popular reason" for enlisting. Faias himself has studied aeronautical science at several colleges since his enlistment and will soon graduate from the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University based in Daytona Beach, Fla.
Yaseen, however, said research has shown "only 6 percent of men and 12 percent of women use that training in civilian life." Most of that training doesn't transfer over into the real world, he argued, leaving military recruits with few job skills once they are discharged.
Along with "dispelling myths" his group feels military recruiters share with unassuming teenagers on high school campuses, Yaseen's counter-recruitment coalition also works to inform parents of the provision of the No Child Left Behind act that allows recruiters access to their child's information.
The provision requires school districts to give military recruiters the names, addresses and telephone numbers of students to qualify for federal funds. The only way a student's information can be kept out of a recruiter's hands is if parents request it to be withheld, said Yaseen. But most school districts only see a handful of parents who "opt out" every year, mainly because, he added, they don't know the provision even exists. "We do our best to let them know," Yaseen said.
Bill Stockard, former Merced County superintendent of schools, said he thinks the policy should be an "opt in" one instead. "When parents haven't been notified their kids are being fed a bunch of baloney, it's just not right," said the World War II vet. "The Senate should require the parents be notified."
Meanwhile, Faias and his fellow recruiters will continue to visit young and impressionable men and women in the halls, cafeterias and gyms of their high school campuses.
Their lines today will mirror in many ways one by 19th century author and war correspondent Rudyard Kipling, a British super-patriot:
"If you can keep your wits about you while all others are losing theirs, and blaming you/The world will be yours and everything in it -- what's more, you'll be a man, my son."
Reporter Abby Souza can be reached at 209-385-2407 or email@example.com.
Every Army recruit will hear it and every soldier should be able to recite it word for word. The Soldier's Creed is meant to embody the soldier's mission and outline the way he or she should live their lives.
I am an American Soldier.
I am a Warrior and a member of a team.
I serve the people of the United States, and live the Army Values.
I will always place the mission first.
I will never accept defeat.
I will never quit.
I will never leave a fallen comrade.
I am disciplined, physically and mentally tough,
Trained and proficient in my warrior tasks and drills.
I always maintain my arms, my equipment and myself.
I am an expert and I am a professional.
I stand ready to deploy, engage, and destroy, the enemies of the United States of America in close combat.
I am a guardian of freedom and the American way of life.
I am an American Soldier.