Would You Buy What This Man Is Selling?

The U.S. military sure hopes so. At a time when support for the war is plummeting and our forces are stretched dangerously thin, by-the-book Army recruiters like San Antonio Staff Sergeant Christopher Schwope may be its only hope to succeed.

March 2006By Comments

ARMY STAFF SERGEANT CHRISTOPHER SCHWOPE is nothing like the recruiters most of us remember from high school. Those were men who rang your phone off the hook and stalked you in fast-food places, as sure a part of graduation as caps, gowns, and knockoff Waterman pen sets given by friends of your parents. The baby-faced 25-year-old, with his ready smile and “dude”-riddled speech, could pass for a high schooler if it weren’t for the battle fatigues and shaved head. He does things differently. “If I go grab a bite to eat, at like a Schlotzsky’s or Sonic, and run into some kids there, I don’t want to interrupt them, because their lunches are already brief,” explains Schwope, who’s been serving in the northeast station of the San Antonio Recruiting Battalion for just over a year. “So I might ask, ‘Anyone ever thought about joining the military?’ To the ones that say no, I’m like, ‘That’s cool, but here, take my business card.’ And the ones that say yeah, it’s ‘Dude, can I get your name real quick? I know you’re eating. Do you mind if I call you tonight?’ There are horror stories of recruiters who won’t take no for an answer. I think some of that is where recruiters might get a bad name.”

But as Schwope is aware, the current bad name was born of more than bad manners. As the Iraq war has dragged on and its public support has diminished, the number of new soldiers signing up has approached the post-Vietnam lows. And along with the declining numbers has gone the public perception of the soldiers charged with enlisting those recruits. Since Fahrenheit 9/11, in 2004, recruiters from the Army and the Marines, the two branches most involved in the Iraq war, have been steadily portrayed in the media as predators. The criticism was often deserved. The actions of a Denver-area Army recruiter, who was taped in 2005 telling a high school senior how to fake a urine test and purchase a bogus diploma so he could get into the Army, merited not only headlines but also the drop in rank he received. Investigations of fraudulent enlistment—instances when a recruiter either overlooked a lie told by a recruit or coached the recruit into lying—jumped from 473 in 2000 to 836 in 2005.

That was a small fraction of the 73,373 new soldiers enlisted last year. But it was also viewed for exactly what it was, a side effect of the difficulty of finding willing, qualified kids to fill out an all-volunteer military during an increasingly unpopular war. And it played in the press as a systemic problem. To send a different message, the Army declared a national stand-down on May 20, 2005, a day in which recruiters set aside the search for new soldiers to refocus on core Army values, like honor and integrity. But as enlistment kept dropping, the Army was forced to make adjustments to bring in new boots. After raising signing bonuses from $6,000 to $15,000 in August 2004, the Army raised them three more times, ending at $40,000 this January. The number of recruits categorized as Category Four—the borderline qualifiers—allowed to enlist was doubled. The number of recruiters was increased from six thousand in 2004 to eight thousand in 2005. The Army looked desperate. The negative press kept coming.

A soldier like Schwope is the best bet the Army has to counter that negative image and maintain its numbers. He’s an easygoing combat veteran who can impress and connect with the kids and a by-the-regs straight arrow who can shut up the critics. He believes in the Army, and his trust has translated into recruiting success. In his first ten months on the job, he signed up 32 recruits, and he earned the Army Recruiter Ring, an award that took other recruiters in his station five years to get. And he stayed within the lines to get it done. “I know Army recruiters, or recruiters in general, have been branded as liars and this and that,” says Schwope, who’s been disciplined only once in his career—for sleeping through formation after an all-night mission. “I don’t really get caught up in it. You know, if the shoe fits, wear it. But if it doesn’t, don’t worry about it.”

The high schooler in him starts to sound like a soldier when he talks about duty. A frequently cited reason for bent rules and cut corners is pressure on recruiters from superior officers. Schwope takes the talk of pressure in a different direction: “Yeah, there’s a lot of pressure, because our brothers-in-arms are out there, and they need relief. It’s kind of like when I was in that foxhole over there waiting for someone to rotate out with me.”

He serves in one of the Army’s most successful recruiting battalions and works out of one of the battalion’s most successful stations. San Antonio is a military town, and Schwope’s office isn’t far from the Randolph and Lackland Air Force bases, Brooke Army Medical Center, and Fort Sam Houston. But Schwope is still faced with the recruiter’s basic dilemma: “It’s like a preacher or somebody trying to sell faith. I can’t show you the Army. All I can do is tell you. You take another salesman—they can show you a car or a pair of shoes and be like, ‘This is how it works’ or ‘That’s how they fit.’ I have to sell faith. Just have faith in me that this is how the Army works.”

SAN ANTONIO’S NORTHEAST STATION SITS, along with recruiting stations for the Air Force and the Navy, between a nail salon and a Subway sandwich shop in a strip center on Walzem Road. The large signs for the offices aren’t particularly eye-catching, but the places are easily found. The strip center is across the street from Theodore Roosevelt High School, and there are usually a couple of uniformed recruiters from one of the branches milling in front of the stations.

The Army’s office is mostly one big room lined with black modular cabinets and posters bearing slogans like “My Calling. My Future,” “Being a soldier means somebody’s always got your back,” “Most job training teaches you to make something. Mine taught me what I’m made of,” and the ubiquitous motto “Army of One.” There are no dividers separating the ten recruiters’ desks. Instead, tables extend from the walls at six-foot intervals, allowing for a clear sight and sound line from work space to work space so that when one recruiter talks to a potential enlistee, any of the other recruiters in the room can join the conversation and help with the sale.

The job is simple to describe, if not to perform: Find persons interested in joining the Army; make sure they are qualified physically, mentally, and morally; assemble the paperwork that shows they are qualified; then get them to the Military Entrance Processing Station, where they can be tested, accepted, and sworn in. The early hurdle is finding someone interested. Each recruiter is assigned to a high school, which is in turn required, per a fine-print requirement of the No Child Left Behind Act, of 2002, to allow the recruiter on campus and provide a list of seniors’ phone numbers and addresses. The seniors’ parents can opt to withhold their kids’ information, and the schools don’t have to let the recruiters on site more than once a semester, but neither option is the problem in San Antonio that it is in other places.

Schwope will spend up to three hours a day on the telephone, tracking down leads that either come from those lists or that he develops in face-to-face encounters. He’ll also find some kids during his regular visits to his school, Samuel Clemens High, in nearby Schertz, and during the couple of hours a day he spends canvassing the area.

David Knox, the principal at Clemens’s center for at-risk students, says Schwope is successful because he’s laid-back. Unlike a lot of other teachers and administrators in San Antonio, Knox never served, and he admits that philosophically he’d be more at home in Austin than in the middle of San Antonio’s military installations. But he keeps photos of his former students who joined the armed forces tacked up on his wall, and he welcomes Schwope onto his campus whenever Schwope wants. “His presentation is low-key, experiential,” says Knox. “It’s ‘Here’s what I’ve been through. Here’s what the service has done for me.’ It’s not aggressive, which is interesting, because you hear stories to the contrary. But I haven’t had one kid come back to me and say, ‘Those sons of bitches lied to me.’”

The Army has in fact done everything it can to make the Schwope approach an easier sell. In addition to the signing bonus increases, the college fund available to GIs after they’ve served is now up to $71,000. There’s also an array of other benefits, like housing allowances, hazardous duty pay, and bonuses for accepting assignment to critical units. Watching Schwope factor everything in is like watching a car salesman calculate various incentives and trade-in value on the purchase of a new car. It can be hard to follow, but it always ends with an easily grasped bottom-line figure for monthly payments.

And Schwope instructs the kids that there’s more to the decision. Free medical and dental care. Free food. Free gyms. Job training. He describes the chance to grow up fast, develop leadership skills, and belong to something that’s bigger than yourself, an institution that expects things from you but gives back in return. “You know, somebody might want to join for one reason,” he says. “What we call the dominant buying motive. But I try to show them the whole pizza, not just one slice, because there’s so much more to the Army than just the bonus or money for college. It’s a great place—the camaraderie, the teamwork. It’s like being on a high school basketball team, a winning high school basketball team, for the rest of your life.”

Once the recruit is on board, he then has to qualify. He needs to be a U.S. citizen or a resident alien. Physically, he has to be able to do thirteen push-ups and seventeen sit-ups (three push-ups and seventeen sit-ups for female recruits), each set in one minute, and run an eight-and-a-half-minute mile (ten and a half minutes for females). He cannot have had asthma since he was age twelve or have been on Ritalin in the past two years. He has to be a high school graduate or have a GED and score above the thirtieth percentile on the entrance exam. (Sample question: “‘Turmoil’ most closely means: a) smelling, b) commotion, c) grease, d) anger.”) And he can’t have any criminal charges pending or serious crimes on his record.

Schwope helps make that happen. He’ll take out-of-shape kids with him to the gym and to jog. He’ll direct kids who can’t pass the practice exam to the tutorial on the Army’s Web site. And he’ll request waivers for recruits who still can’t quite qualify because of things like felonies on their record or substandard exam scores. He treats them not like younger siblings but like fellow soldiers, working with them to get the job done. He even gave one of Knox’s students regular rides to his TAKS test tutorials. The kid was ready to join but needed to graduate first.

CHARMED. IT’S A WEIRD WORD to stick on an airborne infantry grunt, but it fits the view Schwope takes of his life in the Army. He says he was floundering before he enlisted, in 2000, a GED holder chiefly concerned with getting better on his X-Box. “I had just been kinda bored with school, really,” he says now. “And I was working a go-nowhere job changing filters for an air-conditioning company. It wasn’t something I wanted to be doing for twenty years, you know what I mean?” He told a recruiter that what he wanted was to jump out of planes, and he scored well enough on his entrance exam to qualify for airborne training. He was slated for Ranger School but opted to use that time for Lasik surgery instead, a $5,000 procedure that was paid for by the Army. “That surgery was the greatest thing I’ve ever done in my life. And I paid nothing. Not a dime.”

Then he survived tours in two wars. First, there were nine months in Afghanistan as a gunner on a patrol unit that conducted raids on small villages and acted as a quick reaction force in the mountains. Though he jokingly calls it a walk in the park, obviously it was anything but. When a Chinook helicopter was shot down, he and his unit would fly immediately to the site in a second Chinook—think about that, because he certainly had to—to collect the survivors and secure the machine. Then he was an infantry squad team leader during a year in Iraq. His unit, in the 4th Infantry Division, secured the spider hole where Saddam Hussein was finally captured and lived for a while in the palace where Saddam’s sons Uday and Kusay were killed. The months around those events had him in plenty of firefights in Iraq’s city streets, and the action could get, to use Schwope’s words, “crazy and gory.” But he won’t discuss it with a civilian much more than that. “It’s not that it’s a bad memory. It’s just that what happens over there needs to stay over there,” he says, shrugging. “I mean, there were definitely some deaths, but it’s war, you know? And luckily, I didn’t lose any close buddies.”

For a soldier in love with running and gunning, the kind of GI Schwope calls a “hard charger,” the next development initially looked bad. In late 2004 he blew out his knee. Stepped in a Tikrit pothole and partially tore his ACL. Ninety days later, he returned to the States, putting him at home with his wife, Jennifer, and their 23-month-old son, Cody, whom Schwope had gotten to know for only four short months between trips to the wars. He was reclassified for administrative duty and in March of last year received his recruiting assignment.

As luck would have it, the Army had started to increase the number of recruiters. For Schwope, who grew up in Boerne, that meant there was an opening in the San Antonio Recruiting Battalion, a significant opportunity. San Antonio was the most successful of the Army’s 41 recruiting battalions last year and one of only 2 that would sign up as much as three quarters of their projected recruits in 2005. (The San Antonio region, which stretches from Round Rock to the Valley, enlisted 2,178, or 87 percent.) Schwope had friends who’d drawn recruiting detail before him and been assigned to blue-state recruiting graveyards like New York. They told him stories about having to shut down their offices because anti-war protesters were lying like war dead on the ground in front of the station. Rather than protesters, Schwope would encounter a fair number of Army and Air Force brats who’d approach him before he could even pull out a business card. “It makes it easier to find them when they’re wearing an Army T-shirt,” he says.

He gets to live just ten minutes from the station, and he drives to work in a spotless, white, jacked-up diesel Ford F250, sipping Big Red and checking out the marquee on Cowboys Dancehall to see who’s playing each weekend. Frequently enough, it’s a favorite like Pat Green or Charlie Robison. These are the kinds of interests he shares with the kids he recruits. “You can always tell a GI whose unit was deployed, because when he comes back, and you go into his room, there’s a brand-new sixty-inch HD LCD TV with a thousand-dollar surround-sound system. And then you go out to his brand-new Escalade on rims.” In fact, one of the few drags of recruiting that Schwope will admit to is that he has to drive a government-issued Dodge Stratus to make house calls. “Not that my truck is anything special, but if you’ve got rims, a stereo, and tinted windows, people are going to be interested.”

Thinking like a kid helps him connect with the kids. When they meet him in the station, they find a remarkably likable guy, so friendly that when you sit with him, you hope he likes you. He gives off the confidence and loyalty of someone who’s fulfilled a difficult duty. He has his recruits flip through a scrapbook of photos of him and his buddies going into combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. And then the recruits look at him, healthy and here. They start to believe that they can pull it off too. When the process works, the Army ends up with a recruit who sounds like he’s already a soldier.

Robert Pedraza, a 29-year-old husband and father of two girls, was interested in enlisting when he called the recruiting station in December and happened to reach Sergeant Schwope. Within a week, he had qualified for a $20,000 signing bonus and was preparing to ship to basic training in February. He stopped by the station in mid-January and, while he was there, explained why he had enlisted.

“I feel now’s the time to help defend the United States,” said Pedraza. “There’s not enough recruits out there, and I know how it feels sometimes at work when there’s a guy missing and everyone has to step up. I can relate to our soldiers in the field being shorthanded that way.”

Pedraza said that his father was in the Air Force and his brother the Navy, and he himself, a quiet, short, slightly built San Antonio Judson High School alum, had spent the past six years working for an eyeglasses manufacturing lab. “I noticed the job where I was wasn’t really getting anywhere. But now I’m going to be serving in the U.S. Army for three years and seven months. I’ll get to experience what the military life is like and get to see the world.

“I know I will most likely wind up in Iraq, but I’m not really afraid. I know the dangers involved and everything. But I also have some faith too, and that basically is the foundation for my courage that I have.”

ON A TUESDAY TWO WEEKS LATER, Schwope took me with him to a cookie-cutter suburb on the northwest side of town to meet with a seventeen-year-old recruit named T. J. Burrow. Fidgety, wiry, and freckled, with short dark-brown hair and an adolescently thin brown goatee, Burrow answered the door in a long white T-shirt and baggy red basketball shorts hanging from well below his haunches. But the first thing I noticed was what looked to be a tattoo, a purple line that ran from behind his right ear along the bottom of his jaw to the tip of his chin. Inked above the shoulders like that, the tattoo would require a waiver. But it turned out to be a surgical scar. Burrow said he’d recently been caught in gang-fight crossfire while driving with some friends on Loop 410. Now he had a titanium jawbone. That would require a waiver too.

Burrow never finished high school. During the week, he lives with his cousin and babysits her three young kids. He was cleaning the house when Schwope brought a laptop by so he could take the practice test. They hadn’t met in person before, and though Burrow had explained the incident to Schwope on the phone, Schwope looked curious when he saw the scar.

“Any brain damage?” Schwope asked.

“Nope,” said Burrow, vigorously shaking his head while pacing around.

“Any hearing damage?”

“Nope,” he said, still shaking his head.

“Can you chew okay?”

“Yes, sir,” said Burrow, now nodding.

“Any false teeth?”

“Nah. These are all mine.” He opened his mouth and snapped it shut quickly three times, keeping his lips apart so Schwope could hear his teeth knocking against one another.

“Well, then, let’s take the test,” said Schwope. While Schwope waited outside in the driveway, calling other recruits on his cell phone, Burrow sat with the laptop at the kitchen table. He took his time, constantly tapping his fingers on the table and his heels on the floor. At one point he asked me, “What does ‘unison’ mean again?” I told him I couldn’t tell him and looked around the room. There were piles of laundry on the black leather couch nearby and a vacuum cleaner next to some toys on the ground. Finally he finished, scoring a 34. One hurdle cleared.

When Schwope told him his score, Burrow exploded. He jumped from the table, pumped his fist in the air, and bounced on his toes through the kitchen like a boxer who’d just won a fight. “F— yeah!” he screamed. “That’s what I’m talking about!” Then Schwope told him he could take the real test as early as the next day, and if he scored that well again and everything else worked out right, he could be signed up in a week.

“But we’ll need medical records on your jaw immediately,” said Schwope. “I’m ninety-nine percent sure they’re going to want you to see a specialist. Anytime they hear ‘gunshot’ and ‘head,’ they’re going to want to know more. Do you have any tattoos?”

“I’ve got none right now, but I was thinking of getting three on my back,” said Burrow. “Like the three my brother wanted. It’d be ‘Death Before Dishonor,’ ‘Revenge Before Retreat,’ and ‘Land of the Free and Home of the Brave.’ He was going to go to the Army, but then he got his chick pregnant and had to get married.”

“Maybe you ought to wait until you’re in to get the tattoos,” said Schwope. Then he asked Burrow what job he wanted in the Army.

“EOD,” said Burrow. “Explosive ordnance disposal.”

“I can guarantee you won’t get that,” said Schwope. “You’ve got an assault on your record, and that job requires top secret clearance. You won’t get that clearance with that on your record. But once you’ve been in for three years, then you can apply for that clearance.”

Burrow nodded his head and kept walking around. I asked Burrow why he wanted to join the Army.

“Because I want to shoot people,” he said. He started walking around faster, and words started flying out of his mouth. “I want to go to war with China, Japan. I hate Japan. And France. I’ve hated the French for, like, four years. That’s why I want to go.”

I asked him about his assault, and he started to slow down. “My brother and I got in this fight,” he started, and I pictured the pair of them fighting two other guys. I was mistaken. “And I had my brother by the nose and mouth like this”—he put his hands to his face—“and he was starting to bleed, so my mom came in to break it up, and she got in between us. And when I’m fighting, dude, I kind of leave my head. I just get in there and go at it.” He lowered his head and threw a series of punches. “And I hit my mom, like, four or five times.

“So they said”—he didn’t identify “they”—“that if she didn’t press charges, the state would and that it would be a lot worse for me if the state did. So she had to. I was on probation for, like, nine months. I just got off. And the DA said my record would be closed if I enlisted.”

At that point Schwope jumped in. He promised to pick Burrow up the next day at noon to drive him to the processing station to take the real entrance exam. Then Schwope stood up, and the two of us left.

Back in the Stratus, I asked Schwope about Burrow. “I know a lot of people would be offended by the way that kid was. But isn’t that kind of aggression exactly what you want in some soldiers?”

“Absolutely not,” answered Schwope, sounding not flustered but flat, as if he believed what he was saying but not the fact that he was having to say it. “You can’t have loose cannons under you over there. If I’m a squad leader, I’ve got to have guys I can count on, a guy with his shit wired to the T. He has to know the rules, understand the rules, and follow the rules, you know what I mean?

“But everyone you meet, before they go, is ‘civilianized,’ if that makes sense. That’s what basic training is for. The drill sergeant will break him down and build him back up, develop that level of discipline and maturity.”

It was suddenly clear why Schwope is so good at selling his faith. He’d purchased it whole when he was signed up.

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