by Mike McAndrew
Sunday June 22, 2008
Tenth-graders swarmed around recruiter Dwayne DeVane as he handed out
American flags, water bottles, bumper stickers, key chains and the
most sought-after treasures -- decks of cards bearing the U.S. Army logo.
It was career day at Corcoran High School in Syracuse.
While students paid scant attention to representatives of some big
local employers, such as National Grid and Iroquois Nursing Home, the
fatigue-wearing DeVane drew a steady crowd for two hours.
"When you go into the Army, do they really pay for your school?"
asked 16-year-old Phylicia Coley.
"Your schooling will be covered," DeVane assured her.
The Army's pitch is resonating with young men and women in Upstate
New York, even as the war in Iraq drags into its sixth year and
becomes increasingly unpopular.
The Army's Syracuse Recruiting Battalion persuaded more people to "Go
Army" in each of the last two years -- about 2,300 in 2006 and 2,200
in 2007 -- than it did in 2003, 2004 or 2005.
"This part of the country has done very well for us," said Maj. Gen.
Thomas Bostick, the Army's national recruiting commander, during a
Feb. 29 visit to the region.
With regular Army troops and reservists routinely being deployed
multiple times in combat zones in Iraq or Afghanistan, recruiters are
under pressure to build the Army this year by 80,000 new regular
troops and 26,500 reservists.
Recruiters pitch the Army as the place to find adventure, receive
cash bonuses and pay for college. But with more than 4,100 American
military personnel killed in Iraq, it's not always an easy sell.
"Parents always want to protect and guide their kids," said Sgt. 1st
Class Peter Palumb, a recruiter from Chittenango. "Our recruiters
have to overcome a lot of misconceptions about the risks. Today, it's
still a good deal; there's just a little more risk involved."
"To recruit an all-volunteer force in a time of war and maintain a
decent quality individual coming in, it's hard," said Palumb, the top
recruiter of Army reservists in Upstate New York.
Later this summer, the Army plans to tempt Syracuse-area residents
with $40,000 bonuses to help them buy a house or start a business if
they sign up for a five-year hitch with Uncle Sam.
High school seniors already are receiving $1,000 per month, up to
$10,000, if they enlist before they graduate.
The Army also is accepting more recruits with arrest records.
In the Syracuse Battalion, the number of recruits with records has
tripled since 2003. Last year, one in 10 of the battalion's recruits
needed a "moral waiver" to join.
Recruits with moral waivers are not hardened criminals, said Col.
George Lumpkins, commander of the Syracuse Battalion for the past two years.
He said he recently approved a waiver for a young man who, as a high
school junior, had helped steal 18 pumpkins from a farmer's field
while joy-riding with friends.
"I generally call the applicant and ask, 'What were you thinking
about? Why did you do that?'" Lumpkins said. "Then I say, 'Yeah, I
think you should enter' or 'No, you have more growing up to do.'"
Lumpkins commands a force of about 200 recruiters who cover a
28,000-square-mile territory stretching from Utica to Buffalo and
Wilkes-Barre, Pa., to Potsdam. His battalion faces a stiff challenge:
by the end of the fiscal year, on Sept. 30, sign up more new soldiers
than it has in any year since the United States invaded Iraq. From
Upstate, the Army wants 2,015 new regular enlistees and 652
reservists, for a total of 2,667.
The battalion probably won't meet those targets, Lumpkins said.
The Army gave the Syracuse Battalion a tougher mission -- an
unrealistic one, Lumpkins said -- because of the successes it has had
in the last few years.
The battalion's past results are due in part to this region's strong
ties to the military, he said.
"There was a military influence here," he said. "There was an Air
Force base in Rome for a long time. There are Lockheed Martin,
Department of Defense contracting agencies. And of course you have
Fort Drum 70 miles up the road."
Recruiters find most of their prospects using lists from school
districts containing the names, phone numbers and addresses of high
school juniors and seniors. Districts were required by the 2002 No
Child Left Behind law to provide that information to the military.
Parents and students can sign a form preventing school officials from
releasing the information, but most don't.
In the Syracuse City School District, 10 percent of the city's 2,000
juniors and seniors told the district not to release their contact
information to the armed forces.
Like a telemarketer, recruiters make dozens of cold calls to
teenagers each day.
"Some people, we get them on the phone, and they are not friendly,"
Lumpkins said. "Some of these 17- and 18-year-olds can be pretty harsh."
"When the young person says, 'No, I'm not interested,' we take their
name off," Lumpkins said. "If they say, 'I'm not interested now,
maybe later,' we code it for follow-up."
DeVane said he also mines for potential recruits at community
centers, Syracuse Crunch games and high school sports events, rock
concerts and at Wal-Mart, K-Mart and convenience stores. He said he
usually talks to about 25 young men and women per day. His target is
two sign-ups per month.
If it's the last day of the month, and he's coming up short, DeVane
heads to Carousel Center.
"You run into the most people at the mall," DeVane said.
Cicero-North Syracuse High School has been one of the Army's most
fertile recruiting sites in Upstate New York, Lumpkins said. In the
C-NS class of about 727 seniors expected to graduate Friday, five
students enlisted early in the Army.
David D'Eredita Jr., 18, who will report July 9 for basic training at
Fort Benning, Ga., said a recruiter first contacted him after he
signed up to receive a free Army T-shirt on the Army's Web site,
Recruiters for the armed forces and military academies are invited
into C-NS every Monday so that students can talk to them during lunch.
Recruiters rely on high school guidance counselors to steer students
to them. At Corcoran, the Army can count on counselor Steve Snook, a
The Army sent Snook and 24 other teachers and guidance counselors
from Upstate New York on an all-expenses-paid, four-day trip in March
to Fort Jackson in Columbia, S.C. The event showcased the training
and job skills the Army offers teenagers just out of high school.
"For disadvantaged inner-city kids, it's great," Snook said of the
Army. "For someone who needs money for college, it should be at the
top of things you should consider. They're giving away crazy money now."
The Montgomery GI Bill is one of the biggest selling points the Army
has, Lumpkins said.
Nine out of 10 people the Syracuse Battalion recruited into the
regular Army last year had no college degrees.
The Army markets itself to high schoolers as a way to pay for
college. That's why Coley, the Corcoran 10th-grader with an A
average, said she is considering the Army.
"That's the most important consideration," said Coley. "I want to be
a psychiatrist. I want to go to a good school."
The GI Bill provides soldiers who have served at least three years
with an average of $6,600 per year in education benefits, said
Kimberly Hunter, press secretary to Sen. James Webb, D-Va., who
introduced the latest expansion of GI Bill benefits that passed
Congress in the last month.
Soldiers can receive a maximum of $39,636 for four years of education
benefits through the program, the Army says.
But tuition, room and board, and fees at the State University College
at Oswego cost $15,605 per year.
In most cases, GI Bill benefits don't come close to covering the
costs of attending college full-time, said John View, director of
financial aid at the State University College of Environmental
Science and Forestry.
That's not the message DeVane gave Corcoran students.
''He said the Army pays for everything," Coley said after talking to
DeVane, who is 27, served in Iraq for a year and has been a recruiter
in Syracuse for two years. He's been taking classes online through
the University of Maryland. He said he has not had to pay a dime for
his college classes.
"You get enough money for school each year," DeVane said.
A spokesman in the Army Recruiting Command's public affairs office
said recruiters should not imply the GI Bill would cover all the
costs of college without knowing what school a potential soldier
plans to attend and the price of attending that school.
In recent weeks, the Senate and House have approved increasing GI
Bill tuition benefits from $1,101 per month to a level that covers
four years of college up to the level of the most expensive in-state
public school, projected to be a monthly average of $1,700.
D'Eredita said he eventually hopes to take advantage of the GI Bill,
go to college and become a history teacher.
But he said he signed up for an eight-year hitch as an airborne
Ranger without paying much attention to what his Army salary would
be, the amount of his bonus, or what education benefits he can earn.
"I always wanted to do it. Since I was a kid," D'Eredita said. "It's
the most opportunity for excitement."
Mike McAndrew can be reached at email@example.com or 470-3016