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.