After-school hangouts for a 17-year-old might include McDonald's, 7-Eleven or the mall. It's more common to find kids sucking down Slurpees or picking out prom dresses than making serious, life-altering decisions. But today, Randy Lopez is doing the latter. Marine recruiters are trained to deal with people like Randy. A high school senior, he's their target, and they're here to show him what the Marine Corps has to offer.
Literature scattered across a coffee table at the Recruiting Substation in Clairemont provides some information. One book is titled A Few Who Met the Challenge: Famous Former Marines. A copy of Leatherneck magazine includes an article on 9/11, "And the World Came Tumbling Down." On a shelf, pie charts compare the benefits of college to those of the Marine Corps. The college pie chart contains a single, sadly small slice-"education"-while the Marines' pie chart is bursting with healthy portions labeled, among other things, "dental care" and "job skills."
But Randy looks like he's going to require more than colorful charts and a well-written sales pitch to make his decision. Soft-spoken and reserved, he says his mother doesn't want him to be there. It's unlikely that he would, had recruiters not suggested he come with Ivan Lopez, a good friend who recently joined.
Composed and confident, Ivan stands in contrast to Randy's subdued demeanor. The two are both University City High School seniors, and they came in contact with the Marines the same way-a friend who had joined suggested that his recruiter call Ivan. "I decided [to join] pretty quickly," Ivan says. "I was surprised I decided that quickly."
Ivan was eager to become a Marine because of the benefits-both tangible, such as a college education, and intangible, such as respect and discipline. He's proud of the respect he's already getting from his peers and his teachers, and the opportunity to be the first one in his family to join the military thrills him.
Ivan's main concern was the potential for being in combat. "It was one of the first questions I asked [my recruiter]-"If I sign up, am I going to war?' And he said, "No, not unless you join the infantry.'"
Ivan's parents' fears weren't so easily allayed. When the recruiters came to his house to meet them, his mother grabbed the keys and was almost out the door before his father stopped her.
"I'm doing the same thing as my recruiter here-both of these recruiters," says Ivan. "They didn't grow up having a lot of money, and me neither. Our moms were concerned. [The recruiters] talked to [my parents], and told them that their mothers were like mine. You know, they had the same concerns about going to war. And they just told them that I wasn't. They told them that the government puts so much money into a single person so that I can have the best training."
Ivan's going to be working in legal administration for the Corps, and even though jobs of various types-not only infantry-are needed in combat zones, he says he's not really worried about going to Iraq. "I joined the services, you know. And if duty calls, duty calls."
Ivan's father, Eduardo Lopez, is supportive of his son's decision. "I was surprised a bit, but I told him that he's big enough to make his decision. The country's at war, and he needs to be aware that he might be required to go to war. But as long as he knows that, I support him in his decision. My wife [had some reservations], yes. But not me. If he decides to do that, then that's good."
Eduardo Lopez was born in Tijuana and moved his family to the United States 15 years ago. They are not yet citizens, but thanks to an executive order passed by President Bush in July 2002, the process can be expedited for "aliens and non-citizen nationals serving in an active-duty status in the Armed Forces." Eduardo says that wasn't a consideration in helping Ivan make a decision.
"I wouldn't send my son anywhere, and I don't believe he's doing it because of that. He has a service to the country that's given him a better chance in life and better opportunities. We feel that the United States has provided us with more opportunities than Mexico, and we feel that, if we have to, we will defend the country as if it were our own."
Race, Class and the Marines
This sentiment is not uncommon among Hispanics in the United States. They carry a sense of patriotic duty to the country that provided them a better life, and immigrants often view military service as an opportunity to improve their economic lot. As a growing portion of the country's population, Hispanics are a group the armed services have increasingly tried to attract. Bush's recent executive order is but one example.
And it's working, particularly for the Marines. According to a Pew Hispanic study released in March 2003, Hispanics make up 13.99 percent of the Marine Corps-more than the other armed services and a number similar to their representation in the overall U.S. population.
It's class, not race, however, that's the most striking characteristic of enlisted personnel.
"If you're talking on a high end-kids who are very affluent, and a low end-kids who are not so affluent-I would say that the majority are not kids who come from very, very wealthy families," says Maj. John E. McDonough, Commanding Officer of Recruiting Station San Diego.
San Diego County's five Marine recruiting substations are located in Clairemont, Oceanside, Chula Vista, El Cajon and Poway-not exactly the city's most affluent areas. However, McDonough suggests that their locations are based more on population size and movement patterns than on demographics.
"It's essentially a targeting process," McDonough says. "You take a look at the population; you take a look at the lines of communication, like the railways, buses, roads, airports, centers of commerce-those types of assets that are out there. You try to figure out movement patterns-where people are moving-and try to locate yourself strategically where you can facilitate the most contact within those areas."
McDonough says the Marine Corps doesn't target low-income kids. In fact, he says, the Marines aim to recruit the most qualified applicants, who often attend schools in affluent neighborhoods. "We are very much interested in getting stronger candidates, morally and mentally," McDonough says. "We will try to present ourselves to [the affluent] sector of the population every bit as impressively as to the other sector of the population."
Chris White argues differently. During his time in the Marine Corps, from 1994 to 1998, White worked as a recruiter's assistant three different times.
"The recruiters, in my experience, went to the low-income areas," White says. He cites Watsonville near Santa Cruz, an area that's one of the biggest producers of California strawberries and home to a large number of migrant workers.
"When we went to the high schools there to recruit people, we were flooded with people wanting to sign up," he says. "People in the lower classes are the ones who have less opportunity to go to college-or they think they have less opportunity to go to college. The military offers them college opportunities, but there are scholarships and grants, and they often don't think about that."
Staff Sgt. Gregory Rogers has been at Recruiting Substation Oceanside for almost two years. A seasoned Marine recruiter, he knows how to make contact with potential recruits. If 7-Eleven or the mall is where high school seniors hang out, then that's where Rogers goes. That is, if he's not at their school.
"The high school is a good spot, because I know where they're at and they've got to be there. We go to the beaches; we go to the malls.... A lot of these young people have jobs, and the best way to find them is just to go in, talk to the manager.... Usually, the manager is a young person between the ages of 17 and 29, so that's the age we're looking for."
Rogers is always on the lookout. "I compare [a potential recruit's] job right now to what the Marine Corps has to offer. I'll talk to those guys on the street holding signs. They've got to stand there.... They can't leave. There's always opportunities."
And Rogers isn't one to pass them up. "Sometimes it's kind of cheesy," he admits. "I'll find myself going up to a guy at the 7-Eleven and asking him, "Are you a Marine? Were you ever a Marine?' It's almost like pick-up lines."
Similar tactics prove valuable when approaching students at their schools. At Vista High School, where Rogers makes his rounds almost daily, he is a recognized face. He's on friendly terms with members of the staff and attends regular school functions, such as sporting events. School officials allow him full access to the campus, which enables him to make contact with students at almost any time.
On a sunny afternoon while class is in session, Rogers zeroes in on a young man sitting alone. He's sporting a Panther's jersey, Vista High School's football team. When Rogers asks if the student knows a particular recent graduate, the young man lifts his head and shows interest in Rogers' presence for the first time. "Yeah," the student responds, "He used to play football here."
"That's right," Rogers confirms. "And do you know what he's doing now?" Before the boy can answer, Rogers says, "He's in the Marines."
Such an approach allows Rogers to introduce himself and the Marine Corps in a positive and relevant manner. He then asks questions to gauge the student's interests, potential for military service and post-high school plans. If students say they hope to attend college, he asks them how they plan to pay for it and offers the Marine Corps as a possibility. Then he asks for a phone number.
But this isn't the only way Rogers gets phone numbers. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, schools have to give the military students' contact information in order to receive federal funding.
Back at Recruiting Substation Oceanside, Rogers demonstrates how the lists are used. "This right here is the high school list," he explains, producing a document. "My goal is to get all the names with contact cards. That way, I don't have to look at the list anymore; I can just look at this. And instead of a cold canvassing call, I can look at this and go, "OK, I know that this guy's in football. This guy is interested in our ROTC program. That's a college scholarship program-it's like, $108,000. He wants to go to college. He wants to be FBI. So these are the things I'm going to talk to him about, about how I know the Marine Corps can help him get these things.... The next step after this is, I try to get them to sit down with me-find out what they're all about, what their plan is."
Rogers picks a name from his list-Jaime-and dials his number. When Jaime's mother answers the phone, he speaks with her for a while before hanging up. This enables him to establish contact with the family and obtain a minimal amount of information.
"OK, this is the deal with Jaime," Rogers explains. "Jaime works at the Pala Casino. He wants to go to the Art Institute. It's, like, $27,000, so he knows that he can't afford that right now, especially going to Fallbrook [High School]. And Fallbrook, the demographics are: you're either super rich, where you have a million-dollar home, or you're super poor and you're working in the fields or whatever. So, Jaime's a good candidate. I didn't get to talk to Jaime because he's at work.... I'm going to call back at 6:30 tonight."
The Next Step
If and when Jaime comes to Recruiting Substation Oceanside to talk to Rogers, he will first be given the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test (or ASVAB) to identify the occupations for which he qualifies. Rogers will then sit down with him to discuss his options.
Recruiters mold their sales pitch to suit individual candidates, and one of the most successful means is with "benefit tags."
There are 11 benefit tags, each labeled with a quality the Marine Corps claims to provide. These qualities include anything from "Pride of Belonging" to "Leadership & Management Skills" to "Travel & Adventure." Potential recruits are asked to put the tags in order of importance to them, and recruiters adjust their pitch accordingly.
Paul Green is a senior at Mira Mesa High School. He scored 1040 on the SAT and has already acquired some college scholarships. Still, he's looking into the Marine Corps as a possibility. In a recent interview at Recruiting Substation Clairemont, Gunnery Sgt. David J. Griffin asks him to rank the benefit tags. Green chooses "Financial Security/Advancement & Benefits" as his first choice. When asked what the phrase means to him, Green responds, "I just never want to have to worry about, like, money. I just want to have a good job... one that I enjoy and one that pays well."
With further prompting from Griffin, Green adds that he's also thinking about "a wife, kids... a good family-a house, things like that."
These are things, Griffin tells him, that the Marine Corps can easily provide. He uses himself as an example-he works in legal administration for the Marine Corps and he bought his own house six years ago. He talks about the difficulty of buying a house in San Diego, especially while going to college. Then, he asks Green to consider the possibility of getting fired from a job that is putting him through school. What would he do? Green responds that he'd probably have to skip a few classes.
"You know what," says Griffin, "it starts off this way a lot of times. People start out with the best intentions in the world.... However, I hate to see it when a lot of guys-guys like yourself-they start to go to college and they don't have a lot of, you know, backing, as far as support, money-wise, or the additional means they need to get the money to get through school. And then they end up, you know, skipping a few semesters. A few classes. And then, five years later, they're still getting their associate's degree. And they're still working those same jobs. You know, waiting tables and Jack in the Box and security guard and you know, all those little jobs."
It's a pitch that works well with people like Green, kids who don't come from wealthy families or who are looking for a way to finance an education. For Jaime from Fallbrook or Ivan from University City, the Marine Corps offers educational and relatively lucrative monetary benefits.
For many, such as Griffin, the benefits are worthwhile-he was able to move to San Diego from a small town in Vermont, pursue a degree and buy a house. However, there are people who argue differently, and their perspective isn't always readily accessible to those considering military service.
The Other Side of the Coin
Carl Cabral is one of them. Recruited from Mather High School in Chicago, Cabral served in the Marines from 1996 to 2003.
"Recruiters came to our school every week," Cabral says. "From the Army, the Navy, the Marines, the Air Force... even the Coast Guard. Every week we'd see a different uniform. All they'd do is prey on people. It wouldn't stop."
In the end, Cabral says he joined the Marine Corps because "I was going nowhere with my life. The Marines was my only real escape." He chose the Marine Corps over the other services because of "the image, the respect marines have.... They're known as the best, and that's what I wanted to be."
Marine recruiters offered Cabral the option to go to college, see the world and "escape that type of lifestyle.... Basically, I lived in a middle- to low- income neighborhood. You had the option to deal drugs or to work [your] butt off for the rest of your life."
So joining the Marine Corps, one might think, was beneficial for Cabral. Cabral says no. "Putting my life in jeopardy and basically putting myself on disability because of all the wear and tear on my body was definitely not beneficial," he says. If he had the choice to go back, he would "absolutely not" choose military service.
Cabral was first injured during pre-combat training and then again in Afghanistan, when he was hit with shrapnel. "The military has basically disabled my arm and my lower back. Because I'm on disability, my school is paid for-it wouldn't be otherwise. This is the only possible benefit I have received from the military."
In his experience, Chris White, the former recruiter's assistant, recruiters often give a warped perspective of the Marine Corps' educational benefits. They rarely mention that the GI Bill-one of the Marines' most effective selling points-requires those who use it to pay $1,200 in the first year and often prevents them from receiving other forms of financial aid. "You will be lucky if you get your monthly GI Bill check in your first three months of college, anyway, as the bureaucracy is so inept that you had better hope to have enough money saved up before you arrive," writes White in a March 2003 article in CounterPunch titled "Deceptions in Military Recruiting."
White says recruiters are also deceptive when talking about veterans' benefits. "You have to have high priority to get treatment," he says. Only 30-percent disabled, White has a hard time getting attention at a veterans' hospital. "If we have to wait six months to get an appointment, then that's not a benefit," he says.
Still, White thinks recruiters believe in what they're selling. "It's difficult for recruiters to feel like they're actually deceiving because the time between making a deception and the time when the person realizes there has actually been some deception is so long. It's all part of the package-you know, they're selling this idea. I'm not saying that the military experience is wrong, but they need to be up front in talking to people."
Challenges in Recruiting
In a time of war, recruiters are forced to address concerns about going to combat. "Most of the folks that we have out here recruiting now are post-9/11 recruiters," says McDonough. "I think that most of these guys would tell you that after 9/11, there was a patriotic surge, and I think most of them would tell you now it's getting more difficult. The press has a lot to do with it. The real events have a lot to do with it, to tell you the truth."
"Right now, we're in a time of war," acknowledges Rogers. "There's a war on terrorism. But the young people that come in here, they know that. And we're very frank with them. We tell them, "Hey, this is an opportunity for you to do something with your life. But at the same time, there's going to be consequences and you could possibly have to go to war,' and they understand that."
The Marines' Infantry Division is currently at full capacity. "Actually, if someone was to come in here right now," says Rogers, "I could not send them to infantry until June or July. People are coming in and requesting infantry. That's because some of the skills they want are-a lot of kids come in here and say, "I want to be law enforcement,' and they understand that in order to have weapon tactics, things of that nature-they understand that infantry [will give them those skills]. One of the questions we ask is, "Would you rather work indoors or outdoors?' And a lot of guys say "Yeah, I'd rather be outside.' So the infantry option is, you know, preferably so."
A Marine who was himself in the infantry, Rogers finds it easier to approach recruits about the topic. "Those recruiters who, you know, can talk a little more about it because they are infantry-the kids tend to see that, they idolize that, they see how awesome it is to be a part of a team that's where the edge of the battle is."
Those who choose occupations other than infantry can also be required to work in a combat zone. Approximately 32,000 Marines are currently deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. As of Dec. 29, 2004, close to 400 had been killed and many more have been injured. Of all the services, Marines have one of the highest rates of casualties, the highest suicide rate and are more likely to be involved in combat.
The Marines have been successful in meeting their recruiting goals for nine consecutive years. But if casualty numbers continue to rise-and they will-recruiters may find their job increasingly difficult.
A New Marine
Despite his mother's concerns, Ivan Lopez has made his decision. After graduating from high school in June, he will head off to boot camp. If Randy Lopez and Paul Green choose to enlist, they will follow a similar path.
"When I ask someone to become a Marine, there is a fork in the road right there," says Rogers. "And usually Mom or Dad are right there with them. You know, helping them along the way."
Eduardo Lopez has high hopes for his son. "I hope he matures a lot," he says. "Hopefully, he will learn and be helpful when he gets out... be a good citizen and be of service to others. Hopefully, he will gain a lot from the experience."
"If I like it, I might pursue a career in the military," says Ivan. "Or if not, go to college. It's already paid."