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 recruiters aren'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.
In Brodeur's view, even these elevated numbers are quite modest considering the task the military has been asked to tackle. "In World War II, the population was about 140 million people, and we mobilized 9 percent of that population to prosecute the war," he recounts. "Fast-forward to 2005: Our population is nearly double, but we are attempting to mobilize four-tenths of one percent to prosecute the global war on terrorism, and we're falling short. So this is more than an Army challenge. This is a national challenge."
On May 20, recruiters nationwide addressed these and related issues over the course of a "Stand Down Day" that saw them reaffirm their pledge to live by seven central values the Army ballyhoos: respect, loyalty, selfless service, duty, personal courage, integrity and honor. Brodeur admits that McSwane's revelations influenced the timing of this session, but he insists that such a gathering had already been in the planning stages. In any event, he says, the recruiters who participated were newly energized to do things the right way, just as the vast majority of them always have. "I don't believe for a minute that pressures were so great that they caused the impropriety" regarding McSwane, Brodeur stresses. "I'm convinced that they were events where soldiers made bad judgment calls, and they're paying for it.
"The pressure isn't even great on me," he adds. "There are goals, and the leadership above me looks at my plan to make sure it's well-articulated, it's synchronized, it's well-resourced and it makes sense -- and I'm encouraged to keep making progress, so we improve our numbers. But nobody has threatened to penalize me for not making mission, and we have not penalized any of the recruiters or stations for not making goals, either."
That depends on one's definition of "penalty." As Brodeur points out, "We make an assessment of recruiters after six months. If a soldier does well, we'll keep him recruiting, or we may decide that he needs to go back to the tactical army. After all, not everybody can recruit."
If Mower keeps recruiting at his present pace, he'll probably stick around Westminster for quite a spell. In July, his first month of full-time recruiting, he brought three soldiers aboard, and in August, two more of his clients put their name on the dotted line. (Army contracts last eight years, but the recruits generally commit to hitches of between two and six years. For the remainder of their contract, they're listed as inactive reservists who can be called back to active duty if their skills are needed again.) The Westminster office met its August goal of eight soldiers, and since there are seven recruiters on staff, Mower more than pulled his weight.
Currently, Mower is in second place among Westminster recruiters, with Shivers, the station's top new man in 2004, in fifth. But at Pomona, Mower spends more time observing his colleague than going head-to-head with him. "I'm learning a lot from Sergeant Shivers," he says.
No wonder, since Shivers has perfected a unique blend of good humor and relentlessness that he uses on everyone, no matter their race, color or creed. Anti-war activists frequently accuse recruiters of targeting impoverished minorities who are led to believe that they can only escape their circumstances if they risk death and dismemberment, but the Pomona students who approach the recruiting table appear to be a diverse lot. In fact, the teens who spend the most time chatting up Shivers and Mowers aren't African-American or Hispanic, but Caucasian hard-rock fans. A boy wearing a Korn T-shirt and his buddy, clad in a Metallica top featuring a quartet of skulls that form a ghoulish four-leaf clover, hang around for the better part of an hour, and a kid sporting the logo of the punk band Anti-Flag lingers as well. To the last boy, Shivers says, "Tell me you're ready to join the Army, so I can give you lots of free stuff."
"Can I get free stuff without doing anything?" the Anti-Flag fan wonders.
In truth, most of Shivers's callers are folks he's met at events like this one. He has a remarkable memory for faces -- he greets at least twenty Pomona students like old friends -- and assiduously collects phone numbers. Moreover, he uses these digits even if the person they connect to isn't jazzed about the military. "A lot of kids who talk to me say, 'I'm going to college,' and I tell them, ŒGood for you. I'm not going to try to persuade you to do something else. All I care about is that you do something positive,'" Shivers maintains. "But if they're thinking about the military, we can talk about that, too."
Most recruiters who want contact information for students don't need to work as hard as Shivers to get it. Section 9258 of 2002's massive No Child Left Behind Act guarantees that military recruiters receive "the same access to secondary school students as is provided generally to post secondary educational institutions or to prospective employers of those students." To that end, the provision states, "Each educational agency receiving assistance under this Act shall provide, on a request made by military recruiters or an institution of higher education, access to secondary school students' names, addresses and telephone listings."
Granted, section 9258 allows secondary school students and their parents to request that info not be released to military recruiters without written consent and requires that educational agencies and schools let parents know about this option. But Erin Durban, the youth-and-militarism program director for the Colorado branch of the American Friends Service Committee, an organization affiliated with the Religious Society of Friends, aka the Quakers, fears that most parents have no clue about this release of information, let alone the stipulation allowing them to stop it. "Some of the districts in Colorado won't even disclose to us if they have a policy about this or not," she says. "So how can parents know about it?"
To make sure even reluctant educators live up to their legal responsibility, the AFSC created "12 Days of Opt-out," a September campaign intended to inform parents and students that they can "opt out" of releasing their contact information to military recruiters. As part of this effort, Durban and her staff tried to figure out how districts on the Front Range handle opting out, and they discovered plenty of inconsistencies. Their research shows that schools in Denver, Jefferson County and the Poudre School District have designated a single individual to handle all opt-out forms for schools in their areas, but institutions in the Boulder Valley and Colorado Springs districts set up their own procedures, thereby creating a confusing patchwork of guidelines. And elsewhere in the state, Durban found that even mentioning the idea of opting out was often greeted with hostility. She notes that one superintendent she contacted expressed his displeasure by referring disparagingly to "the un-American Friends Service Committee."
The Student Privacy Protection Act, a bill sponsored by Representative Mike Honda, a California Democrat, would simplify things for pacifists by requiring that parents who want the military to get their contact information sign a form allowing it, rather than having recruiters receive everything automatically. But with the odds extremely slim that the legislation will pass, the AFSC plans to energetically publicize the opt-out alternative in conjunction with several other groups in the rapidly growing anti-war movement, including the National Network Opposing the Militarization of Youth and Leave My Child Alone. The latter is distributing a DVD starring controversial peace-activist mom Cindy Sheehan, who decries unsolicited calls from recruiters with this comment: "If it was, like, a marketer that kept on trying to call you, that would be illegal. But it's okay for the military to do that, because apparently they don't have to answer to anybody."
To Brodeur, such remarks reflect a brand of bias that makes his job that much tougher. "At the end of the day, young people see influencers as their most credible source of information," he says. "But these influencers -- which take the shape of a father, a mother, an aunt, an uncle, a religious leader, sometimes a coach -- are where we find most of our obstacles. If influencers would let young people make a decision about the Army based on the pros and cons instead of the preconceptions they might have, I think our contract rate would be much higher."
Shivers, meanwhile, does his best to turn himself into an influencer. He instructs one Pomona girl to put his business card on the family refrigerator to annoy her brother, who's in the Navy, and when a tall kid with braces and a Hawaiian shirt asks him, "What's your weapon of choice?" he answers with unfeigned zeal.
"The M4," Shivers declares, his eyes shining. "You can maneuver it, because it's got a sling. You can wear it on your back and then pull it out like a sword. It's awesome."
A boy wearing an untucked gray dress shirt with a casually knotted tie sidles up to Shivers a moment later. "I've always wanted to be in the Army," he announces.
"What's stopping you?" Shivers wants to know.
"How old are you?
"Fifteen," the boy answers.
"It's still stopping you. You've got to be seventeen."
"I thought you had to be eighteen."
"Seventeen with parental consent," Shivers confirms.
The boy's expression brightens in a way that Shivers recognizes. "If someone is really interested in the Army as a career, they'll come up and tell you," he says as the student departs. "They're just like I was when I was a kid."
Although he's always had a thing for firearms, Shivers's initial attraction to the Army was all about pragmatism. The youngest of eight children born into a single-parent home in economically depressed Dayton, Texas, he greatly admired his older brother, who'd joined the military years earlier. "I'd watch him coming home, driving different cars, wearing nice clothes, and then I'd see his peers stuck in dead-end jobs, going nowhere," he recalls. "And I thought, whatever the military is doing, it's doing something right."
Less than a month after graduating from high school, he entered basic training, which he describes as "a surprise. I didn't think it would be, the way I was -- the kind of guy with a big ego. But all of a sudden, here was a guy shorter than me breaking that ego down to shoe size." To prevent his recruits from suffering the same shock, he runs them through a basic-training primer outside the Westminster office. After surviving his regimen of sprints and calisthenics, "They say basic was easy."
In the decade-plus since basic, Shivers has hopped from one hot spot to another. In the late '80s and early '90s, he was in Panama as part of Operation Just Cause, during which the U.S. military was ordered to oust dictator Manuel Noriega. After Noriega took refuge in the Vatican diplomatic mission in Panama City, troops drove him out with a steady dose of metal. "Yeah, we were playing 'Welcome to the Jungle' really loud. I was part of that," Shivers boasts with a smile. Also on the itinerary was Macedonia, where he was sent to help prevent fighting in Bosnia from spreading, and even Los Angeles, to protect private property amid rioting in 1992. He believes the military got the same type of image boost from its L.A. work as the services have received since Hurricane Katrina struck.
Afghanistan was the locale where he pulled his trigger most often. "I remember flying into Bagram in helicopters," he says. "We were the first to go in, and there were shots coming in at the bottom of the helicopter. We got out and started shooting, and it was over in two minutes. What an adrenaline rush.
"I've had close calls," he concedes, "but I felt safe at the same time. I knew everybody who toured with me, knew how they'd been trained, knew how good they were, and knew they had my back. I could look to my left, look to my right, and I'd always see somebody I knew I could trust. If I would have died, I knew it would have been in a good cause, but I wasn't worried about that."
By 2002, Shivers was married with three growing kids -- but he didn't go out of his way to seek a less dangerous assignment. "I was pretty much told by higher command, 'You've been kicking the dirt for a lot of years, and it's time for you to do something different,'" he explains. "They gave me a month to think about what I wanted to do, and I came up with recruiting, because I like to talk to people."
The decision turned out to be a good one. Shivers, who's been in the Army for sixteen and a half years, sometimes talks about becoming a drill sergeant, but right now he thinks he'll stick with recruiting. "The more the kids get to know me, the more comfortable they are with me," he says. "And even if they aren't interested in the Army, maybe they know a friend who is. They may tell them, 'I know Sergeant Shivers. You should talk to him.' As long as you're good to them, they'll be good to you."
That's the idea behind the recruiting-table giveaways, which the Pomona teens earn by doing push-ups. Students who covet a keychain had better be prepared to do thirty or 35. A lanyard requires more, and pencils are the consolation prizes. These chatchkes are far from spectacular, but oodles of youngsters readily hit the deck anyway. As many as ten participants at a time huff and puff alongside Bradley, a veritable push-up machine, with several of them winding up so far from the table that other students have to step over them in order to get to the cafeteria.
Amid the tangle of arms and legs, the chatty blonde looks beseechingly at Mower. "I really want one of those keychains, but I can't do push-ups," she laments.
"Just keep practicing," Mower says. "We're here all the time."
A more physically fit girl likes the sound of that. "You guys should come more often," she says after tearing through her required reps. "I'm getting a workout. This is cool."
"Is the Army fun?" a second girl asks Mower. "Like, really fun?"
"Yes," Mower responds, as enthusiastically as he can.
Mower doesn't look like any of the men on the recruiting posters that line the walls at the Westminster station. He's tall but gangly, with a look that Captain Byron Elliott, who oversees that bureau and five others in the battalion's Wheat Ridge sector, jokingly compares to Napoleon Dynamite. Yet Mower is undeniably battle-tested. "I was in Iraq for four months," Elliott says. "Sergeant Mower was there a lot longer."
Unlike Shivers, Mower, who grew up near the intersection of 80th and Wadsworth and was recruited at the office where he's working now, didn't know from an early age that he'd wind up in olive green. Despite his father's stints as a reservist for the Army and Air Force, he thought he'd be a journalist like his literary hero, Hunter S. Thompson -- someone who would put opinion into his reporting and not pretend to be objective. But after taking some classes at Front Range Community College, he sensed that the job market for gonzo scribes was awfully limited, and so were his life experiences. "I hadn't done much I could write about," he says. "I wanted to get out of Colorado, wanted to see something else, challenge myself, see what I was capable of." The Army fit this bill, and he had his first chat with a recruiter just before September 11, 2001. Far from dissuading him, the terrorist attacks convinced him that he was doing the right thing.
The induction process took longer than usual because his criminal record had some spots on it; he'd been guilty of "trespassing, getting caught doing retarded things -- kid stuff," he says. Thanks to the resulting paperwork delay, he didn't enter basic training until March 2002, by which time the post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan was in what appeared at the time to be a mop-up stage. "I didn't think I'd see any action or go overseas at all," he says.
Wrong. In November 2003, he shipped to Kuwait before traveling over the Iraqi border to Forward Operating Base Pacesetter near Duluiyah, a town outside the larger city of Samarra. His 3rd Brigade combat team was assigned a Stryker infantry-carrier vehicle, and because of special training he'd undergone, he was named a vehicle commander. On December 8, he and his men set off on their first mission, but it quickly went awry. "There were four vehicles in our platoon; I was in the last vehicle," he remembers. "And as we were driving, the road broke away, and the second and fourth vehicles overturned in a canal filled with ten feet of water." To this day, Mower isn't sure if sabotage played a part in the accident or if it was "just a bad road."
The two Strykers filled with water, and because they were upside down and stuck in mud, the men inside couldn't open the doors or deploy a battery-operated ramp. "That's the most scared I've been in my life," Mower says, "and it's still incredibly hard. It gives you a slap in the face and lets you know that this is for real. It's not a game." In the end, he was saved by an air pocket, but three soldiers weren't so lucky; two drowned before help could arrive, and one died of a broken neck. Today the names of the fallen men -- Specialist Joseph Blickenstaff, Staff Sergeant Steven Bridges and Specialist Christopher J. Rivera Wesley -- adorn a black bracelet on Mower's wrist.
The remainder of Mower's Iraq tour wasn't threat-free, but he downplays most of the hazards. Take improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, "which usually weren't a big deal," he says. "We'd find them on a lot of days, or maybe they'd get set off on us, and the worst thing that would happen is you'd get a little bit of a jolt and your ears would ring. It was like, 'There goes another IED.' Eventually, it just turned into a nuisance."
And then there was that day in August when a car bomb exploded at an Iraqi police station in Mosul, another tinderbox where Mower spent time. "A good friend of mine got shot in the back, just below his body armor," he says. "The bullet nicked his vertebrae, and his spine shattered. At first he lost feeling in his legs, but he's recovered. He can use his legs again."
Last November, Mower returned to the States, and he started manning a desk mere blocks from his old neighborhood this past spring. He hasn't committed any of his adventures to paper yet, but journalism still appeals to him -- and after what he's gone through, he certainly doesn't want for subject matter. As he puts it, "I've got a lot of stories I could tell."
Likewise, Mower has no shortage of audience members with whom he can share his tales, if he so chooses. At Pomona, one lunch hour follows another, and each brings a fresh wave of students to the recruiting table. For the most part, though, Mower mostly smiles and nods as Shivers calls out to anyone he recognizes, and many he doesn't:
"Didn't I see you riding your bike over by the recruiting station?"
"Did I scare you? I talk loud, so I usually scare people."
"Hey, I saw your sister the other day. She was walking with two guys over by the Wendy's."
"I'm waiting on you to come and talk to me in about two years. I'm waiting on you!"
"I prefer to have a conversation with you and your parents. But come on in, and we'll tell you what we have to offer. Do it."
With Shivers working the crowd, his associates are able to stray. At one point, Bradley heads down a hallway in search of teachers he'd like to greet, and Mower ambles over to check out the bake sale. Both tables are doing great business.
The freedom with which recruiters move around schools like Pomona frustrates the AFSC's Durban. "They have unlimited access," she says. "They're around all the time, befriending students and militarizing the schools with posters and information about the military."
In contrast, counter-recruiters and groups eager to tell students about peaceful careers often have difficulty getting into schools at all. Rich Andrews, a Vietnam veteran who's involved with anti-war collectives such as Colorado Communities for Justice and Peace, has contacted numerous schools in Boulder, where he lives, to ask if he can make presentations or set up tables or booths with information about alternatives to the military -- but he's rejected more often than he's embraced. "Their rationale is, if we let one group in, we have to let them all in," he says. "So unless we can get invited by a recognized student or extracurricular organization, we can't get in."
Elle Thomas, a Denver peace advocate, has run into identical roadblocks: "Military recruiters are on campus all the time, and they don't have to ask. Some teachers even include them as a regular part of classes. But we have to network with teachers and students who might be able to invite us. Nobody's calling and saying, 'Hey, can you send someone down?'"
Even as activists fight for easier entree to schools, they're trying to rein in military recruiters. DeAnne Butterfield, a Boulder parent and former legislative director for Governor Richard Lamm's administration, says fellow members of a co-op dubbed Sign Up for Peace were disturbed by the way recruiters at Boulder High School "were creating a festival atmosphere -- using open areas outside the cafeteria to conduct chin-up contests and hand out T-shirts." They voiced their complaints to the school's administrators, and now recruiters are restricted to Boulder High's counseling office. Sign Up envoys also griped about an extravaganza featuring a flight simulator that took place at Monarch High School last May. In a subsequent meeting with Boulder Valley officials, they asked that consistent rules governing military recruiters be instituted, and accountability emphasized. "Any recruiter, whether they're with the military, a business or a college, ought to have standards when it comes to promises they make to students," Butterfield believes.
Efforts like these aren't limited to Colorado. In May, the parents-teachers-students association at Garfield High School near Seattle voted to ban recruiters entirely, only to be reminded by school-district representatives that doing so would violate No Child Left Behind. But on September 7, the Seattle School Board ruled that recruiters, military or otherwise, who give inaccurate or misleading information to students can be kicked out of schools for the rest of the semester.
Brodeur feels his recruiters would do well under this policy, since luring in recruits under false pretenses is counterproductive to the mission. Approximately 9 percent of recruits wash out by the end of basic training, "and experience tells us that anyone who's not fully committed to the Army and doesn't understand what it's really all about will be one of those 9 percent -- a statistic who doesn't ship," he says. "And if those boots aren't in fighting formation, it does nobody any good."
Then again, there's no sense in accentuating the negative. When parents ask Brodeur if recruits are guaranteed a one-way ticket to Baghdad, "I remind them that at the beginning of this month, the Army was deployed to 120 different countries, and of those 120 nations, only two are sustained combat areas of operation," he says. "The other 118 are stability and support operations, or we're training other armies."
As for Mower, he's great at rattling off the main selling points today's Army shares with prospective recruits -- as much as $20,000 in bonus pay for enlisting, complete health-care coverage, more than 150 different jobs to choose from, and up to $70,000 for college -- but tends to keep any wartime tales to himself. When someone asks him what it was like in Iraq, he doesn't show off the black bracelet with the names of his dead comrades. Instead, he says, "I tell them it was an experience I'll never forget."
During a brief stop to check on the Pomona recruiting presentation, Captain Elliott asks, "Did the ninth-graders take all your keychains?"
"Yeah," Mower says, grinning.
Indeed, there's not much to pack up at the end of the soldiers' two-hour-plus stay at Pomona. Yet the students most willing to do push-ups for doodads were typically years away from Army eligibility. "Those freshmen, they get all glassy-eyed, looking at you like you're a new piece of candy," Shivers allows. "They've seen military on TV and the movies, and because they don't see a lot of military people when they're in the lower levels of education, they flock to anybody in a uniform."
The hordes have dissipated now. The last lunch hour is over, and with students back in class, even the bake-sale teens have folded their tent. Shivers follows suit, putting away his table and closing the clasp on his suddenly lighter attaché. As he walks with Mower and Bradley toward the exit, he can't be certain that anyone he met will ultimately decide to become a soldier. He can only hope he planted a seed that will lead one day to a rich harvest benefiting the individual himself, not to mention the United States of America.
"When I first started doing this, I thought it was a waste of time," Shivers says. "But even when the ninth-graders are all around you, you'll see seniors standing back, with their arms folded. And those are the ones I'm looking for. He or she may come up to me then, or they may come up to me toward the end of the year, but they'll come. That one needle in the haystack."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.