NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — Sgt. Jason Samuel is on the prowl. In malls and high school cafeterias. In homes where anxious parents pepper him with questions and in hangouts where kids gather. He comes, in a time of war, with a simple sales pitch: Become a Marine and transform yourself into a warrior imbued with the nobility of service.
In his dress blues, shoes shined to a reflective gloss, Samuel, 25, seems to have stepped out of a recruiting poster.
"When I joined the Marines eight years ago," he'll tell parents who sit at their kitchen table with a son or a daughter, "I was scared to death of heights. You see these wings on my uniform? I'm jump-qualified now. I was terrified of water. Today, I'm a licensed scuba diver. That's what the Corps does for you."
Samuel is one of 3,300 Marine recruiters who, along with thousands from the Army, Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard, have fanned out across the country to sell the high school class of 2004 on the benefits of joining the military. They aren't looking for a few good men any more. Today, in the shadow of Afghanistan and Iraq, they're looking for a lot of good men and women -- 226,930 to be exact, if the services are to meet their quotas.
So far, there is no shortage of applicants. Backed by a $340-million advertising budget, all five service branches have signed enough volunteers to put them at -- or within an eyelash of -- their recruiting goals for the year. But for this year's crop of enlistees there is a caveat: In 12 months, many could be in Iraq.
"The war really hasn't had any impact on recruiting, though I anticipate it could eventually," said Lt. Col. Ken Thompson, enlisted-recruiting chief for the Marine Corps, which cultivates a battle-hardened image of being always ready to fight.
Fifty Marines were killed in Iraq in April, the service's heaviest monthly loss since the Vietnam War. "What we're seeing is a polarization," Thompson said. "Those who didn't want to go into the military definitely don't want to do it now. And those who do want a military career are more gung-ho than ever."
Newport News, in an area known as Hampton Roads, has one of the highest concentrations of active-duty and retired military in the country and has always been fertile ground for recruiters. They say the reasons '04 graduates are giving for joining are pretty much the traditional responses heard in peacetime: patriotism, a sense of belonging and purpose, an escape from lives without direction, adventure, educational benefits and skill-enhancement opportunities.
"The war doesn't worry me. In fact, that's why I enlisted," said Marine recruit Richard Simpson, 17. "My father's Air Force. He was in the first Gulf War and just returned from Qatar. My mother's in the Navy. My brother joined the Army.... Now I want to do my part."
Samuel set up a table in the cafeteria at York High School here during lunch hour the other day. He spread out some brochures and turned on a video. Students milled about, not paying much attention. Although Samuel is a familiar face at York, it was still a tough sell. In a typical year, about 80% of the 200 graduates go on to college.
"My mother isn't too thrilled and Dad feels it's my choice," said Tommy Bulanda, 17. "Mom's worried the Marines will send me to Iraq and wants me to keep my options open. Like for college. But the way the world is today, someone's got to go and I have no problem going."
The Marines say it costs $9,657 to court, sign and ship to boot camp a single recruit. And because 20% of enlistees back out of their contracts before the bus leaves for basic training at Parris Island, S.C., Samuel will be a surrogate big brother to his charges here. He gives counsel and support, helps them get in shape, runs weekend training sessions, attends farewell parties at their homes.
"All the services except the Marines largely have a job-education recruiting strategy -- come learn a trade and get money for education," said Jeff White of J. Walter Thompson, a company (named for a Civil War Marine) that has handled Marine advertising since 1946.
"Our strategy is that the Marine Corps isn't a way station to anything else. It's an end in itself."
So when Samuel walked into John and Linda Sanders' home near the end of a 13-hour day, his message for their son, Jonathan, was: "You can be one of us." The four of them sat around the kitchen table as Samuel sold intangibles -- pride, leadership, honor, courage, belonging -- instead of the promise of benefits. Jonathan was ready to sign on the dotted line.
"But he's only 17. He's not sure he knows what he wants," his mother said. Jonathan rolled his eyes.
"Jonathan wants to get dirty and have an adventure," his father said, "and I want to make sure he can learn something to support himself down the road."
They talked for three hours and agreed to meet again.