They’re Talking Up Arms
Marine Sgt. Rick Carloss is as familiar to students as some teachers at Downey High School. He does push-ups with students during PE classes and plays in faculty basketball games. During lunch, he hands out key chains, T-shirts and posters that proclaim: “Think of Me As Your New Guidance Counselor.”
On a recent morning, Carloss drove his silver 1996 Mercedes-Benz from his recruiting station to the school two blocks away. A parking attendant waved him into the lot, saying, “Hi, dear.”
Inside the attendance office, Carloss kissed two secretaries on their foreheads.
“I need you to summon a young man out of class for me,” he told one.
“OK,” she replied. “What’s his name?”
The young man, Gilbert Rodriguez, was an 18-year-old senior. He was enlisting in the Marines the next day. Carloss needed go over paperwork with him.
Walking through corridors, Carloss pounded a student’s fist in greeting, chatted with another about a novel she was reading, shook hands with administrators.
The sergeant entered the library and a student shouted: “Hey, Carloss!”
Such familiarity is what the Marines and Army believe they need if they are to keep their ranks replenished. As the conflict in Iraq entered its third year, the Marines missed their monthly recruiting goals in January through March for the first time in a decade, and the Army and the National Guard also fell short of their needs. This year, the Army and the Marines plan not only to increase the number of recruiters, but also to penetrate high schools more deeply, especially those least likely to send graduates to college.
For Carloss and other recruiters, part of the way has been cleared by the No Child Left Behind education law of 2002, which provides the military with students’ home addresses and telephone numbers. It also guarantees that any school that allows college or job recruiters on campus must make the same provision for the military.
Once in the door, lining up enlistees means becoming part of the school culture.
Carloss spent seven weeks in recruiting classes to hone his marketing and communication skills. His techniques are similar to those in the Army’s “School Recruiting Program Handbook,” published last year.
The guide instructs recruiters to deliver doughnuts and coffee for the school staff once a month; attend faculty and parent meetings; chaperon dances; participate in Black History Month and Hispanic Heritage Month events; meet with the student government, newspaper editors and athletes; and lead the football team in calisthenics. It lays out a month-by-month plan to make recruiters “indispensable” on campus. The booklet states: “Be so helpful and so much a part of the school scene that you are in constant demand.”
It advises recruiters to get to know young leaders because “some influential students such as the student president or the captain of the football team may not enlist; however, they can and will provide you with referrals who will enlist.”
Some teachers, parents and students are complaining about what they consider to be overly aggressive recruitment tactics, especially at schools with low-income and minority students. That criticism has prompted some schools, such as Roosevelt High in Boyle Heights, to curb military recruiting.
But at others, like Downey, which serves mostly Latino students from working-class families, recruiters like Carloss are welcomed.
Carloss, 33, one of the Marines’ best recruiters, has the kind of charm and outgoing personality that enables him to relate to students. After graduating from Dorsey High School in South Los Angeles, he studied radio broadcasting at Santa Monica College for two years. In 1991, he joined the Marines because he wanted leadership skills and to earn money for college. The military paid for his education at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
Inside a lunch room, Carloss sat with Rodriguez and another Marine recruit, Matthew Tovar, an 18-year-old senior who will leave for boot camp in July.
Rodriguez had planned to attend Rio Hondo College’s police academy in Whittier, but several months ago he learned after talking to Carloss that he could receive training in the Marines to prepare him for his dream career as a police detective.
At Rio Hondo, “the training they were going to give him is something he has to pay for,” Carloss said.
“This option will be better for the future,” said Rodriguez, who has spent much of his life supporting himself. While attending Downey High, he worked full time as a store manager.
Sitting in the lunch room, Carloss told both young men that with money he earned in the military, he bought a motorcycle and a house, in addition to his Mercedes.
His cellphone rang. It played a 50 Cent rap tune.
The sergeant took off his Rolex watch and handed it to Tovar. Tovar examined it and smiled: “That could be me one day.”
Tovar relates to Carloss. Both like nice cars and Sean John clothing. Both lost best friends in shootings, in neighborhoods where they were both “at the wrong place at the wrong time.” Both chose the Marines over the streets of South Los Angeles.
“He’s a very good role model,” said Tovar, who wanted to be a Marine even before meeting Carloss. “He knows how the kids are.”
Carloss professes not to pay attention to recruiting quotas. “Do I really look at this as a numbers game?” he said. “I don’t. The kids are going to come [to the military] regardless of how I carry myself.”
But Allen Kanner, a Berkeley child psychologist and the author of “Psychology and Consumer Culture: The Struggle for a Good Life in a Materialistic World,” who has tracked military recruitment in schools, said teenagers are easily influenced.
“They are less sophisticated in terms of analyzing the purpose of an advertisement, and the strategies and manipulation being used to convince them to buy into joining the Army,” Kanner said.
University High School student Jose Dubon recently wrote an editorial for the campus newspaper in which he stated: “The Army managed to get a Hummer rolling on 24-inch dubs, blasting rap, lined with flames on the side, outside of Room C161.”
He continued: “Dressed in Army uniforms, recruiters stood outside telling people that if they signed up, they [would] receive a T-shirt that said, in Spanish, “YO SOY EL ARMY.”
Karen Magee, who has taught history for 22 years at the Downtown Business Magnet School, said her students have complained that recruiters have offered to buy their prom tickets if they sign up for information about enlisting. Recruiters have attended dances and faculty meetings, she said, and offered to take students to dinner.
In December, recruiters approached her in the hall and asked if they could visit her classroom, Magee said. She refused. Other teachers did not.
At Sylmar High School, which has mostly low-income Latino students, recruiters walk around in groups of two or three during lunch and approach students at bus stops, said Erika Herran, 16.
She added: “I can’t even remember a time when I have seen a college recruiter on campus.”
At Bell High School, parents and students wanted to know why administrators recently required 500 juniors to take the 3 1/2 -hour Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test.
The test is designed by the Department of Defense as a prime recruitment tool providing the military with “pre-qualified” leads, according to the Army handbook. Recruiters pitch the test to principals and counselors as a “career exploration and assessment exam.”
Yesenia Mojarro, career counselor at Bell, said the school gave the test to the junior class for the first time this year to assess career strengths. She said proctors told students that if they were not interested in a military career, they could withhold their home address or phone number.
Itzuri Villa, 16, a junior at Bell, said that when a teacher told her that it had not been not mandatory, she said students began yelling: “ ‘What?’ Everyone was bothered. Why were we testing? Most of us didn’t want to test because we were afraid they were going to try to recruit us.”
Her father, Gustavo Villa, said the school never asked for permission to give the test.
Recruiters call his daughter weekly, Villa said. Like many parents, he did not know that under No Child Left Behind, his daughter could “opt out” of providing contact information to military recruiters.
In the Downey Marine office, five recruiters spend about two to three hours a day calling students. Those they cannot reach by phone they sometimes visit at home.
Master Sgt. John Bertolette, the Marine recruiting director in Downey, said his staffers know their limits. “We know not everyone is cut out to be a Marine,” he said. “We don’t get on the phone and badger or beat the issue.”
Inside the office, a white board on the wall lists 25 “target” high schools.
For each campus, recruiters had listed the number of male students, visits to the campus and total signed contracts for 2005.
Dave Griesmer, a spokesman for the Marine Corps Recruiting Command, said the military seeks diverse candidates, regardless of income level.
But he added: “You’re not going to waste your resources if you’re in sales in a market that is not going to produce.
“We certainly don’t discount any school,” he said. “But if 95% of kids in that area go on to college, a recruiter is going to decide where the best market is. Recruiters need to prioritize.”
At San Marino High School, in an affluent San Gabriel Valley neighborhood, career center director Shanna Soltis said she has seen one military recruiter so far this school year. They rarely stop by, she said, because about 98% of San Marino graduates attend college.
A group called the Coalition Against Militarism in Schools, composed of Los Angeles teachers, recently began keeping track of recruiting on high school campuses. The group has joined with the American Civil Liberties Union to file public records requests to gain access to recruiters’ records and information they distribute to students.
In the East Los Angeles Army office, recruiters sense the backlash.
Two of the recruiters, both sergeants, recently arrived during lunch hour at Jefferson High in South-Central L.A., checking in at the front office. The school does not allow them to wander the halls or make pitches to students passing by. Instead, they are required to stay in the career center or the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps classroom.
“Two years ago, we could walk around on campus and say, ‘Hi, I’m with the military,’ ” said Sgt. Eldhen Fajardo. “Now we can’t do that.”
On the way to JROTC, they passed students on the basketball court and the football field. Some stared. One laughed at their uniforms. Another called Fajardo a derogatory name.
He brushed it off, saying: “They want to make you mad.”
Later, they visited the career center. Two Air Force recruiters were already sitting at a table, pamphlets spread out. The four recruiters spent the rest of the lunch period there. No students showed up to meet them.
Meanwhile, during lunch at Downey High on a recent afternoon, Carloss and another Marine recruiter presided over a festive scene.
They set up a metal exercise bar on the quad and put up poster boards decorated with colorful pictures and slogans. They challenged students to a pull-up contest, offering freebies to those who participated.
Carloss solicited students like a game booth vendor. A crowd of curious youths gathered around him. They shouted and laughed, cheering on students who accepted the pull-up challenge.
Students held pamphlets and key chains from an Army recruiting table several yards away. They picked up T-shirts and hats from the Marines.
Carloss asked them to fill out cards with their name, address, phone number, age and grade. Students must be at least 17 to enlist. Those younger than 18 need parental consent.
“Are you scared?” Carloss said jokingly to one boy.
Carloss waved down a girl: “Go to one of these boys over here who you think is cute and tell him to do it.”
“Who?” she replied.
“I don’t care,” Carloss said, “as long as he’s 17.”