By Michael E. Miller
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Keeney is combing through the ranks of soldiers-in-training to find recruits for media appearances.
A doe-eyed television anchor from Telemundo wants Spanish-speakers; a reporter from the Palm Beach Postwants recruits from Martin, Palm Beach, or St. Lucie counties; and Miami New Timeswants Miami-Dade soldiers.
(Disclosure: New Times accepted the Marines' offer to pay for the trip. The Palm Beach Postreimbursed the Marines for the cost of the workshop. Lt. Staci Reidinger, a public affairs officer, says her records show only two media outlets have reimbursed the Marines for the cost of attending the workshop.)
Soon Keeney turns up with recruit Michael Janzen, who looks like a small tank, if a tank could have apple cheeks and freckles. The nineteen-year-old from Cutler Bay stands in the bright sunlight of the rifle range, unsure whether talking to a civilian means talking like a civilian. Even his stance is official: legs apart, back straight. He places his hands behind his back, and his arms, in their desert fatigues, form two isosceles triangles. When asked at what age he decided to join the Marines, Janzen is succinct:
"In fourth grade this recruit had a haircut and this recruit was called a Marine and this recruit knew what he was going to do."
And how do this recruit's parents feel about the prospect of his getting deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan? (Janzen's specialty is motor transport, not a stay-at-home job.)
"This recruit knew what he was getting into and his family knew what he was getting into," is his blunt reply.
Joseph Martinez, an eighteen-year-old from South Miami, is more informal. Skinny and quick to grin, he has no problem switching into civilian conversation. Martinez was inspired to join more because of college money than dreams of warrior glory. He even switched his specialty after learning of the dangers facing military police in the "post-combat" phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
After graduating from South Miami Senior High, he says, "I was working at a fast-food place, living at home.... My sister moved to Tallahassee to go to college and we've never been apart. I realized I had to do my own thing. If I wasn't here, I'd be doing the same exact thing I was doing, which was nothing."
When asked what inspired him to enlist, he shrugs. "My recruiter was a nice guy, but that's how he's supposed to act. I never really thought anything of the military, but then I was sitting in class one day and one of my old friends came back to high school in his dress blues." In the middle of computer class, the sight of his friend, his posture, his sheer adultness, inspired Martinez to consider the Marines. Of course, his grandmother wanted him to join the navy "safer right now," he explains. And Grandma was right: as of early December, 42 sailors had been killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom, versus 620 Marines.
It is in the case of soldiers like Martinez that an encouraging teacher can make a big difference, says Jay Tansy, who was South Florida Recruiter of the Year last year. Tansy, an easygoing 25-year-old with a voice like honey, grew up in Hialeah. When he joined the Marines, he says, he weighed 260 pounds and had no self-confidence. "I didn't have a girlfriend until I was eighteen," he laments. But he didn't enlist for lack of other options. "I had a 3.2 GPA in high school," he says. "I got 1180 on my SAT. I could have done other things."
These days he is fastidious about his appearance. He says he gets a haircut (the traditional Marine "high and tight") every week. His eyebrows are neatly waxed. And the students Tansy has recruited range from the valedictorian of American Senior High in Miami Lakes to some who barely managed to secure a diploma.
"What I look for," he says, "is someone who wants to be different. I want people to break out of the opinion that this is a last resort, to see it as an option like college or like joining the workforce."
For groups like Iraq Veterans Against the War, the recruitment process presents to young people a bundle of false hopes. Mejia calls it a "socioeconomic draft."
"You have a lot of recruiters going into the poorest neighborhoods in the country, recruiting people with no other options," he says. "They go to places where people dream of a better future, and take advantage of that. They'll talk about the steady paychecks, the benefits, the training, but there's no mention of war."
Sergeant Tansy resents the insinuation that recruitment is targeted at the poor. "I recruit upper-class students," he insists.
The military does not keep statistics on recruits' economic backgrounds. Studies by both liberals and conservatives, though, have found that in the army, navy, and air force, zip code areas with median household incomes of $25,000 to $54,999 are overrepresented. Wealthier zip codes are underrepresented, as are areas with median incomes under $25,000. But that might be changing. A recent RAND Corporation report shows that on average, family income among recruits has increased every year since 1999.
Peggy Rickman, the Fort Pierce teacher everyone qualifies with the adjective "bubbly" and the one who could probably strike up a conversation with a corpse, is stumped by a certain nineteen-year-old in camouflage, holding his lunch tray parallel to his upright body, staring formally at nobody.