The few. The proud. The desperate.

After four years of slogging through the quagmire of Iraq, the United States military is desperate to find a few hundred thousand good men -- and women. But does a fifteen-year-old qualify?

In the spring of 2005, when the war was just two years old, David McSwane -- then an eighteen-year-old senior at Arvada West High School -- wrote a story for his school paper, Westwind, revealing that recruiters were so eager for hot prospects that one even took him to a head shop so that McSwane (who was posing as a pothead) could get a magic chemical bullet and pass a urine test. (The recruiter also offered him handy advice on how to fake a diploma.) McSwane's work was so compelling that it was credited with inspiring the first national Stand-Down Day that May, when all branches of the military skipped recruiting for 24 hours in order to contemplate proper, ethical ways to get that mission accomplished.


Cherry Creek Mall

Some recruiters didn't get the message. Later that year, McSwane -- who's now a sophomore at Colorado State University -- wrote a piece for Westword detailing another bogus diploma scheme employed by a recruiter in Arkansas ("An Army of Anyone," September 29, 2005). That article wound up earning McSwane a national award from Investigative Reporters & Editors and the recruiter a good, swift kick.

And still some recruiters didn't get the message. Can you handle the truth?

On March 12, East High School let out early, and Julian Fleming, a freshman, headed for Cherry Creek Shopping Center, where he goes a couple of times a month to hang out with friends, walk around, see a movie, maybe even spend some money. "I was just sitting there by Urban Outfitters," he remembers, "when two guys in uniform approached me. At first I thought I was in trouble."

Instead, one of the guys introduced himself as Staff Sergeant Jeffrey W. Palmer, a recruiter with the Marines. He asked Julian how old he was; Julian told him he was fifteen. On that point alone, he would seem a very poor prospect to be one of the few, the proud, but Palmer didn't give up. It might be kind of early to think about it, he said, but what was Julian planning on doing after he graduated?

Julian replied that he didn't know, maybe something musical. Palmer said he looked like he played the guitar. The guitar, Julian said, and also the cello. "Are you aware of all the musical careers in the Marines?" Palmer asked.

Julian may be just fifteen, but he was pretty sure there wasn't a spot for a cello in any Marine marching band, and the United States Marine Band rarely features guitar solos. "No matter what I said," he notes, "I think he would have told me they have a career for that -- even cleaning toilets."

Although his buddy never said anything, Palmer chatted with Julian a little longer, gave him a card and asked for his phone number. "He was really smooth about it, he acted real casual," Julian remembers. Then finally, reinforcements arrived.

"When they were almost done talking to me, friends walked up," Julian says. "They thought I was in trouble, too."

But Julian wasn't the one in trouble.

It was the Marines who'd crossed the line, since Cherry Creek Shopping Center is private property, owned by the Taubman Company, and does not allow soliciting of any kind. And that includes military recruiting.

"I wasn't aware it was private property," Sergeant Palmer told me when I called the number on the card he'd given Julian. As he recalls it, he and his Marine buddy were driving around, they passed the mall, he remembered his wife telling him that Cherry Creek was "pretty ritzy," and they decided to see the place for themselves. "I just went there to check out the mall and see what it was like," he said.

Then he spotted Julian sitting by himself, and did a little reconnaissance. But once he found out the boy was fifteen, he surrendered a little ground. And now he surrenders more. "I apologize for any inconvenience," he says. "I didn't see any signs that said no soliciting."

Then again, it's hard to make ritzy "no soliciting" signs.

Palmer works out of a Littleton office, one of twelve U.S. Marine Corps recruiting substations in a four-state region that includes South Dakota, Nebraska and Wyoming. One of the other substations is actually located in a shopping mall in Casper.

Officials at Cherry Creek were unaware that the Marines had invaded the mall that day.

"Had we known," says general manager Nick LeMasters, "we most certainly would have asked him to cease that activity, and had he not ceased, he would have been trespassing. We guard the sanctity of our private-property rights."

Even so, LeMasters can certainly understand the draw of a mall. He once worked at a shopping center where "all four branches of the Armed Forces were represented." They paid decent market rents, he remembers, and "interested young men and women knew where they could go for information." But Cherry Creek doesn't have quite the same clientele. Young people go there to sign hefty charge slips at Bebe, not sign up.

And while the Marines could certainly ask to rent space there, "I don't think it's their market," LeMasters says.

It would be a very, very hard sell. But these days, four years into a war that's getting more unpopular by the second, it's not easy anywhere.

Julian Fleming says that no one he knows is even thinking about joining the military when they graduate from high school. Under No Child Left Behind guidelines, the Denver Public Schools must provide students' names and contact information to the military unless their parents have requested otherwise to the Board of Education. But that's different from being accosted by a recruiter the way you might meet a panhandler on the 16th Street Mall. "They're amazed it happened," Julian says of his friends. "They thought it was ridiculous."

McSwane knows that it happens all the time, everywhere. "Recruiters are desperate as hell," he says. Although DPS may limit the military's presence at Denver high schools, he keeps hearing from kids around the state, around the country, who have more high-school horror stories. Stand-Down Day didn't change behavior, McSwane says; in fact, "it was kind of a farce." Although he got props for being the event's inspiration, he soon learned that they had a day like that every year: "It's standard procedure."

So is scouting for talent on college campuses. McSwane often spots recruiters at CSU, and recently one approached him. But when he got close, he recognized McSwane from one of the CBS reports on his recruiting exposé and retreated.

Can you handle the truth?


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