Salesman Soldiers of the Army

Times Staff Writer

"Just don't spit on me," muttered Sgt. Cavin Moskwa as demonstrators assembled near his Army recruiting table in a courtyard at Pasadena City College.

The protesters chanted: "1-2-3-4! We don't want your oil war!"

Moskwa looked flustered. "Where's my military bearing?" he asked himself. He drew up as tall as 5-foot-4 can be, composed himself and thrust out his chest.

" ... 5-6-7-8! Don't recruit us for your hate!"

Not the best atmosphere for wooing would-be Army Rangers. But Moskwa stood his ground; he didn't want the protesters to think he was intimidated.

"A recruiter in wartime should have a decoration," he said later.

The country is not at war -- yet -- but the passions stirred by the threat of battle in Iraq are complicating the work of men like Moskwa, whose job is to sign people up for three- and four-year stints in uniform.

Military recruiting is a form of courtship, requiring patience and long hours. It means placing dozens of calls a day to high school seniors and college students and being told no, over and over.

It means trying to reassure anxious parents and other potential naysayers -- "vision killers," Moskwa calls them. It means coaching: Don't wear exotic underwear to the physical exam.

Finally, it means not only wooing and winning an applicant, but hanging onto him: nursing him through doubts and fears and making sure he doesn't back out at the last minute.

In the months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, recruiters found no dearth of volunteers. But today, as U.S. forces mass near Iraq, fear and anxiety have muffled some of the patriotism.

"There are more questions asked now and people want more detail," said Lt. Col. Terrence Marsh, commander of the U.S. Army's Los Angeles Recruiting Battalion. "We spend more time now with parents and influencers because they truly want reassurance."

Moskwa works at the Army recruiting station in Pasadena. He is as persistent as a terrier. On the telephone, he is magic. With his easygoing manner, he excels at calling prospects out of the blue and persuading them to come in for a chat.

The 29-year-old Hawaii native joined the Army nine years ago to fight, not to recruit. Moskwa is a field artilleryman; he loves shooting big guns and prides himself on running a crew of seven, trained to load, aim and fire.

"Artillery guys are the king of battle," Moskwa says.

Moskwa is not the king of recruiting. Not yet.

February was almost over when the demonstrators scotched his efforts at Pasadena City College. Worse, his recruiting station still hadn't reached its monthly quota of six enlistments. His supervisor, Sgt. Michael Cypressi, told him and his fellow recruiters to buy candles and pray.

"I don't like to fail," Cypressi reminded them.

Cypressi is from the 101st Airborne Division. He won a Bronze Star in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. He paces between recruiters' desks, swinging a black baseball bat. He drapes his office with camouflage netting, keeps a rocket launcher in a closet, and plays the soundtrack from the movie "Black Hawk Down" every morning and afternoon.

"There's pressure every single day, every hour," Moskwa said. "It's not, 'What have you done for me lately?' It's, 'What have you done for me now?' "

Reluctant Recruiter

Moskwa didn't choose to become a recruiter. The Army selects the top 10% in every field, puts them through seven weeks of training and dispatches them to recruiting stations around the country for three-year stints.

Some soldiers look forward to recruiting. On learning his assignment, Moskwa groaned.

The Pasadena station, sandwiched between a Chinese restaurant and a Navy recruiting office on a nondescript stretch of Colorado Boulevard, is a heavy hitter. In the race for enlistees, it has bested 54 other Army stations in Los Angeles, Bakersfield and Fresno for two straight years.

Last year, the Pasadena recruiters persuaded 515 people to come in to talk about enlisting. Of those, 274 actually showed up and 134 went on to take required tests.

After the usual washouts, the station's four recruiters ushered 120 men and women into the Army -- 82 as active-duty soldiers, 38 as reservists.

It was a good year. The "mission," set by the company commander, had been 101. Teamwork produced the triumph.

Sgt. Steven Davis is a smooth-talking troubleshooter, proficient at closing the deal. ("Snake oil salesman," Cypressi calls him.) Sgt. Jason Quijas works well with women. Sgt. James Jones, a new arrival to the Pasadena station, is best at face-to-face conversations.

And Moskwa?

"If I asked him to run to hell and back, he'd go," Cypressi said.

Moskwa's father, who has been in the Navy for 27 years, is a chief warrant officer serving aboard a destroyer. When Moskwa graduated from Hilo High School in Hawaii, he knew he was not going to college.

"I love the Army," he said. "I'm married to the Army."

Lately, it's been a demanding marriage.

Moskwa works six 12-hour days a week. On Sundays, he usually goes to the recruiting station to watch TV; he has no cable at his sparsely furnished apartment in Azusa. He has been a recruiter for eight months, meaning he has 28 months left before he can return to his first love: field artillery.

Given a choice between trolling for recruits and shipping out for Iraq, Moskwa said he would not hesitate. He hasn't experienced combat, but he says he wants to, badly.

"We train for war. I get paid for violence," he said. "It's very frustrating to me. I'd trade places anytime.

"Somebody said our job is just as important as those guys' over there, because we provide the strength. But truthfully, I'd rather be the strength than provide it."

After high school, Moskwa went straight into the Army, serving at Ft. Benning, Ga., and Ft. Lewis, Wash., and at U.S. bases in South Korea and Germany. He never cooked: The Army had mess halls. He never had credit cards or a checkbook. The Army provided almost everything.

Now, back in the civilian world as a recruiter, he has had to fend for himself. During his first month, his electricity was cut off because he didn't pay a deposit promptly. "Who knew?" he says sheepishly.

Learning Period

He has picked up recruiting a little faster but he's still slogging.

Soldiers have a saying that refers to a bomb detonating: First you see the flash, then you count to the bang. Moskwa's flash-to-bang is the longest at his station. It typically takes his peers about two weeks to land a recruit. Moskwa? Forty-five days.

Since October, he has signed up five. Quijas has snagged 13. But Moskwa has a big heart and a genuine way, which makes Cypressi think he'll eventually become a first-class recruiter.

Cypressi offers this illustration: Moskwa talked several times with an 18-year-old named Gilbert. Another recruiter, trying to help, assured Gilbert's mother that the Army would help her son get an education. The recruiter meant college. But Gilbert needed a high school diploma.

The mother later chided Moskwa, saying she had been told the Army would educate her son.

"A promise is a promise," Moskwa said. So he has gone to Gilbert's home in Pasadena almost every Friday for the last six months and driven the young man to adult education classes in Arcadia.

"Moskwa won't quit," said Cypressi. "If you join, he'll do everything he can for you."

Gilbert hasn't enlisted yet, but Moskwa hopes he will once he earns his high school diploma.

Ryan Hilton, 19, an electric bass player and music major at Pasadena City College, is one of the prospects Moskwa reeled in with a cold call. When Hilton came to the station, a recruiter asked him, "Ever think jumping out of airplanes would be fun? Or shooting weapons?"

"Yeah, who doesn't?" Hilton replied. But he quickly made it clear that he wanted to be well in the rear, wielding a musical instrument in an Army band rather than an M-16.

"No chance of going overseas, right?" Hilton asked anxiously. He left the station saying he needed to think it over. None of the recruiters believed he would return.

They were right. Reached later, Hilton said he had decided against enlisting because he wanted to study jazz and was put off by the specter of war. He'd gone to the recruiting station because he had been swept up by Moskwa's smooth phone manner.

Hero to Zero

Candidates for the Army must be physically fit high school graduates without criminal records. They must pass a medical exam, as well as a written test with 300 questions.

Two years ago, on a day they now call Black Wednesday, the Pasadena recruiters had six applicants take the exams. One passed. The others were disqualified for various reasons.

An FBI background check found that one had committed an assault with a deadly weapon. Another had forgotten his glasses. Another was overweight. Another had a clubfoot.

"It's hero to zero in a matter of seconds," Moskwa said with a sigh.

After the demonstration at Pasadena City College, just as Moskwa was leaving, a bear of a man greeted him. "I'll sign up today," he said. "I got a baby on the way; I need a job."

Realizing that Moskwa had noticed his ample girth, the man added: "I weigh 260 pounds. I'm a big dude, but it's all muscle-filled."

Moskwa thanked him and suggested he drop by the recruiting station.

Cypressi has the station decorated so young recruits think it's cool.

Three GI Joe helicopters hang from the ceiling. The exam room has a GI Joe figure climbing a rope. A banner over the doorway proclaims: "Attitude Makes It Happen." Sandbags (filled with mulch) create a mini-barricade by the back door.

Not every recruit is ready to ship out immediately. They often delay to finish a semester of studies. Moskwa and the others ask their candidates to stop by the station every week, so they can keep them hooked.

The recruiters become big brothers.

When Sam Kayal, 23, agreed to enlist, he had given the decision a lot of thought. He knew his mother was against it, but he was determined to become an Army Ranger.

Still, Kayal, who had spent part of his childhood in Syria and part in Texas, was worried about fitting in.

"Before I go to boot camp, you'll tell me how to act?" he asked the recruiters.

His first pointer: "Hooah," a catch-all Army phrase. It covers the ground between "I get it" and "Yes, sir."

Moskwa and the other recruiters run, play Risk, a board game of geopolitics, and watch war movies with enlistees. They teach them map reading and other soldiering skills. In the parking lot behind the station, Moskwa shows them how to march in formation.

It pays off: Last year, 87% of Pasadena's recruits made it through Army basic training.

For Moskwa, the drudgery is the four hours he spends every day prospecting for recruits by phone. He hates the cold calling but says it has gotten easier.

On a recent evening, his adrenaline was pumping. The station needed to make its quota. He started dialing. No answer. Next call, a parent answered: No, my son is not interested. Finally, he reached a college student.

"Hey man, what's your major?" he asked, probing for signs of ennui, restlessness or some other toehold.

"Ever thought of joining the Army?" A pause. "You have?"

Moskwa shifted into schmooze. Education. Travel. Adventure.

"Sure, tomorrow is fine," he said. "Need a ride? I'll pick you up."

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