Military recruiters comb high schools to reach goals

EDMONDS – Army Staff Sgt. Christian Marsh’s military uniform, medals and shiny black shoes stand out in the crush of saggy, baggy jeans and scuffed sneakers at Edmonds-Woodway High School.

But if he draws a student’s attention, that’s a good thing.

“If someone looks at you, then looks again, you talk to them,” said Marsh, 27, one of the Puget Sound area’s top military recruiters.

Demand for new recruits is building as more soldiers serve in Iraq, duty extensions increase, retention slides and the number of young people who sign up for early military entry drops.

Nationwide, recruiters are pressed to meet enlistment goals. They e-mail and visit homes, attend high school football games, and scout malls looking for 17- to 24-year-olds who appear qualified.

They invite students to paintball matches and workout sessions, play simulated war games, and take them to Fort Lewis to see the new armored vehicles.

The Army last month boosted its fiscal 2005 recruiting budget by $12 million. The service wants to enlist more than 1,000 new Army and Army Reserve recruiters by the end of this year, bringing its national total to almost 7,500.

Under the Bush administration’s education law, No Child Left Behind, schools must allow recruiters access to campus. It also requires schools to release student directory information to the military unless a parent opts out. About 12 percent of parents in the Seattle School District and 15 percent in Bellevue have put in such requests.

Marsh is based in Lynnwood and is part of a recruiting battalion of 140 members who cover most of Washington and Alaska.

He’s diligent in his task, working 50-hour weeks and often visiting Edmonds-Woodway High School, where he knows the first name of many students who in turn call him “Sarge.”

Before the lunch hour is over, Marsh will have offered a “Hey, man. Howzit going?” a dozen times. He averages two sign-ups a month.

Studies show the Army recruits only one person for every 120 contacted.

In 2004, the Army met enlistment goals by speeding up processing of early entrants such as Chris Mazerolle, who has signed up under the Army’s delayed-entry program that postpones boot camp for a year.

At 17, Mazerolle is a year shy of not needing his parents’ approval to enlist. But he said it wasn’t a problem since his family is military.

“I like getting up and knowing what I’m going to do, and why I’m doing it,” he told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Like others in the program, Mazerolle is a recruiter himself, cruising malls searching for other potential sign-ups. Friendly and always cracking jokes, at school Mazerolle helps draw friends to Marsh’s table.

Principal Alan Weiss says representatives from the Air Force, Army, Army Reserves, Marines, Navy and National Guard visit once a month.

“For some kids, the military is an excellent option,” Weiss said.

When he recruits, Marsh focuses on Army training in more than 200 jobs, engineering to electronics, medical to musical. He talks about the increased college financing, incentive bonuses, and job skills. Iraq is not discussed unless someone mentions it.

“Some want to serve, to defend the United States. They ask, ‘How can I get to Iraq?’” Marsh said.

Others ask if they’ll be sent to war. But Marsh is just the recruiter, and he can’t answer that one.

Mazerolle, just two years younger than some already killed in Iraq, looks forward to his future service. “I want to have something to look back on and say I was there. Something cool, adventurous, out of the ordinary.”

His buddy, Galen Emery, 17, is troubled by and disagrees with the U.S. occupation in Iraq.

“Each person over there could be someone you know. The dead person could be my friend Chris,” Emery said. “These are sons, brothers, people you know and rely on.”

Emery said he’s unimpressed with the pressure from recruiters who constantly ask why he hasn’t joined.

Today’s recruiting methods are persistent, although regulations make it a crime for recruiters to lie or knowingly sign up ineligible recruits.

The ongoing battle in Iraq has made recruiting a tough duty.

“This is the first time we’ve had to try to recruit an all-volunteer military with sustained operations going on for so long. It’s uncharted water,” says Maj. David Griesmer, spokesman for Marine Corps Recruiting Command, which is increasing enlistment goals by more than 3,000 for fiscal 2005.

“It’s not a job I would like to do as a career,” said Marsh, a father of two who was a military policeman before he began recruiting. “I love the Army, but recruiting is not my favorite place to be right now.”

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