By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
Sergeant Rodney Shivers is a camouflaged blur as he bursts into the entryway of Pomona High School, an oversized attaché in his hand. After surveying the terrain on this early September day, he heads toward a glassed-in trophy display opposite the school's cafeteria, which is rapidly filling with teens impatient to refuel. But before he can establish a base of operations, a chatty blond student begins interrogating him, and after learning that he'd previously been stationed in Afghanistan, she hits him with one of the questions he hears most often as a recruiter for the United States Army.
"Was it scary?" she asks.
"'Was it scary?'" he repeats. "Yes, it was -- but not for long. It's like the fear of the unknown. The first time you leave your parents' house, you're scared, because you've never left it before, right? So everybody's scared at first. And then you get used to it, and it's not scary anymore."
As he speaks, Shivers, 36, sets up a table in front of the trophies, flips open the attaché and starts removing the tools of his trade: Army brochures, Army pencils, Army keychains and Army lanyards, lovingly arranged on a black Army banner. He's very particular about the spread and knows instinctively if something doesn't belong. When Sergeant Travis Mower, a 24-year-old fellow recruiter and Pomona graduate who's signed on to assist during this visit to his alma mater, pulls out a stack of Army bumperstickers, Shivers says, "Not those. If we put those out, they'll be putting them in the bathroom and everything."
With the bumperstickers safely out of view, Shivers is ready for business, but some potential customers are wary. A boy wearing a Duff Beer T-shirt heads his way before suddenly bouncing in the opposite direction, as if the recruiting table were surrounded by an invisible force field. Seconds later, Shivers is rebuffed by a different boy, who responds to his greeting with "That scares me."
"What?" Shivers asks, gesturing at a brochure. "Picking up a piece of paper?"
"No -- the Army," the boy clarifies, motoring toward the nearest corridor.
These reactions aren't typical, however. Many students ignore the recruiters, but dozens are inexorably drawn to them. A lot of the credit for that is owed to Team Shivers' third member, Private Marc Bradley. A 2005 Pomona grad just out of basic training, Bradley was a popular track-and-field athlete at the school, and friends, acquaintances and admirers swarm around him, gushing about how sharp he looks in his new uniform. Yet Bradley's superiors attract a great deal of attention, too. Mower, who spent much of 2004 in Iraq and narrowly escaped death in an accident that claimed three soldiers, is relatively quiet and introspective, but he exudes a sincerity that appeals to shy, serious types. Shivers, in contrast, is boisterous and outgoing, alternately treating the kids bold enough to engage him in conversation with paternal affection and comic disdain. When the chatty blonde keeps quizzing him, for instance, he exclaims, "Quit talking to me and go to class!" She walks off laughing, but is back five minutes later.
The recruitersaren't the only solicitors to set up shop in this high-traffic area. A few feet to the left of their display, a pair of female pupils sit near a sign touting a "Spirit Team Bake Sale!," with proceeds earmarked for victims of Hurricane Katrina. Not that Shivers minds the competition. The young women have their objective, and he's got his: to let as many people as possible know that joining the Army could turn out to be the best decision of their lives.
That's a hard sell these days, partly because of escalating casualties from the war in Iraq. More than 1,900 Americans have died since fighting began there in 2003, and an anti-war rally in Washington, D.C., this past weekend attracted more than 100,000 people. In addition, the Army has been battered by negative publicity about recruiting methods, much of it stemming from an investigation by then-Arvada West High School student-journalist J. David McSwane, which painted a picture of recruiters so desperate to sign up soldiers that they were willing to flout the Army's own rules -- and McSwane's found a new case that suggests the abuses may not be over (see page 23). Such complications hindered recruiting throughout this year, and while totals increased as the summer progressed, they didn't rise by nearly enough to turn the situation around. The Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps achieved their most recent recruiting goals, but the Army just announced that it would fail to reach its target of 80,000 recruits for the fiscal year ending this month.
The United States Army Recruiting Battalion Denver, which encompasses all of Colorado and parts of Nebraska, Montana and Wyoming (an area of more than 250,000 square miles), has had just as much difficulty "making mission" as many of its counterparts around the country. Still, Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Brodeur, the battalion's commander, believes such figures can be misleading. In August, for example, 147 men and women joined the regular army from the region -- a figure among the largest recorded for a month since 1999. Yet the battalion had been shooting for 238. "It was a new, higher rate for a higher mission," Brodeur says.