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Tough Boots to Fill

Army recruiters take orders to boost the ranks personally.

November 21, 2004|J.R. Moehringer | Times Staff Writer

The number seems to hang above their heads like the banners on the walls. It's a big number, and they grimace when it's mentioned, because it's more than a number. It's an order. By the end of the month, the seven soldiers who staff this U.S. Army recruiting station must put 14 new men or women in boots.

"This job will kill you," one recruiter says under his breath. "This is the most stressful job I have ever had."

Because of the number, Adams has barely seen his kids all month, and Hubbard is sick. Hill is here on his day off, and Shivers is going in four directions at once. The number, the number. As much as the recruiters like each other, they hate that number, because it's more than an order. It's their mission, their burden and, in a funny way, it's a source and a symbol of their pride.

From outside, the recruiting station doesn't look all that dramatic. The little door with the white star doesn't stand out from any of the other doors in this sleepy strip mall 14 miles north of Denver. Just another storefront, another business trawling for customers, like the honey-baked ham shop and the martial arts school.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday December 04, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Army recruiters -- An article Nov. 21 in Section A about Army recruiters in Westminster, Colo., did not give the recruiters' full ranks. Randy Adams, Rodney Shivers and Chris Warth are sergeants first class; Jason Disponzio, Ernest Hill, Chris Hubbard and Kevin Matson are staff sergeants.

But a complex drama unfolds here each day: This is where young men and women come to sign daunting contracts, to trade their freedom for discipline and adventure, to engage the recruiters in deep conversations -- and sometimes negotiations -- about valor, duty and fear.

Also, every recruiting station right now is a critical staging area for America's war in Iraq and its war on terrorism. With troops stretched thin, with rumors swirling about a return to the draft, the nation's volunteer Army must reinforce itself -- and demonstrate its capacity to reinforce itself, quickly and robustly, come what may. If the Army can't make do with volunteers, as it's done for all but roughly 35 years of its 229-year existence, then it will need to conscript. And places like Westminster are where that question will be decided.

When the Army recently announced its goal of adding 80,000 soldiers this year to a force of 1 million, that goal fell squarely on the shoulders of recruiters. Then, by some mysterious math practiced deep inside the Pentagon, the goal was divided among more than 1,685 recruiting stations worldwide, spread over the calendar year, and thus gave rise to October's number in Westminster -- 14.

That's roughly one-third of a platoon.

By the end of the month.

Which actually means by the end of today -- Nov. 15. Like its math, the Army's calendar follows a unique internal logic, and the end of October falls on the Monday after the long Veterans Day weekend. And as the day begins, the seven Westminster recruiters are visibly aware of what day it is -- and of the fact that despite four straight 70-hour weeks, they are five soldiers short.

Most people assume that recruiting stations are desperate places nowadays. How could they be otherwise when more than 1,200 U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq, when grisly images from Fallouja overwhelm the Army's sentimental new recruiting commercials?

But while selling is part of recruiting, and while the Westminster recruiting station does feel at times like a military production of "Glengarry Glen Ross," most people would be stunned to see how the selling goes both ways. At the same time recruiters are trying to sell young men and women on the Army, waves of young men and women are trying to sell themselves to the recruiters.

It's a surprisingly tough sell. Tattoos, diseases, injuries, obesity, legal troubles, low test scores, lack of a high school diploma -- all sorts of defects can disqualify, or "hack," a recruit. If there is any desperation, it's felt by recruiters and recruits alike. The hard part of meeting that monthly number, recruiters say, isn't selling people on the Army -- it's selecting people who meet the Army's standards.

The hopefuls come marching all day into the Westminster recruiting station, which looks something like a barracks -- one long, narrow room, clean and spartan. Instead of bunks there are desks: two rows of three, facing each other, a narrow passage in between, not much wider than an airplane aisle.

At the first desk on the left sits Sgt. Ernest Hill, 34, the tallest and brawniest of the recruiters, a former Golden Gloves middleweight who returned recently from a 14-month tour in Iraq. Although he's only been recruiting since August, Hill shows signs of having The Gift. He can dazzle recruits with his combination of intensity and kindness, with his soothing voice and penetrating stare. The next thing those recruits know, they are picturing themselves in a dark-green uniform like Hill's, with the gleaming patent leather shoes, the brightly colored ribbons across the chest, the Bronze Star.

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