Recruiting in a Web of Lies

With the number of American casualties in Iraq increasing daily for a war that now even Secretary of State Colin Powell believes is lost, it may come as a surprise that recruitment rates are still up.

The Pentagon reports that for the year 2004, its 15,000 recruiters have already recruited over 212,000 people, surpassing its goal of 210,000, at a cost of $14,000 per recruit. Marine Staff Sergeant Mark Ayalin at Quantico Recruiting Command confirms, "Recruitment figures haven't been affected by the situation in Iraq at all."

This triumphant stance conceals a more grim reality. In its 2003 Government Accounting Office (GAO) Report, the Pentagon stated that "convincing young adults to join the military has become more difficult." At the same time, the Department of Defense's budget for recruiting reached a record $4 billion for the fiscal year 2003, according to a GAO report, and the portion of that budget devoted to advertising nearly doubled in the past five years, from $299 million in 1998 to $592 million in 2003. In the same period, the Army alone increased its advertising spending by 73% to $197 million, and the Air Force increased the same budget by 395% to $90.5 million. The advertising cost per new enlisted recruit has nearly tripled from $640 in 1990 to almost $1,900 last year.

A 1996 Navy Recruiting Command study admits, "In our analysis, family incomes proved to be the most important economic variable … Enlistment rates are much higher when income is lowest and college enrollment rates are low." And, unsurprisingly, as Michael Moore points out in his film Fahrenheit 9/11, recruiters target 17- or 18-year-olds desperate to escape lower classes.

The No Child Left Behind Act, enacted in 2001, and the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year of 2002 have made economic conscription much easier. They require every high school receiving federal education funds to hand over the names, addresses and phone numbers of every junior and senior to local military recruitment officers.

Since these public schools targeted are predominantly located in poor communities, the African-American and Hispanic communities find themselves heavily preyed upon. Billboards for the Armed Services proliferate noticeably in the poorest neighborhoods. Military marketing firms utilize ethnic marketing to devise what they call "specialized campaigns." For instance, the Navy created a Web site it calls "El Navy," which is designed to better communicate with the Hispanic market, and the Army has specifically tailored radio advertisements to reach the African-American market. The military also advertises heavily in hip-hop magazines.

Brentwood high school, one of the largest and poorest working-class schools on Long Island, NY, has a federally subsidized Reserve Officers Training Corps program. Every year 15 to 30 of its students join the military after graduating. This year alone, three of Brentwood's graduates have been killed in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But poverty often breeds higher crime rates and more acute medical problems, and recruiters find themselves in a catch-22 situation. "Because of drug use, criminal offense, weight and other health problems," said an Army recruiter on active duty (wishing to remain anonymous), "only about three of every 10 potential recruits are even technically eligible to join the Army on today's standards, but recruiters are pressured to recruit two or three 'bodies' a month. Therefore they have to lie."

According to military lawyers and recruiters, the "lies" involve serious deception. "The system is structured using lies to get people in," explained J. E. McNeil, director of the Washington-based Center of Conscience and War.

"Recruiters don't just lie about the money for college, their Military Occupational Specialty or tell them they won't go to combat. They tell the recruits to lie about their medical and drug histories and their criminal records. There's widespread deception and dishonesty," said military lawyer Luke Hiken. "Pretty much everybody I knew in the Marines had to lie about their medical history to get in," said former assistant recruiter Chris White. "One guy had previously attempted suicide; he went crazy, cut his neck, and had a big scar from it. I told him to say he fell off a truck into a barb-wired fence; he got in. Some guys would tell me they did coke or heroin; I'd tell them 'it was weed,'" said the Army recruiter.

In the Vietnam era, judges often offered enlistment as an alternative to prosecution and jail time. But after Vietnam, Congress passed legislation to prevent this practice. But former recruiters and military lawyers affirm that it is still taking place in a more covert form, with judges often working in concert with recruiters to drop charges.

"The district attorney would call me twice a month and give me the names and phone numbers of people he thought could benefit from being in the army," explained the Army recruiter. "Four out of five would usually join."

"Out of 75 contracts, maybe five were qualified. I got approximately 40 unsupervised probations dropped," said former Marine Staff Sergeant Jimmy Massey. From 1999 to 2001, Massey worked in what recruiters refer to as a "low impact area," where crime rates are comparatively low, which means he could only have misdemeanor charges dropped. He added, "I couldn't do anything for felonies. But, obviously, that depends on the district. Recruiters from the Bronx were always bragging about having felonies dropped."

Carl Nyberg, a former Navy recruiter and investigator, says "recruits are encouraged by recruiters to lie, yet they are the only ones to suffer the consequences of these lies in the event of an investigation." Between 1993 and 1995, 14 cases were brought against the Navy for criminal concealment in recruiting in Chicago. But in what seems to be the norm for such charges, the majority of allegations were declared "unsubstantiated" by the Navy Recruiting Command, evincing a culture of impunity. While the recruiters were simply recommended for further training or given a non-punitive letter of caution, the recruits themselves were dishonorably discharged. Nyberg adds, "Those investigations were a complete misrepresentation. Recruiters are the ones that are untrustworthy; 90% of deceit is solicited by recruiters."

The story of Tim Queen, a mentally and physically handicapped man from Murphy, NC, exemplifies this type of misconduct. Ordered by his gunnery sergeant to recruit Queen, Sgt. Massey sent him to boot camp. "I told them I had a twitch but they said not to worry about it. I spent three or four days in boot camp but they decided to kick me out," said Queen, who shaved his eyebrows in boot camp after dreaming a drill instructor told him to do so. Massey was exonerated by both the Marine Corps and a congressional investigation, but Queen, who is still very much affected by the experience, was discharged for "fraudulent enlistment." Congressman Charles Taylor's [R-NC] press office said they had been "strictly advised not to make any comment on the case."

Natasha Saulnier, whose work has appeared in the London Independent, among other newspapers, is currently writing former Staff Sgt. Jimmy Massey's war memoir.

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