Want to Die for Your Country?

Marine Corps recruiters need young, healthy New Yorkers to fight George Bush's war

When talking to potential recruits, V, who grew up in Forest Hills and was piling up debt at St. John's University when he left to join the Marines, emphasizes the educational benefits of the Corps, not the chances of going to Iraq. Still, V and his two fellow recruiters frequently have to push to "make mission," to reach their monthly recruiting quota. In December, they made their quota of five total recruits by a hair, with two—both recruited by V—signing up the day before deadline. Of the 14 substations in New York City and on Long Island, Hess's was the only one to make mission for the month.

Marine recruiting is more challenging today than during any of the major 20th-century conflicts, according to David Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland. The prospect of getting drafted by the Army to fight in the World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam led many who sought control over their military experience to enlist in the Marines. With the Iraq War increasingly unpopular and with no draft to serve as a foil, the Marine Corps failed to reach its recruiting goals for the first four months of 2005, the first time this had happened in a decade. Unlike the Army, which missed its overall 2005 goal by almost 7,000 recruits, the Marines rebounded to make its target for the year and hasn't missed a monthly goal since.

George Zacatelco
courtesy of the Zacatelco Family
photo: Greg Miller

Lawrence Korb, a fellow at the Center for American Progress and assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan Administration, says the Marine Corps' success is due to its smaller recruiting goals and to "a special élan" that appeals to recruits. Segal adds that the Corps assigns its very best noncommissioned officers to recruiting duty and rewards them with accelerated promotion.

Still, Marine recruitment is showing signs of strain. In August, the Corps announced the recall of up to 2,500 Marines who'd completed their tour of duty to serve in positions that couldn't be filled by volunteers. President Bush's proposed Iraq troop surge, as well as his proposal to increase the size of the Marine Corps by 23,000 over the next five years, would dramatically increase the burden on Marine recruiters.

At Recruiting Substation West Bronx, where Hess and V are based, both the élan and the potential crisis are apparent. The walls of their boxy main office, in a building at the intersection of East Fordham Road and Grand Concourse, feature hundreds of photos of newly minted Marines in dress uniforms alongside plaques citing the substation for being "First on Target" in April, May, and December of 2006, making mission before any other substation in the city or on Long Island.

Sergeant V says their success is due to teamwork, but demographics may also play a part. The station's territory is heavily Hispanic, as are the majority of its recruits, including George Zacatelco, whose parents are Mexican immigrants. While Hispanics have historically enlisted at low rates, the Marine Corps has made great progress in recruiting them, according to Segal. Sergeant V, of Colombian descent, speaks fluent Spanish, as do the station's two other recruiters, which helps them connect with potential recruits' parents.

But on a day in late June when V is pushing to make mission, a terse hortatory list in Staff Sergeant Hess's office tells a different story:

1. We must perform at a level which forces us to make all our missions before deadlines.

2. Currently we are not performing. WTF!

3. Make adjustments ASAP!

Hess, who volunteered to become a recruiter and worked as one for a year in Jamaica, Queens, before taking over the West Bronx office in 2003, says that recruiting is the hardest job in the Marine Corps. The demands of making mission have his recruiters working 12 to 15 hours a day, six days a week. They're on their own most of the time and face a constant stream of dispiriting rejection.

Hess says that Sergeant V hates being a recruiter, but V says he's gotten used to the job, though he'd prefer one that wouldn't require dealing with the public and would allow him to spend more time with his wife and young daughter. Still, he throws himself into the assignment. In addition to searching for new recruits, he has to keep tabs on his poolees. Many sign up while still in high school and spend months in the delayed-entry program before shipping to boot camp. If they aren't ready to ship on schedule, he has to recruit others to take their place. For some poolees, readying them to ship means accompanying them on errands such as getting a new Social Security card or signing up for summer school. For others, like George Zacatelco, it means working out with them to make sure they can pass the required fitness test.

It's a Friday afternoon in mid June, and George sits on a couch in his living room watching a DVD of Jarhead. The couch doubles as his bed, and there's little in the room's plain décor to mark it as his own. The window drapes are lace. Two shelves of an immense wall unit hold a smattering of his things: Old Spice, a photograph from his prom. The rest are packed with ornate dolls and photographs from his younger sister's quinceañera. (She shares the apartment's single bedroom with their parents.) Jarhead, about a Marine sniper platoon during the first Gulf War, came out shortly after George joined the delayed-entry program and was an instant hit among the poolees. "We burn the fat off our souls," they'll say, echoing one of its lines. They're also fond of advice on how to kill time in the desert, which features extensive masturbation along with debates on the meaning of life. The recruiters tell the poolees that Jarhead is dumb, that it casts the Marine Corps in a poor light. If anything, though, its warts-and-all portrayal only increases George's desire to be a Marine.

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