Camouflage cool

Times Staff Writer

HOW awesome is the Army? You really have no idea until you send away for the “Stand Ready: Being a Soldier in the Army Reserve” DVD, as advertised on MTV. Because “learning more” is usually not enough incentive to get the kids on the phone -- especially the kinds of kids who sit around watching MTV all the time -- the Army was throwing in a free camo hat, the way Sports Illustrated might offer a free sneaker phone with your subscription, to sweeten the deal, if you call now.

I called then. Actually, I went to the Go Army! website and filled out an online form. Three e-mail requests; a brief but terrifying phone conversation with a recruiter; and six to eight weeks of anticipation, then patience, then the total loss of hope later, the DVD arrived. There was no hat in the package -- the gift had been upgraded to a sports watch. Does that sound weird? Well, watch the DVD and learn -- the Army is all about giving.

Produced by Leo Burnett USA, whose Army contracts totaled about $350 million this year, and directed by Hank Vincent of Avalon Films, “Stand Ready: Be a Soldier in the Army Reserve” opens on a video loop of super-macho, sepia-toned, high-contrast images of modern soldiering. A square-jawed soldier glistens in profile, a chopper flies low overhead, a soldier in a helmet raises a flag. It’s very retro, very now. And that’s just the menu screen.


“We are the men and women of the Army Reserve,” a deep voice intones, as a series of Rockwellian tableaux vivants flashes in front of your eyes to some extremely heartfelt John Mellencamp-ish acoustic strumming. “We live in big cities and small towns. We are regular people who have taken an oath.” The soldiers stand proudly amid the kind of real estate beloved by the makers of breakfast-cereal commercials. The burnished, bucolic beauty -- so clean, calm, old-fashioned, benign -- is almost unbearable. Ain’t that America?

Not to worry if you don’t recognize it. Perhaps you’re at a crossroads, in a financial jam, unsure of your next move. Maybe you’ve thought about college but can’t foot the bill. Maybe you’ve screwed up your life so far. Well, here, at last, is a way to have it all. Everything your parents couldn’t give you. Everything you ever wanted.

All about the benefits

“What You Get” is not just a recurring theme in “Stand Ready,” it’s the central message. A sheeny, fast-paced, caramel-coated (it’s always magic hour in the Army) shot of pure inspiration and promise, it kicks off with a seemly nod to values, front porches, fishing with your kid, mom and dad, etc., but quickly gets down to talking turkey.

As the benefits tally up on the screen, video-game-graphics style, it becomes clear that this is no mere informational tool, it’s a portal to an alternative universe -- a universe that kicks the butt of your civilian universe up and down. That’s how clear-cut the benefits, how negligible the sacrifices, how jealous all your friends, with their regular jobs, will be “when they realize,” as one soldier’s did, “that they don’t have nearly as many experiences as I do.”

Never mind that the Army has increasingly relied on the National Guard and Army Reserve to help maintain troop fulfillment in Iraq, or that part-timers now represent 50% of U.S. troops in Iraq. According to “Stand Ready,” joining the Army Reserve means you get to go to college. You get to go to law school. You get a sense of accomplishment. You get to “stay close to home, continue your education and raise a family at the same time you serve your country.”

Educational benefits include “up to $22,000 for college while you serve, up to $20,000 payback for qualifying existing student loans (One young woman mentions her degree from George Washington University, “a degree that would have cost me $40,000"), up to an $8,000 enlistment bonus and up to a $3,000 quick-ship enlistment bonus.” Quick-ship to the sorority quad, right?

If you do decide to join the active Army, you get even more, an all-inclusive lifestyle package that might be described as “Life Med.” Tranquil suburban life with spouse and kids, campus-like life in the barracks, edifying world travel, jet-skiing, horseback riding, glamorous adventures just like you’ve seen in the movies, exciting adventures resembling video games and all the (heterosexual only, please) sex you want. You thought the Army disapproved? Not at all. Uncle Sam wants you to get some.

“One of the misconceptions about Army life is that you’re not allowed to have a social life,” one soldier says. “I have a boyfriend who I’m very happy with.” “As an army reservist, we have the same social life as any civilian out there,” another says. “The Army takes care of their single soldiers,” another says. “You get a free room, free food, you get about everything for free.” (The barracks, contrary to popular opinion, are “beautiful.” “They’ve got what’s called a kitchenette.” They’re also “a lot like a college environment.”) In fact, “being a single soldier is actually quite fun. They put a lot of events on so people can get to know each other.” The great thing is that “you’re surrounded by young, active people,” says a happily married soldier, in front of his wife.

Imagine: success

Imagine a world in which getting an education doesn’t leave you mired in debt, then adrift in a soft job market. A world in which you can pursue any of 120 exciting careers and actually even catch one. “Advanced Individual Training is where you learn your specific job,” says a cute blond in a jaunty red beret. For instance, you can be an operating-room technician, alongside “some of the best surgeons in the world.” Or, like Tiffany, the blond in the beret, an “interrogator, Spanish linguist.” What’s that? “Being an interrogator is a complicated thing,” she says, wrinkling her nose. “I can’t really tell you a lot about the job because it’s secret.” Sure it is. But the camera pans so lovingly over her faraway blue eyes that I’m momentarily distracted from this thought. How bad can it be to be interrogated in Spanish by Tiffany?

The not-secret jobs sound great too. You could operate a battlefield vehicle and send instant messages from one vehicle to another, “just like a video game.” You could be in field artillery and “get to go out and blow things up.” It’s not all Army-style jobs in the Army Reserve, either. You can be a graphic designer. Or a broadcast journalist. Or a saxophone player. “You get your horns given to you, all brand-new stuff,” says a soldier with a delighted chuckle. “All this and a paycheck!” But the broadest smile is a girl’s. “It’s a lot of fun. Heck, what other kind of job can you fire weapons in?”

Not at anyone, you understand. It appears as if there’s no bleeding involved. As one lab technician and blood banking specialist explains her job, “What we do is we go out there and if there’s a situation that needs to be handled just get out there and get it done and help people.”

The brief, almost incidental allusions to Iraq come later, in the segment on world travel and learning about other cultures.

“When you get deployed, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be in the Middle East or Iraq. There are opportunities to make a difference wherever you go.” Be it in Thailand building a schoolhouse, Alaska building a road, the Army lets you “see the sights” and “enjoy the culture” of places as diverse as Australia, Germany, Spain, China, Japan, Malaysia and Amsterdam!

“Tell them about Germany,” the saxophonist says. “Germany was the best time I’ve ever spent in my life.”

Germany, of course, is the home of the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, which has treated nearly 10,000 soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan. And it would seem like a great time, after all that difference-making.