He tries to come to grips with the death of a soldier that he helped
lead to war.
By Matthew D. LaPlante
The Salt Lake Tribune
Back from a tour of duty in Iraq during which his company was always
short-handed, Chris Johnson stepped into his new role as a recruiter.
The Army needed new soldiers -- and fast -- and the young staff
sergeant was determined to do his part.
Johnson told potential enlistees he could help them better their
lives. But he could not have conceived of the effect one recruit's
death would have on the way he did his job.
Since the onset of combat operations in 2001, nearly 5,000 military
members have been killed in the nation's ongoing wars. They came from
every state and territory in the union. They represented every branch
of the armed services. They were of many races, of many religions, of
But in the post-draft era of American military service, they did have
one thing in common: All were volunteers, led into service by an army
of professional recruiters like Johnson.
Johnson insists he never lied in order to enlist a new recruit. In
fact, he says, he went out of his way to explain the experiences he'd
had in Iraq.
But he had known only one soldier, Utahn Steve Kowalczyk, who had
died in combat. And their paths had crossed only briefly in Iraq
before Johnson rotated back stateside. So even though he had been to
war, Johnson was unable to speak with deep familiarity of its
greatest potential toll.
All that changed last February.
'I put him in the Army'
It was a Tuesday evening when the news came. Johnson was watching
television. His new wife was surfing the Internet.
"Did you know someone named Micheal Alleman?" she asked from across the room.
"Sure," Johnson replied, "I put him in the Army."
She slammed the laptop shut.
"I had to wrestle the computer away from her," Johnson recalled.
"When I finally saw the story, I just couldn't believe it. I figured
there had to be some mistake."
Alleman was one of Johnson's earliest recruits. Possibly his easiest.
And assuredly his favorite.
Even at a time when an increasingly woeful economy was pushing more
wary job seekers through the doors of the Army recruiting center in
Logan, Alleman stood out for his eagerness to sign up.
He wasn't looking for an education -- he had already graduated from
Utah State University. He wasn't looking for a job -- he already had
one at a local elementary school. And he didn't need recruiters like
Johnson to persuade him to join -- just to help find the best
arrangement for him and his family.
He wanted to be an Army scout. But Johnson found a bigger signing
bonus for him in the infantry.
Alleman was happy to accept the extra cash, but he told the recruiter
that he simply wanted to show his two young sons that America was
worth fighting for.
"Mike was the ideal soldier," said Johnson, a native of Magna who has
recruited in northern Utah for the past two years. "He joined the
Army for all the right reasons."
Most recruits seem to forget their recruiters at some point early
into boot camp -- and maybe for good reason, Johnson laughed. But
when Alleman returned to Utah after training, he made it a point to
come and see the man who had arranged his enlistment.
"He was more than just someone I'd put into the Army," Johnson said.
"I really got to know him. I got to know his wife and his family. I
considered him a very good friend."
The news of Alleman's death changed the way Johnson looked at his job.
"He was there in Iraq, in part, because I happened to be his
recruiter," Johnson said. "That hit me pretty hard."
'The cost of our achievements'
Each fall, hundreds of soldiers in the Army's Salt Lake Recruiting
Battalion, which includes every recruiting station in Utah and
several nearby states, gather to discuss strategies for the coming year.
They talk about goals, incentives and salesmanship. They brag over
successes and lament like fishermen over the ones that got away. And
at a banquet filled with soldiers in dress uniforms, they hand out
awards to the most prolific recruiters and the most successful stations.
But the first order of business at the banquet is always the same.
One by one, the battalion's senior recruiters place a rose on an
empty table in honor of the soldiers they recruited who have fallen in combat.
"We're there to recognize our own achievements," said Col. David
Clonts, who leads the battalion, "but we can't lose sight of what
we're really doing. Part of the cost of our achievements is a list of names."
When that list is read this year, Alleman's name will be on it.
The 31-year-old soldier's patrol was on a mission to capture a group
of suspected insurgents on Feb. 23 near Balad, in northern Iraq, when
it was ambushed. Alleman died in a hail of gunfire alongside two
fellow soldiers from the Alaska-based 1st Brigade of the 25th
His family in Utah received the news that same day.
A few days later, the soldier's widow called on the recruiter who had
helped him into the service.
"I wasn't expecting hatred and I didn't even expect her to be angry,"
Johnson said, "but I didn't know what to expect -- and I definitely
didn't expect to hear her say what she said."
Amy Alleman was succinct.
"Thank you," she said, "for introducing our family to the Army."
"It was so genuine," Johnson recalled. "I couldn't have been more touched."
'What I say and how I say it'
Johnson spent the days after Alleman's death sitting at his desk,
staring at his computer.
"I was pretty useless," he said.
After Amy Alleman's phone call, he got back to work.
"But what happened to Mike changed everything for me," he said.
"Right there, I stopped asking people to join the Army. The risks
were forefront in my mind. And so it completely changed what I say
and how I say it."
Johnson said he was never a particularly prolific recruiter. And as
he donned a silver bracelet bearing Alleman's name and began to speak
openly to potential recruits about his fallen friend, he expected he
might fall short of his monthly quotas.
But the change in how he handled his duties in the wake of Alleman's
death had an unexpected effect.
"I actually put in more people," he said. "And I put in more quality
people. I spent less time trying to convince people that the Army was
right for them and more time focusing on the people who really wanted
it. I want them to go because it was their own decision, not because
of anything I say to push them one way or the other."
Today, Johnson said, he's more of a facilitator than a recruiter.
More of a friend than a salesman.
With ongoing wars on two fronts and many challenges on the horizon,
Johnson will return to his combat role as an Army scout later this
year -- a transfer that likely will mean a return to war for the
He will go confident that the soldiers he's processing for enlistment
right now -- potential comrades in arms a few months down the road --
understand all the potential consequences of their service.
And should they fall in combat, he will know that they died as his
friend did -- as soldiers who went to war with their eyes wide open
and their hearts prepared.