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They're Talking Up Arms

Military recruiters are fortifying their outposts at high schools, hoping a chummy familiarity will entice students to enlist. Some decry the tactics.

April 05, 2005|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

Marine Sgt. Rick Carloss is as familiar to students as some teachers at Downey High School. He does push-ups with students during PE classes and plays in faculty basketball games. During lunch, he hands out key chains, T-shirts and posters that proclaim: "Think of Me As Your New Guidance Counselor."

On a recent morning, Carloss drove his silver 1996 Mercedes-Benz from his recruiting station to the school two blocks away. A parking attendant waved him into the lot, saying, "Hi, dear."

Inside the attendance office, Carloss kissed two secretaries on their foreheads.

"I need you to summon a young man out of class for me," he told one.

"OK," she replied. "What's his name?"

The young man, Gilbert Rodriguez, was an 18-year-old senior. He was enlisting in the Marines the next day. Carloss needed go over paperwork with him.

Walking through corridors, Carloss pounded a student's fist in greeting, chatted with another about a novel she was reading, shook hands with administrators.

The sergeant entered the library and a student shouted: "Hey, Carloss!"

Such familiarity is what the Marines and Army believe they need if they are to keep their ranks replenished. As the conflict in Iraq entered its third year, the Marines missed their monthly recruiting goals in January through March for the first time in a decade, and the Army and the National Guard also fell short of their needs. This year, the Army and the Marines plan not only to increase the number of recruiters, but also to penetrate high schools more deeply, especially those least likely to send graduates to college.

For Carloss and other recruiters, part of the way has been cleared by the No Child Left Behind education law of 2002, which provides the military with students' home addresses and telephone numbers. It also guarantees that any school that allows college or job recruiters on campus must make the same provision for the military.

Once in the door, lining up enlistees means becoming part of the school culture.

Carloss spent seven weeks in recruiting classes to hone his marketing and communication skills. His techniques are similar to those in the Army's "School Recruiting Program Handbook," published last year.

The guide instructs recruiters to deliver doughnuts and coffee for the school staff once a month; attend faculty and parent meetings; chaperon dances; participate in Black History Month and Hispanic Heritage Month events; meet with the student government, newspaper editors and athletes; and lead the football team in calisthenics. It lays out a month-by-month plan to make recruiters "indispensable" on campus. The booklet states: "Be so helpful and so much a part of the school scene that you are in constant demand."

It advises recruiters to get to know young leaders because "some influential students such as the student president or the captain of the football team may not enlist; however, they can and will provide you with referrals who will enlist."

Some teachers, parents and students are complaining about what they consider to be overly aggressive recruitment tactics, especially at schools with low-income and minority students. That criticism has prompted some schools, such as Roosevelt High in Boyle Heights, to curb military recruiting.

But at others, like Downey, which serves mostly Latino students from working-class families, recruiters like Carloss are welcomed.

Carloss, 33, one of the Marines' best recruiters, has the kind of charm and outgoing personality that enables him to relate to students. After graduating from Dorsey High School in South Los Angeles, he studied radio broadcasting at Santa Monica College for two years. In 1991, he joined the Marines because he wanted leadership skills and to earn money for college. The military paid for his education at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

Inside a lunch room, Carloss sat with Rodriguez and another Marine recruit, Matthew Tovar, an 18-year-old senior who will leave for boot camp in July.

Rodriguez had planned to attend Rio Hondo College's police academy in Whittier, but several months ago he learned after talking to Carloss that he could receive training in the Marines to prepare him for his dream career as a police detective.

At Rio Hondo, "the training they were going to give him is something he has to pay for," Carloss said.

"This option will be better for the future," said Rodriguez, who has spent much of his life supporting himself. While attending Downey High, he worked full time as a store manager.

Sitting in the lunch room, Carloss told both young men that with money he earned in the military, he bought a motorcycle and a house, in addition to his Mercedes.

His cellphone rang. It played a 50 Cent rap tune.

The sergeant took off his Rolex watch and handed it to Tovar. Tovar examined it and smiled: "That could be me one day."

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