On a muggy Tuesday afternoon in August, Staff Sgt. Justin McDonald, a U.S. Army soldier with the Mid-Atlantic Recruiting Battalion, was piloting a government-issued Dodge minivan through northeast New Jersey, giving me a tour of his sector, when a man suddenly appeared in the road. He was tall and sinewy, wearing a bright red do-rag, and he had a pistol tucked into his waistband. Or at least that’s what I discerned through the fabric of his dirty white tank top. It could’ve been a water gun, or a banana. Whatever it was, he was clutching it with one hand while motioning for us to stop with the other.
“What the fuck does this guy want?” McDonald said to his two colleagues sitting in the back seat, cracking the window as he eased up on the gas. The occasional gesture of hostility goes with the territory — a routine professional liability when you’re trying to induct new Army recruits after 16 years of war, in one of the more economically challenged neighborhoods on the East Coast. But McDonald, a 29-year-old combat vet and native of Arizona, was in a scrappy mood. He repeated the question, but this time to the guy in the road, who responded by using both of his fists to smash the driver’s side mirror, sledgehammer-style.
After driving away, McDonald dutifully reported the incident to the police, and by the time we pulled up to the recruiting center located in a strip mall in East Orange, a city of public housing projects and dilapidated rowhouses in New Jersey’s Essex County, he had cast himself as the fearless hero of the story. “Y’all were so scared,” he teased the two other recruiters in the minivan, trying unsuccessfully to goad them into a friendly game of whose-balls-are-bigger.
I was there to observe McDonald and his colleagues as they went about the delicate business of identifying and enlisting the next generation of America’s war fighters. Despite the challenges, the East Orange arm of the Mid-Atlantic Recruiting Battalion’s Newark Company has quietly emerged as an unlikely success story at a time when the Army is struggling to grow its ranks at a record pace. I wanted to see how they did it. Before our conversation was interrupted by the guy in the red do-rag, McDonald had been letting me in on one of his secrets: playing Pokémon GO as a way to engage local youth in informal settings. “Not to brag or anything,” he said, “but I’m pretty good.”
Roughly 80,000 people reside in the area covered by the East Orange recruiting mission. The vast majority of those who’d even consider joining the Army don’t meet enlistment standards. To find the qualified few, the East Orange recruiters are constantly on the move. Like most recruiters in 2017, much of their time is spent interacting with prospective enlistees on Facebook and Snapchat. But it’s their efforts to engage the community on a much more personal level — frequenting basketball courts, bus stops, block parties, sporting events, mayors offices, and the projects — that account for the station’s almost overnight transformation from a failing operation to a case study in smart, ethical military recruiting.
“You guys did the right thing not kicking that guy’s ass,” said Sgt. 1st Class Joshua Haddock, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the center, after inspecting the damage in the parking lot. It had been a long, hot day. He looked at his watch. Almost time to go home.
Haddock wondered aloud if the guy had targeted the vehicle because he saw soldiers inside. But McDonald and the two other recruiters assured their boss the guy was crazy. It was a random attack, one of those things that just happens sometimes when you drive a minivan through “the hood.” Someone joked that I should procure body armor for my next visit.
McDonald and I hung back to smoke while the others went inside to start packing up for the day. A teenage boy cruised by on a neon pink bicycle that was too small for him, nodding to us as he passed. He had a serious, almost stern look on his face. Later, I met the kid, 18-year-old Khalif Ritchards, during one of Haddock’s weekly powwows for “future soldiers” and asked about the bike. It was his little sister’s, he explained, visibly embarrassed. The recruiters told me it was his only mode of transportation, and that he wouldn’t let them pick him up from his house. They weren’t sure why. But he never missed a meeting. Usually, he was the first recruit to arrive.
Since the draft was ended in 1973, recruiting has become one of the most important jobs in the military. For the Army, it’s imperative. While the Marine Corps prides itself on being lean, mean, and agile, and the Navy and Air Force increasingly rely on unmanned vehicles and long-range munitions, the Army’s greatest contribution to the battlefield is, and always has been, people. Roughly 70% of the nearly 7,000 U.S. troops killed so far in Iraq and Afghanistan were Army soldiers. Most were recruited through centers like the one in East Orange.
Headquartered in Fort Knox, Kentucky, U.S. Army Recruiting Command, or USAREC, manages the recruiting mission for the service’s active-duty and reserve components. It is a massive, ever-evolving operation involving approximately 12,500 military and civilian personnel spread across 1,400 recruiting centers in the United States and abroad, including in Europe and Guam. Roughly $4.6 billion of the Army’s $33.8 billion budget for fiscal year 2017 was allotted for recruiting and training new soldiers; $424 million of that was spent on bonuses alone. The Army also poured more than $289 million into television, radio, digital media, direct mail, and sports-related advertising campaigns. A lot of blood, sweat, and tears goes into keeping the ranks filled with qualified volunteers. The recruiting machine never stops.
The biggest factor in recruiting success is the health of the economy. Typically, when the unemployment rate goes up, so does the number of Americans wanting to join the military. Nonetheless, the more economically stressed, socioeconomic classes tend to be underrepresented in the armed forces. Although people in low-income neighborhoods are generally more inclined than their wealthier compatriots to enlist, fewer and fewer have the qualifications to serve. Rising standards are part of the reason. But so are a host of societal problems that tend to hit disenfranchised populations especially hard, such as increasing obesity rates and a public education system that disadvantages low-income zip codes.
Currently, only about 29% of Americans between the ages of 17–24 are eligible to serve. Disqualifiers include lack of a high-school diploma or GED; tattoos on the hand, face, or neck; a wide range of physical and mental-health problems; a history of illegal drug use, and a criminal record. All of which counts out a lot of the people in Haddock’s sector, a swath of neighborhoods that spans the hard divide between the black side of Essex County and the white. East Orange is home to a large concentration of Caribbean and West African immigrants, most of whom could be described as lower working class. But the East Orange center — which in March 2017 Haddock was handpicked to, as he put it, “revive” — also serves some of the most affluent communities in the region. For Army recruiters, it’s a suboptimal arrangement.
“The running joke where we recruit is that we’re the Cleveland Browns, because we always lose,” said Capt. Tim Roberts, the commander of the Newark Recruiting Company and Haddock’s boss. “But the Browns lose because they have a losing mindset. They have plenty of talent, as we do. Haddock went in there to change their mindset and give them his expertise. He’s a very efficient recruiter.”
Rangy and intense, Haddock has a bloodhound’s instinct for the job, though he didn’t sign up for it. He was tapped for recruiting in 2011 after four combat deployments — including three to Iraq — as an Apache crew chief and the leader of a downed aircraft recovery team. After a successful run recruiting in Michigan, Haddock made the rare decision to “go career,” as they say, switching his military occupational speciality (MOS) from AH-64 attack helicopter mechanic (MOS 15R) to permanent recruiter (MOS 79R). In East Orange, he inherited a team of seven recruiters, only two of whom volunteered for the job. The other five were voluntold. By early summer, the monthly rate of recruits inducted through the station surpassed anything in recent memory, and continued to climb. Even more impressive: They did it without resorting to predatory tactics.
“It’s not difficult to recruit those kids. It’s difficult to get in front of them.”
Since the mid-aughts, when thousands of recruiters faced allegations of so-called “recruiting improprieties,” the Army has gone to great lengths to crack down on unethical recruiting practices — such as fudging paperwork, purposefully overlooking blatant disqualifiers, helping recruits cheat on the entrance test, and lying to enlistees (telling them, for example, “You’ll never go to war”). But the temptation to bend the rules persists, increasing whenever the pressure on recruiters to fill quotas becomes greater. That’s the case now.
“The problem is that the Army didn’t just increase the mission, they increased the demand for quality recruits,” a recruiter told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “So a lot of guys are cutting corners. Usually it’s just to keep their bosses off their backs — to avoid an ass chewing. It’s hard to flat-out lie when everyone has access to Google in their pockets, so they tell half-truths, which are still lies. Like, if a kid wants to join the reserve for college money, the recruiter will neglect to mention that the education benefits don’t kick in until a year after they sign their contract. That kind of stuff.”
However, among the East Orange recruiters, honesty isn’t just expected; it’s the foundation of their entire approach. In 2015, Lt. Col. Edward Croot, a Special Forces officer who commanded the Mid-Atlantic Recruiting Battalion until about five months ago, laid the groundwork for an ambitious strategy to reverse recruiting trends in the Northeast, which is the most challenging environment for recruiters in the country. Croot believed history was to blame: Over decades of dwindling participation in the armed forces, Northeasterners had grown vastly disconnected from the military. To mend the gap — to reacquaint people in the region with the organization fighting wars on their behalf — Croot opted for aggressive transparency. Recruiters would need to spend as much time as possible “outside the wire,” educating the masses about military service. In other words, they’d need to make the Army familiar.
“If every American was fully informed about the military — if they were aware of all of the job options, and all of the benefits — we wouldn’t need to recruit because people would just be lining up to join,” Croot’s successor, Lt. Col. Keith Bryant, who is also a Green Beret, told me. “A recruiting center in, say, Fayetteville, North Carolina, is basically a sweatshop with all the recruits they’re processing into the Army. Up here, you have to be a lot more creative.”
Green Berets are prized for their ingenuity. They adapt quickly, leveraging foreign-language skills, American dollars, and contextual knowledge of the battlefield to partner with indigenous forces and broker strategic alliances with local leaders. They’ve run point in the War on Terror since American boots first hit the ground in Afghanistan in 2001. And now they’re playing a prominent role in the Army’s recruiting mission, especially in areas of the country where recruiters have historically floundered. Half of the battalion commanders in the 1st Recruiting Brigade, which oversees all of the centers in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions, have special operations backgrounds.
Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow, the head of U.S. Army Recruiting Command, told me that “13 or 14” of his 44 recruiting battalions — or nearly 30% — are commanded by Special Forces officers (though Green Berets account for only about 5% of Army personnel). It hasn’t always been this way. A few years ago, the Army granted USAREC access to the pool of Green Berets officers in need of “battalion command time.” It was a mutually beneficial arrangement: Green Berets would get their chance to lead a battalion, of which there are very few in Special Operations Command, and USAREC would get, well, Green Berets. “Special Forces officers have an advantage, because their very mission is to work amongst the people and they are accustomed to working in a decentralized fashion, and [recruiting] epitomizes that,” Snow said.
Bryant agrees. “I don’t think any other branch is more suited for recruiting than Special Forces,” he told me.
Special Forces have largely influenced the evolution of Army doctrine since the start of the War on Terror. In early 2007, after it had become clear that conventional infantry tactics were only making the situation in Iraq worse, troops were dispersed to small outposts in neighborhoods across the country and ordered to — as the Special Forces idiom goes — “work by, with, and through” the local population to quell the insurgency. The strategy is widely credited with turning the Iraq War around. It was then replicated in Afghanistan.
“Think of counterinsurgency as an argument to earn the support of the people,” reads a 2009 memorandum to coalition troops in Afghanistan authored by Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Members of the local population, he continued, “watch, listen, and make rational choices based on who can better protect them, provide their needs, respect their dignity and their community, and offer opportunities for the future.”
McChrystal might as well have been writing the guidelines for the recruiting strategy conceived by Croot and implemented with modest but incremental success by the inheritors of his vision. “Before Col. Croot, the entire state of New Jersey just thought that we are out to get their kids and send them off to war to die,” said Roberts. When he interviewed for the job of Newark company commander earlier this year, Roberts told Croot that he’d rather induct three qualified recruits than a dozen who didn’t meet the standard. That was the right answer.
“When Croot came in, he saw everyone sitting in their stations expecting people to come to them, but if you don’t understand the complex environment you’re working in, and if you’re not out there making an impact on the community, everyone is still going to think you’re that predatory recruiter,” Roberts continued. “People aren’t going to trust you until they realize you’re going to help them and that you care about their community. Why are they going to listen to you if you don’t listen to them back?”
Staff Sgt. Herbenson Duvelsaint, 28, recalls the East Orange of his childhood as a rough place, a city rife with drugs and gang violence, that clung like quicksand to kids trying to leave — kids like him. “If you can make it out of here, you can make it anywhere,” Duvelsaint told me when I asked him to list the pros and cons of East Orange. That was the only pro.
Duvelsaint had every intention of leaving town for good when he enlisted in the Army, but word that he’d been tapped for recruiting duty after his last deployment to Afghanistan made its way to his old high-school teacher, a sergeant major in the Army Reserve. Duvelsaint had requested an assignment in Miami, but the teacher pulled some strings. Now he recruits out of the same center where he was inducted seven years ago. Initially frustrated by the assignment, Duvelsaint eventually developed a profound sense of purpose. “I’ve been searching for my passion for 10 or 11 years, and this year I found it,” he said. “I’m passionate about helping young people.”
Tall and lean with a boyish face and a breezy demeanor, Duvelsaint immigrated from Haiti with his mother and younger siblings when he was 8. He is by far Haddock’s most successful recruiter, enlisting applicants at roughly twice the average rate of his East Orange colleagues. On any given day, he can be found shuttling prospective recruits around in a blue Dodge minivan, a happy chauffeur for a growing rolodex of local youths for whom he’s become both a role model and a conduit to a better life. I sat shotgun for a few hours as they cycled through, some en route to the center, others just catching a ride across town. Many, like Duvelsaint, were immigrants. One had recently lost a family member to criminal violence in Essex County and was considering the Army as a stepping stone to a career as a prosecutor. Another wanted to enlist to follow in the footsteps of her mother, whom Duvelsaint had recruited into the Army several months before. Their aspirations varied, but they all seemed driven by a sense of urgency, as if they perceived walls closing in around them.
The cold pitch has long been the go-to tactic for military recruiters, and it can yield plenty of success in places where there’s a surplus of qualified prospective recruits. However, in areas that tend to hold young people back, where the way up and out abounds with obstacles, a pamphlet and a signing bonus usually won’t cut it. A 17-year-old kid with a substandard education and an abusive parent has plenty of incentive to enlist. The real challenge is convincing him that joining the Army is worth the extra hardship — the weekend study sessions, and the physical fitness routines, and the stern lectures from those within his community who’ve witnessed or experienced how the military exploited disadvantaged populations in the past.
“Most of these parents grew up in the Cold War era, and in the shadow of Vietnam,” Bryant said. “They don’t realize that the Army isn’t what it once was. And commercials and slogans aren’t going to cut it. Changing perceptions of the uniform requires recruiters out there every day busting their humps.”
So rather than wait for people to come to them, the East Orange recruiters make themselves ubiquitous. Instead of hiding behind the uniform, they do their best to humanize it. They apply a sociological lens to their surroundings, identifying and forging alliances with community leaders, educators, and officials who are sympathetic to their mission — or at least to the idea of helping young people better their lives, even if it means risking them in the process. And they keep their own politics and prejudices out of it. Progress is measured in contracts. Every new enlistment is a point on the board. But for the Army, real success isn’t a good month, or even a good year. The stakes are much higher.
Bryant believes the Army could keep its ranks filled by focusing on a handful of states, most of them south of the Mason-Dixon line, while paying extra attention to communities within those states that have formed around military installations. Current trends support this view: Of the newest crop of Army recruits, half came from just seven states; 79% had relatives who served. The military has become increasingly — some would even add dangerously — insular since the advent of the all-volunteer force. As the journalist Thomas E. Ricks noted in a 1997 article for The Atlantic titled The Widening Gap Between Military and Society, this trend toward homogeneity was likely accelerated by the closing of dozens of bases and installations following the end of the Cold War, which significantly reduced the military’s footprint in the West and Northeast.
“You can kind of draw a smiley face from North Carolina around the southern United States halfway up California, and that’s where the majority of [military] post, camps, and stations are,” Snow said. “Youth who have more interaction with those in uniform tend to [be more likely to enlist].” Could the Army shutter its recruiting centers in the Northeast and still meet its quotas? Snow suspects it could. “But then we’re getting away from the very principles that we pride ourselves on, and that’s that we are a microcosm of society,” he added.
This notion — that the ranks should mirror the population they serve — has guided U.S. military policy since the post-War era. President Harry Truman ordered the military to desegregate in 1948, 16 years before the Civil Rights Act. It wasn’t a moral decision, but a pragmatic one. After reviewing a survey of white soldiers who had fought alongside black soldiers in Europe, Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights concluded that diversity in the military would strengthen not only the military but the country as a whole. “By preventing entire groups from making their maximum contribution to the national defense, we weaken our defense to that extent and impose heavier burdens on the remainder of the population,” the report stated. And at a time when the nation is increasingly riven by political, economic and ethnic divisions, the military remains, at heart, devoted to preserving the Union. How long that dynamic will persist if recruits continue to be drawn in overwhelming numbers from conservative leaning communities remains to be seen.
“It’s not healthy for a democracy to have all of its soldiers coming from a very small pool,” Bryant said. “America needs its military to be culturally diverse. Sometimes that means black, white, Latino, and Asian. Sometimes that means north, south, east, and west. They are both equally important.”
As the head of the U.S. Army Mid-Atlantic Recruiting Battalion, Bryant oversees 38 centers managed by eight different recruiting companies strewn across the greater Philadelphia area and New Jersey, including the one headquartered in Newark. Two years ago, the Bloomfield center, which Haddock was running with a staff of 18 recruiters, was dissolved and split into three teams “so we could focus more on our communities,” Haddock said. In March 2017, he took over the station in East Orange. That same month, the Army ramped up its recruiting efforts to grow the total force by 28,000 in six months — 6,000 more troops than what was originally planned. It was, they said, the “largest mission increase in the history of the all-volunteer force,” and they met the goal. The Army has set its sights even higher for 2018, aiming to induct 80,000 active-duty recruits over the next fiscal year.
Looking ahead, Bryant sees the Newark area as essential to his ability to meet mission. “It needs to be my powerhouse,” he said. But can it be?
On the night of July 12, 1967, John William Smith, a cabdriver, was pulled over for a minor traffic violation in Newark, the seat of Essex County. Smith was black. The two officers who arrested Smith, beat him, and then dragged him into the Fourth Police Precinct house were white. There were witnesses, lots of them. And then there were rumors. Word that the cops had beaten Smith to death raced across town like a lit fuse (they had not). Like many densely populated American cities in the 1960s, Newark was a powderkeg of racial tensions. It exploded.
Over the next several days, thousands of rioters, most of whom were black, clashed with a predominantly white police force. On the morning of July 14, as gun battles erupted and snipers fired down at cops from apartment windows and rooftops, New Jersey National Guard troops — many brandishing rifles with fixed bayonets — were called in to quell the violence. Instead, they fueled it. “The police used so much ammunition that 20 cases of rifle cartridges were borrowed from nearby Union City,” The New York Times reported on July 16 in an article that referred to the rioters as “terrorists.”
By the time the dust settled, much of the city was in ruins. Entire blocks had burned to the ground. Upward of 700 people were injured in the fighting. 26 were killed. The names of the dead are etched into a granite monument that sits on a small patch of grass in Newark known as Rebellion Park.
More than half a century later, the battle lines have hardly faded. Today, Essex County, which is home to roughly 800,000 people condensed into 22 tightly clustered municipalities, has the most extreme income disparity in New Jersey (and it’s growing). And the physical boundaries between rich and poor hew closely to the ones between black and white. Driving west from Newark, through places like Maplewood, South Orange, and Montclair, median household incomes leap by more than $70,000 in a matter of just a few miles and continue to climb as the neighborhoods become whiter. East Orange and neighboring Irvington, which together account for the majority of recruits inducted through Haddock’s center, are more than 85% black. The percentage hovers around 1% in North Caldwell, the county’s richest borough.
Sometimes, in not so subtle ways, the boundaries are enforced. Last year, police officers were filmed beating a group of black teenagers after a fight broke out at a Fourth of July party in the upper-middle-class township of Maplewood. Four of the teens were arrested. Dozens of cops then mobilized in the streets and herded the rest of the crowd across the border into Irvington, though none of the kids taken into custody were from there. The sweep was coordinated with the police departments in all of the surrounding municipalities. “Maintain our border, maintain our border,” a Maplewood officer said in a radio transmission later made public.
It was not an isolated incident. Several months earlier, a three-year U.S. Department of Justice investigation concluded that the Newark Police Department had engaged “in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional stops, arrests, use of excessive force and theft by officers,” and that its “law enforcement practices had a disparate impact on minorities in Newark.” The city subsequently reached a settlement with the Justice Department to implement a slew of reforms and a federal monitor was appointed to supervise and assess the progress. Essex County has one of the highest crime rates in the state.
In that context, a broken side mirror hardly rates mention.
The Trump National Golf Course, a 600-acre oasis of world-class luxury nestled amid the flowering dogwoods and rolling hills of New Jersey’s horse country, is about a 30-minute drive from East Orange. It was there that on Aug. 8, during a 17-day “working vacation” from the White House, President Donald Trump surprised a roomful of reporters — and his own cabinet — with an improvised threat to launch a military strike on North Korea. “[They] best not make any more threats to the United States,” Trump said, reacting to reports that Pyongyang had developed nuclear warheads small enough to fit on ballistic missiles. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
Meanwhile, in the East Orange recruiting center, where a portrait of the commander-in-chief hangs on the wall, 34-year-old Staff Sgt. Nasteshia Robinson was hard at work, doing her part to ensure that if and when war resumes on the Korean peninsula there will be a sufficient supply of troops to fight it.
Jesus, the Miami Heat and Dolphins, and the United States Army: Robinson, is fiercely devoted to them all. A native of northwest Miami-Dade County, one of the roughest neighborhoods in south Florida, she could count the number of conversations she’d had with a white person on one hand when she shipped to basic training two months before the Sept. 11 terror attacks. She is the newest member of Haddock’s team, and the only recruiter who specifically requested duty in East Orange. Whitney Houston, her idol, grew up here. (“She’s the only person to make the National Anthem go platinum twice!” Robinson informed me.) Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean, Queen Latifah, and all three members of Naughty by Nature are also on the long list of black and African-American icons who’ve called this scrappy town 15 miles west of Manhattan home.
Robinson was preparing to break for lunch when the phone rang. It was one of her new recruits, a young mother of two who was preparing to sign an active-duty enlistment contract. She was calling from Newark airport, where she and her children were preparing to board a plane. The decision to leave town had been made that morning, after the woman’s boyfriend beat her up. The abuse, she said, had been escalating since she started the enlistment process. “Do what you need to do, and take care of yourself,” Robinson said. “The Army can wait.” But the woman wasn’t looking for an out. Her plan, she explained, was to drop the kids off with her mother in Florida, and then come straight back to Jersey, at which point she’d need to be on the first flight to basic training. Sticking around wasn’t an option. It’d be too dangerous.
The phone call left Robinson in a pensive mood. The young woman had first approached her with tears in her eyes after a presentation on the Army’s nursing program at a local for-profit vocational school. Robinson immediately recognized the signs of abuse. She had seen them before, witnessed how swiftly they can progress into the unimaginable. Only two years ago, Robinson’s mother was murdered on the outskirts of Fort Lauderdale. Police found her body under a pile of clothes in a vacant hotel room. According to one local news report, her wrists and ankles were bound together with belts “in a manner that would prevent her from being able to flee or defend herself.” Her boyfriend told a 911 dispatcher that he had choked her to death.
“There was some concern that the case would be a distraction when I started recruiting, but it’s actually been a motivator,” Robinson said over lunch at a Korean restaurant several miles from the center. “The kids here ask me all of the time: Does the Army care about you? I tell them, yes, it does. It absolutely does.” Robinson couldn’t afford to pay for her mother’s funeral. The Army footed the bill.
One of the biggest challenges of recruiting is figuring out which version of the Army to pitch to whom. For every patriot who marches into a recruiting center prepared to lay down his life for God and country, there are many more who come in search of adventure, or a steady paycheck, or college money, or citizenship, or self-esteem, or simply a quick exit out of a bad situation. A comprehensive analysis of recruiting trends published by the Naval Postgraduate School in 2015 found that, while the “propensity to enlist” rate surged “because of the patriotic factor” after the Sept. 11 attacks, it returned to almost pre-9/11 levels the following year.
“It’s not healthy for a democracy to have all of its soldiers coming from a very small pool. America needs its military to be culturally diverse. Sometimes that means black, white, Latino, and Asian. Sometimes that means north, south, east, and west. They are both equally important.”
Since then, as before, interest in enlisting has mostly aligned with fluctuations in the labor market. The 2007–2009 recession was a windfall for recruiting, despite the fact it occurred while the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were still raging. Now, with unemployment hovering around 4.1%, recruiters have “got our work cut out for us,” as Snow put it in October.
To alleviate some of the pressure, the Army could do what it always does when its popularity takes a hit: Recruit more heavily from the margins. Perhaps the most appalling example of this in modern history occurred during the Vietnam War. In 1966, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara launched a program called Project 100,000, which dramatically loosened mental standards for recruits. Roughly 354,000 low-I.Q. men were inducted into the military as a result. In Vietnam, they died at a rate three times higher than other G.I.s. Their fellow troops dubbed them “McNamara’s Morons.”
The tactic was revived again during the bloodiest years of the Iraq War, when the Pentagon doubled the number of Category Four soldiers — military applicants who score in the lowest third on the Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery test (ASVAB) — allowed into the ranks. Many so-called “moral waivers” were also granted to enlistees with criminal records. One of those, Steven Dale Green, a high-school dropout from rural Texas, was among a group of 101st Airborne soldiers who in 2006 gang-raped and murdered a teenage girl in Mahmudiyah, Iraq, and killed her entire family. And in July 2007, The New York Times reported that nearly 12% of Army recruits who entered basic training that year required moral waivers, including some who’d been convicted of felonies “such as arson, burglary, aggravated assault, [and] breaking and entering.”
Over the years, multiple Pentagon-sponsored studies on military performance have concluded that smarter people make better soldiers.
In October 2017, USA Today ran an article titled Army is accepting more low-quality recruits, giving waivers for marijuana to hit targets. Only part of that is true. Using waivers and bureaucratic loopholes to finagle unqualified recruits into the ranks and meet quotas is becoming less and less of an option. While the Army is more willing than ever to let past marijuana use slide, a lot of things that might have been overlooked several years ago are now considered deal-breakers.
In recent months, the Army has been rolling out policies that make it more difficult for immigrants who are legal permanent residents to enlist, citing nebulous security concerns. Green-card holders constitute more than 13% percent of the U.S. population, and upward of 100,000 have served in the military since the start of the War on Terror. Many have been killed and wounded in combat. The recent suspension of the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest, or MAVNI, program, which promised fast-tracked citizenship to entice immigrants with rare language and technical skills into the ranks, left a lot of recruits in limbo. At the East Orange center, I met Abiodun Awonusi, a 29-year-old graduate student from Nigeria. She had enlisted as a generator mechanic in March 2016 through the program before it was abruptly suspended later that year, and she’d been waiting for the Army to process her background check ever since.
The Washington Post reported in June that 1,000 foreign-born recruits had lost their immigration status and could face deportation as a result of the program’s suspension. Awonusi seemed at risk of becoming one of them. “Joining the MAVNI program lets the immigration officials know that you intend to stay in the U.S.,” she said. Enlisting, she explained, had rendered her ineligible to apply for other, more easily obtainable visas, such as for school. She now relies on what little money her family can supply her to make ends meet. “There’s not a lot I can do. I’m not legally allowed to work.”
How the Army intends to meet its 2018 recruiting goals remains a mystery to me. Fiscal year 2017, which ended in October, saw a slight increase in the number of Category Four recruits allowed into the ranks from the previous several years. The Army met its active-duty and National Guard quotas, but fell short by 1,000 recruits for the reserve, in part due to the suspension of the MAVNI program, according to The Washington Post. (Kelli Bland, the head of USAREC public affairs, told Task & Purpose that a shortage of recruiters was to blame.) Now, very few Category Fours are being accepted into the Army. Some centers, I’m told, have stopped recruiting them altogether. The Army has also greatly increased the demand for recruits who score well on the ASVAB (50 or above out of 99). When I joined in 2006, the door was pretty much wide open to anyone who cleared 31.
Standards haven’t just risen; they’ve jumped. A recruiter told Task & Purpose in mid-November that the Army is focusing on enlisting as many high-quality recruits as possible because it has determined that growing the ranks as fast as Washington wants it to is simply impossible. “[USAREC] is saying if that you’re going to miss the mission, we want you to miss the mission because you didn’t enlist [any low-quality recruits],” he said. I asked Snow point blank if the Army would hit its 2018 target. “I fully hope that it does,” he replied. “Candidly, it’s a very challenging mission. Do I have concerns? Yes. Do I think we’re up to the task? I do.”
The Army’s recruiting objective is two-pronged. There’s a “volume mission” and a “quality mission.” According to Pentagon-mandated quality benchmarks at least 90% of enlistees must have high-school diplomas, at least 60% must score above 50 on the ASVAB, and no more than 4% can fall into Category Four. In fiscal year 2017, the active-duty Army beat its volume goal by nearly 400 recruits while also managing to exceed the quality standards in each category. To do this, the Army shelled out $140 million more in enlistment bonuses than it did in 2016, and increased the number of marijuana waivers from 191 to 506. Only about 2% of the new recruits required moral waivers.
Snow wants to see the percentage of Category Fours drop below 1% in fiscal year 2018. “It has been 17 or 18 years since we’ve accomplished [an active duty recruiting] mission of this magnitude and actually done it consistent with the Department of Defense quality benchmarks,” he said. “Although we want to make the numbers on both sides [volume and quality], if it means we have to cut corners on quality, we are not going to do it.”
Most people would probably agree that raising enlistment standards is a good thing, but from a certain vantage point it seems ludicrously optimistic. The Army has made great strides over 16 years of asymmetrical warfare, maturing into a smarter, better balanced, and more efficient force. But the same can’t be said of the country as a whole. Since the ‘80s, obesity rates in the United States have soared. Overweight is now the number-one medical disqualifier for military service. The problem is significant enough that the nonprofit health policy organization Trust for America’s Health declared it “a national security issue.”
No less disconcerting is the lack of mental fitness among military-aged Americans. A 2016 Gallup analysis determined that diminishing access to quality education was largely to blame for a gradual but significant decline in U.S. economic growth since the ‘70s and ‘80s. According to a report published last year by the Stanford Graduate School of Education, there’s a massive gap in education levels that directly correlates to the disparity between rich and poor.
Army recruiting is aimed squarely at the middle class. That’s where the majority of today’s service members come from. But the middle class is shrinking. Which means the unique challenges currently faced by recruiters operating in areas where income inequality is especially stark may end up becoming more common. “The ASVAB is what stops us dead in our tracks,” a recruiter told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “What this job has shown me is that the education system is broken. If kids aren’t getting a sufficient education, and we’re not budging on requirements, the Army is setting itself up for failure.”
In August, Maj. Gen. Malcolm Frost, the commander of the Army Center for Initial Military Training, employed a culinary metaphor to describe changes in the quality of new recruits over the course of his career. “You just see less of a population that’s inclined to execute and do things that are physical and sports-related,” he told me. Adding, “It’s almost like when you or I came in, you’re a marinated steak and all they had to do is throw you on the grill and you were good to go. Cook you and you’re a soldier. Now, we’re getting kind of frozen steaks, or sometimes you feel like you gotta go to the pasture and you gotta get the cow, kill the cow, slaughter it, process it, bring it in, freeze the steak, thaw it. … What we’re finding is that there has to be more time and attention paid to them.”
“I really didn’t think it was going to be this tough. … but here race factors into everything.”
I’ve heard this complaint before, aimed at myself and my peers when we entered the Army more than a decade ago. Then we turned around and made the same complaint about the soldiers who enlisted after us. Old guys disdain new guys. That’s just how the world works. The recruits I saw rotate through the East Orange center didn’t strike me as lazy, entitled post-millennial-grade frozen ribeyes. Quite the opposite, really. There was Omari Easton, who arrived at the center dressed in a crisp, white oxford button-down. A 25-year-old college graduate, Easton was applying for Officer Candidate School — “for the opportunity, the challenge, the educational benefits, and getting my student loans repaid,” he explained. His family was adamantly opposed to his decision to enlist. “They say, ‘It’s a Republican White House, be careful,” he said. “And, ‘What are you hoping to get out of this? Don’t you see all of the homeless veterans? Do you want to end up that way?’”
Renieal Campbell, an 18-year-old East Orange native, had just enlisted in the Reserve as MOS 94E, radio and communications security repairer, when we met. The job wasn’t her first choice, but the Reserve wasn’t offering anything more appealing when it came time to sign the contract. “College is really important to me,” she said, “and I didn’t have enough money to pay for it.” She had her future mapped out, every inch of it: Army, Monmouth College, a career as a behavioral analyst with the FBI. “I don’t want to stay in East Orange and become another statistic,” she said. “I want to be successful, have a bright future, and still manage to be a leader at the same time. And then come back to this city and say, ‘Look, I made it out of here and you can do it, too.’”
Of course, Easton and Campbell constitute a very limited sampling. My observations don’t negate Frost’s assessment. The number of Americans willing and able to serve is diminishing — and not just in Essex County, but everywhere. “Recruiting has definitely become more difficult,” Haddock said. “I’ve seen this trend progress over the years and across the different places I’ve recruited. But when the population becomes less qualified, you just have to talk to more people. That’s the bottom line.”
In 2009, an Army investigation into a cluster of suicides at a recruiting battalion in Houston concluded that stress was a major factor. As a result, the Army took measures to reduce the intense pressure recruiters were under to meet individual monthly quotas, which had earned the job a reputation as one of the worst in the military. Now, instead of individual quotas, the Army sets a monthly target number for each station and recruiters are expected to work together to “meet mission.” As station commander, Haddock approaches his role as a coach, focusing on strategy, mentorship, and resource allocation while encouraging the members of his team to think outside of the box. Only about 35% of recruiters actually volunteered for the assignment.
One who didn’t is McDonald. An MP by trade, whose experience includes a 12-month tour in Kandahar City, Afghanistan, amid President Barack Obama’s troop surge, he has struggled to adapt to the job, which is typically a three-year assignment for those who don’t choose to make a career of it. “I really didn’t think it was going to be this tough,” he said. “Racism isn’t a big thing on the West Coast, but here, race factors into everything.”
McDonald grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where he and and his brother were raised by a single mother in a trailer park. He is tall and gregarious with closely cropped blonde hair and pale blue eyes. Of all the East Orange recruiters, he is the furthest from home geographically, and perhaps also culturally. Where you go and what you do in the Army is often determined by luck. McDonald admits he’s never quite sure how to respond when people tell him they don’t want to fight in a white man’s army, but he doesn’t see a lot of sense in arguing. “If that is how they truly feel, and they do not want to view the world in a different context, then I do not think they should be in a uniform,” he told me.
One morning, I joined McDonald and Staff Sgt. Hilton George, a native of Grenada who grew up in Brooklyn, on a trip to Irvington High School, where every morning students line up to pass through a row of metal detectors manned by a cadre of security guards. Some of the recruiters have started waiting until kids here enter their senior year before engaging them in earnest, because until that point the chances of them dropping out of school or getting arrested for a violent crime are simply too high. One of Haddock’s prospective recruits went to jail for murder. Meanwhile, interviews I conducted with several students painted a picture of a chaotic environment where fistfights are frequent and kids are awarded good grades for simply staying out of trouble.
After pulling into the parking lot, McDonald and George beelined to a trio of teenagers relaxing in the shade of a tree across the street from the school, where summer classes were in session. The teens regarded the approaching recruiters with stoic indifference. They’d clearly done this dance before. McDonald and George rattled off the usual questions: What are your plans for the future? Thinking of college? How are you going to pay for tuition?
“What do you think we do in the Army — pick up guns and shoot people?” George finally asked. One of the kids said, yeah, he’d heard there was a war going on and that soldiers were dying. He said he liked guns, but only when he was the one pulling the trigger. He didn’t like being shot at. Pass. “The Army isn’t me, period,” said another. “I’m thinking about it,” said the third, explaining that his father had been a Marine. But, really, he just wanted to get out of Irvington, which he described as “terrible, just terrible.”
The median ASVAB score in Haddock’s sector is 35, four points above passing and 16 points below what the Army considers “quality.” One of Robinson’s recruits recently scored an 8 on a practice version of the test, twice. Such scores are not uncommon.
Recruiters are prohibited from helping prospective recruits study for the test, but the military does provide a free online self-learning program called March2Success. Unfortunately, few recruits in the area possess the study habits necessary to take advantage of it, and the recruiters have found that parents can hardly be relied upon as sources of motivation and discipline. So Haddock’s team has devised an informal peer mentorship program, matching kids who perform well on the test with ones who are struggling. For example, Ijah Mclean, a recent high-school graduate weeks away from enlisting, had assumed responsibility for mentoring his friend, Ali Solomon. Mclean got a call from Solomon the afternoon I met him. We were in the minivan with Duvelsaint. Solomon said his father wanted to meet Duvelsaint — not at some point in the future, but immediately. Pitching the Army to a teenager is one thing. The odds of recruitment can drop significantly when parents get involved.
Charlie Solomon — or Mr. Solomon, as he prefers to be called — was standing in his front yard when we pulled up. He was wearing a flat-brimmed ball cap and his work uniform, the silver and neon yellow jersey worn by employees of the Port Authority. A convicted felon, Solomon spent 15 years behind bars before stepping away from crime for good to “better my life,” he said. It wasn’t prison that changed him so much as the death of his 23-year-old son, Ali’s brother, who was killed several years ago in a drive-by shooting. All of this was relayed to Duvelsaint within minutes of their meeting, which, it turned out, Solomon had arranged because he didn’t believe his son was actually trying to join the Army. “I appreciate y’all coming forward, because I didn’t know what he was doing,” he said. “He’s not a violent child, but when he’s out there, it bothers me.”
Then, turning to Ali, Solomon added, “Don’t give me the lies.”
That seemed to be his biggest concern: Ali was growing up, becoming less dependent, more difficult to manage. The son stood silently by as his father enumerated his myriad defects: laziness, a lack of respect for his elders, a perpetually messy room. Duvelsaint could hardly get a word in, but it didn’t matter. The more Solomon spoke, the more he became convinced that the Army was indeed the best option for his son. He even went so far as to encourage Duvelsaint to make an appearance at Ali’s upcoming surprise birthday party. The more kids he could recruit from the neighborhood, Solomon reasoned, the better for everyone. “They need to go out to Iraq and do everything out there instead of trying to kill their own people,” he said. “Once these gangs get your child, forget about it.”
There’s a wall in the recruiting center lined with photographs of all the recruits the team inducted so far this year. Nearly every one of them is black, although white people account for nearly half the population in Essex County. The disparity isn’t intentional. Recruiters have worked tirelessly to forge inroads on the other side of the socioeconomic divide, but the resistance is firmly entrenched. Staff Sgt. Dylan Ryan, a 28-year-old infantryman from Long Island who will take over the center when Haddock leaves for another recruiting assignment in mid-December, scheduled a meeting with a guidance counselor at the public high school in Glen Ridge nearly two months in advance only to be told the counselor was unavailable right when it was set to begin. For all their success in the East Orange area, the western part of the county remains a nut that Haddock and his recruiters have yet to figure out how to crack.
Nasteshia Robinson remembers a time when she wouldn’t dare step foot in a place like Montclair, a quaint Essex County township of colonial-era homes and tree-lined streets that are smooth as glass. The public education system is no less pristine. Montclair High School is housed in a majestic brick building replete with four gymnasiums and its own amphitheater, through which a brook gently meanders. Robinson feigned interest as the school secretary gave her a crash course on the institution’s illustrious history (Buzz Aldrin is an alumnus, as are actress Christina Ricci, former U.S. Poet Laureate Richard Wilbur, Giants’ wide receiver David Tyree, and Eagles’ guitarist Joe Walsh). It was an awkward exchange. Robinson had come to request a business card from the principal, who had told her to wait just a moment and then vanished for good.
On Robinson’s right shoulder is the insignia for the 21st Military Police Company (Airborne), which she earned by deploying with the unit to Iraq as a culinary specialist twice. She’s immensely proud of her service with the 21st MPs, but the highlight of her career was cooking at the White House for President Barack Obama, whom she affectionately refers to as “Forty-Four.” While waiting for the business card that never came, Robinson recounted the story to several school administrators. This is her success story, and she’s told it a lot in East Orange, where it tends to make a strong impression. In the career counselor’s office, however, it did not. “Forty-four?” one of the administrators asked, to which Robinson replied: “Obama. President Barack Obama.” A moment of silence followed as the administrator struggled to muster an enthusiastic response.
We bumped into the school’s vice principal on our way out. I asked her if she’d be up for a video interview. “We’re used to camera crews around here,” she said. “This is Montclair.” Then she politely declined.
A 2015 Harvard survey of Americans under the age of 30 found that, while 47% of respondents supported the use of ground troops in the campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, 85% said they would “probably not” or “definitely not” join the military. This paradoxical mentality is what Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was referring to when he said during a speech at Duke University in 2010 that “for a growing number of Americans, service in the military, no matter how laudable, has become something for other people to do.” Gates was campaigning for a return of ROTC programs to Ivy League universities, many of which severed their relationships with the military amid student protests of the Vietnam War. Roughly 60% of all new Army officers come through ROTC programs, which are funded by the Army.
As the era of the all-volunteer force dawned, recruiting efforts shifted focus to places where people generally have a more favorable view of the military. The brass was happy to let the Ivy League go, in part because it’s simply more difficult to wage open-ended wars — especially grossly mismanaged ones — when the elite have real skin in the game.
The Pentagon likes to boast that the armed forces have increasingly reflected the country’s racial and ethnic diversity since desegregating in the ‘40s. That’s true. However, Bryant was right: The physical divide between those who serve and those who would never consider it is growing. The veteran population in the South is currently increasing while it’s decreasing in the more densely populated Northeast, which consistently posts the lowest enlistment percentages of the country’s four main regions. And wealthy communities everywhere are still underrepresented. Is that intentional? It certainly was in the beginning. Acceptable? More than ever. Montclair High School folded its JROTC program several years ago — “because of budget issues,” the school secretary told me. I was skeptical. JROTC programs are partly funded by the Department of Defense. Meanwhile, the Montclair High rowing team has its very own state-of-the-art indoor training facility and a freshly renovated club boathouse on the Passaic River with a 2,800-foot deck.
A key component of the Army’s recruitment efforts in the Northeast is a program called Military Opportunities Day, which Croot pioneered as part of his push for more transparency. The idea is that in communities like Montclair, educators pose the biggest obstacle to accession, intentionally shielding students from recruiters to keep them focused on preparing for college. College preparedness factors heavily into high school rankings. “It’s not difficult to recruit those kids,” Bryant said. “It’s difficult to get in front of them.” Over the past year, recruiters have hosted more than 150 Military Opportunities Days — 45-minute informative, no-strings-attached mass presentations — at high schools across New Jersey with the ultimate goal of presenting to every public school student in the state. It’s too soon to measure the success of the program, but early results have been promising enough for USAREC to expand it into other regions. “Just to be clear: I am not interested in coopting young men and women into joining the Army,” Snow said. “I just want them to make an informed decision.”
Driving from Montclair to East Orange, the breadth of the American experience unfurled like a moving panorama outside the window. The houses grew shoddier, the yards smaller, the roads bumpier, the skin darker. Robinson’s phone beeped. It was one of the JROTC cadets at Irvington High School, thanking her for stopping by. Robinson showed me the text, a smile on her face. “This job is about a lot more than putting up numbers,” she said, as if reminding herself.
“If you can make it out of here, you can make it anywhere.”
Earlier, Robinson and Duvelsaint had visited Irvington High, where the cadets were rehearsing for an upcoming ceremony.
The Irvington High School JROTC program, the oldest in New Jersey, is run by Harvey Craig, a retired Army sergeant first class, and Crosby Munro, a retired Army major who first enlisted during Vietnam. There are about 200 cadets in the program. Statistically, about a third will join the military. Those who don’t are “required” to either go to college or get a job as soon as they graduate. “Our mission is simple: to motivate young people to be better citizens,” said Craig, who was named the 2016-2017 Essex County Teacher of the Year by the New Jersey Education Association. “Hitting the streets of Irvington is not an option.” The mandate appears to be taken seriously down the ranks. The president and vice president of the school’s National Honor Society are cadets, as is every member of the wrestling team. Community service is an integral part of JROTC. Some of the Irvington High cadets were notorious troublemakers before they joined the program. Craig and Munro don’t prohibit any student from joining. “Knock on wood,” Craig said, “but in the 13 years I’ve never had to call one of the security guards to get a kid out of this room. No, sir. Me and my partner handle it.”
One of the security guards, a burly man in his thirties with a slick shaved head, stopped Robinson at the entrance. “What’s with that Trump guy?” he asked bluntly. “We got this North Korea thing going on and he’s always on Instagram.”
Robinson was ready with a response. “I give him the same respect as I did George Bush Jr. and Barack Obama,” she said. “You always have to have a scapegoat. Keep in mind, for the past eight years, the other half of the population felt the same way we do currently. Everything Barack did was wrong in other people’s eyes. They’re all just men, and men make mistakes. Ultimately, I answer to the man upstairs.” The security guard leaned back in his chair, a hand on his bearded chin. “I can dig it,” he said.
Duvelsaint was treated like a celebrity in the JROTC classroom, a cavernous warehouse space crowded with faded guideons and glimmering trophies earned in competitions over the years. The recruits vied for Duvelsaint’s attention as he made his rounds. He knew many of them by name. He spends most of his Saturdays and Sundays attending their sports practices, driving them around, playing basketball with them. Robinson introduced herself as new the recruiter in town. I was shown a wall where the nametags of JROTC alumni who enlisted in the military are stapled to a corkboard. There are more than I can count. Many stop by the classroom when their home on leave, to help with training. To give back. “We are a family,” one of the recruits said when I asked the group how the program had impacted their lives. “No matter what happens out there, we know that everyone in this room has our back.”
Robinson reflected on the visit as we drove to the East Orange Community Center, where she was scheduled to meet with the director about using the facility as a study hall for ASVAB prep. In the 60 days she had been on the job, she had already met with the mayors of four towns in Essex County. The director of the community center, a 30-year-old Philadelphian named Osner Charles, would ultimately prove to be another crucial ally.
“You know, some of the other recruiters joke that this place is a war zone,” Robinson said. She brought up a comment made on my first day to the effect that I might want to wear body armor while reporting in East Orange. It was clear the comment rankled her. “They say stuff like that all the time.” A moment passed as she seemed to gather her thoughts. That morning, en route to Montclair High, she had told me about the first conversation about race she ever had with a white person. It was 2005 and her unit was preparing to cross into Iraq from Kuwait. Hurricane Katrina had just ravaged New Orleans, and Robinson was one of the many African-Americans who interpreted the government’s failed response as indicative of systematic racism. She was furious. One of Robinson’s white colleagues, a young specialist named Joseph Perry, sat her down. Even if racism was to blame, he said, it didn’t matter, not where they were going. In war, he told her, everyone has each other’s back. Perry was killed by a sniper during that deployment. Robinson considers him her first white friend. The first of many.
“I find the body armor jokes extremely offensive,” Robinson said, her eyes fixed on the road. There was palpable disappointment in her voice. “I’ve been to an actual war zone, where I had to wear my body armor every night.”
She gestured with her chin toward a crowded bus stop as we passed by. “This is not Iraq, and these people aren’t insurgents,” she said. “This is America. They are Americans.”