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Salesman Soldiers of the Army

Military recruiters find that wooing and winning applicants is complicated by the threat of war. Still, there are quotas to be filled.

March 07, 2003|Nora Zamichow | Times Staff Writer

"Just don't spit on me," muttered Sgt. Cavin Moskwa as demonstrators assembled near his Army recruiting table in a courtyard at Pasadena City College.

The protesters chanted: "1-2-3-4! We don't want your oil war!"

Moskwa looked flustered. "Where's my military bearing?" he asked himself. He drew up as tall as 5-foot-4 can be, composed himself and thrust out his chest.

" ... 5-6-7-8! Don't recruit us for your hate!"

Not the best atmosphere for wooing would-be Army Rangers. But Moskwa stood his ground; he didn't want the protesters to think he was intimidated.

"A recruiter in wartime should have a decoration," he said later.

The country is not at war -- yet -- but the passions stirred by the threat of battle in Iraq are complicating the work of men like Moskwa, whose job is to sign people up for three- and four-year stints in uniform.

Military recruiting is a form of courtship, requiring patience and long hours. It means placing dozens of calls a day to high school seniors and college students and being told no, over and over.

It means trying to reassure anxious parents and other potential naysayers -- "vision killers," Moskwa calls them. It means coaching: Don't wear exotic underwear to the physical exam.

Finally, it means not only wooing and winning an applicant, but hanging onto him: nursing him through doubts and fears and making sure he doesn't back out at the last minute.

In the months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, recruiters found no dearth of volunteers. But today, as U.S. forces mass near Iraq, fear and anxiety have muffled some of the patriotism.

"There are more questions asked now and people want more detail," said Lt. Col. Terrence Marsh, commander of the U.S. Army's Los Angeles Recruiting Battalion. "We spend more time now with parents and influencers because they truly want reassurance."

Moskwa works at the Army recruiting station in Pasadena. He is as persistent as a terrier. On the telephone, he is magic. With his easygoing manner, he excels at calling prospects out of the blue and persuading them to come in for a chat.

The 29-year-old Hawaii native joined the Army nine years ago to fight, not to recruit. Moskwa is a field artilleryman; he loves shooting big guns and prides himself on running a crew of seven, trained to load, aim and fire.

"Artillery guys are the king of battle," Moskwa says.

Moskwa is not the king of recruiting. Not yet.

February was almost over when the demonstrators scotched his efforts at Pasadena City College. Worse, his recruiting station still hadn't reached its monthly quota of six enlistments. His supervisor, Sgt. Michael Cypressi, told him and his fellow recruiters to buy candles and pray.

"I don't like to fail," Cypressi reminded them.

Cypressi is from the 101st Airborne Division. He won a Bronze Star in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. He paces between recruiters' desks, swinging a black baseball bat. He drapes his office with camouflage netting, keeps a rocket launcher in a closet, and plays the soundtrack from the movie "Black Hawk Down" every morning and afternoon.

"There's pressure every single day, every hour," Moskwa said. "It's not, 'What have you done for me lately?' It's, 'What have you done for me now?' "

Reluctant Recruiter

Moskwa didn't choose to become a recruiter. The Army selects the top 10% in every field, puts them through seven weeks of training and dispatches them to recruiting stations around the country for three-year stints.

Some soldiers look forward to recruiting. On learning his assignment, Moskwa groaned.

The Pasadena station, sandwiched between a Chinese restaurant and a Navy recruiting office on a nondescript stretch of Colorado Boulevard, is a heavy hitter. In the race for enlistees, it has bested 54 other Army stations in Los Angeles, Bakersfield and Fresno for two straight years.

Last year, the Pasadena recruiters persuaded 515 people to come in to talk about enlisting. Of those, 274 actually showed up and 134 went on to take required tests.

After the usual washouts, the station's four recruiters ushered 120 men and women into the Army -- 82 as active-duty soldiers, 38 as reservists.

It was a good year. The "mission," set by the company commander, had been 101. Teamwork produced the triumph.

Sgt. Steven Davis is a smooth-talking troubleshooter, proficient at closing the deal. ("Snake oil salesman," Cypressi calls him.) Sgt. Jason Quijas works well with women. Sgt. James Jones, a new arrival to the Pasadena station, is best at face-to-face conversations.

And Moskwa?

"If I asked him to run to hell and back, he'd go," Cypressi said.

Moskwa's father, who has been in the Navy for 27 years, is a chief warrant officer serving aboard a destroyer. When Moskwa graduated from Hilo High School in Hawaii, he knew he was not going to college.

"I love the Army," he said. "I'm married to the Army."

Lately, it's been a demanding marriage.

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