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US Army Recruiters Face Unique Challenges - 2003-02-21

U.S. armed forces maintain more than 1700 recruitment stations nationwide, places where young people can come to learn about military life and decide whether to enlist for periods lasting anywhere from a year to a lifetime. But because communities across America vary greatly, recruitment officers in different locales must tailor their style when luring new recruits. Double thick, floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows protect the squat interior of the Times Square recruiting station from much of the din at New York's most raucous intersection. Still, the sheer visual onslaught coming through the glass is a constant reminder to Captain Hector Oseguera of where he is, and what he does.

"We are in the middle of New York, the heart of New York [at] 42nd Street and Times Square," he said. "We see the big 235 inch [600 centimeter] TVs [above the streets of Times Square]. You see about twenty of those. I wish I had remote control so you could choose what you want! You see about 20 of them.

"We see the skyscrapers coming up in the sky," Captain Hector Oseguera continued. "I mean you are in the center stage of the world, really. And among all this traffic and lights and glitter, there is a soldier looking for opportunity, looking for a chance to improve himself… looking for the Army."

That prospective soldier is picking his or her way through one of the most ethnically diverse crowds in the world. However, according to Lieutenant Colonel Arnold C. Piper, commander of the U.S. Army's New York City Recruiting Battalion, there is a better than average chance that any particular New Yorker recruited on Times Square is Hispanic in origin.

"It's South American. It's Central American. It's Cuban. It's Puerto Rican. It's Dominican. It's West Indian. It's everything," he said. "Every group that in the world lives in New York City. Even though we don't have Ellis Island [the famous disembarkation station for immigrants that closed in 1954], it's still normally the first place that immigrants arrive. Anywhere in the world, they still come through New York City.

"We just try to match the ethnic enclave with the right type of recruiter," Colonel Arnold C. Piper he continued. "For instance, the Eastern Europeans that live in Dyker Beach, [the] Coney Island area, the Brighton Beach area, that's a market that didn't exist 10 years ago. Those young men and women are very 'propense' [likely] to join the military. We don't have any Russian-speaking recruiters. And it is not so much the kids. It's the moms and dads that are the issue. Sometimes you have to be able to talk to 'Mom and Dad.' And that same issue [exists] in Chinatown. In order to break the door down on the market, you have to speak the language. Chinese Mandarin, in that case!"

Getting to talk to mom, dad and other people who know and care about a prospective recruit, and who therefore can influence him or her to join the military, is far easier outside the big city, in towns where people often know one another. Today, Sergeant First Class Andrew Holland is the Times Square Station commander. But he was once a recruitment officer in rural and suburban locales.

"It has been my experience that in a more rural area… you spend a lot more time on the road, driving around to different locations to talk to people and finding people … such as schoolteachers, [the] mayor, police, [and other] different people in the area, who can help you in your recruiting effort," Mr. Holland said.

"A lot less visible, yes," he added. "Because when you've got a community of say 25,000 to 30,000 people, and they see you on a regular basis going through their businesses in uniform or on the streets or whatever the case may be, they get used to seeing you. They know who you are. When you are in civilian clothes and you are walking through the mall, they will say 'Hey, There is the Army recruiter, Mr. Holland.'

When asked if it is less personal, and if the recruitment officer less visible in the city, he responded:

"In New York City, when I put on civilian clothes, I am just as anonymous as anybody else. Even in uniform, half the time they don't even notice me because you got uniforms of all different types and costumes and everything else walking around in the streets. So it becomes a lot different here."

Captain Oseguera agrees that recruiting New Yorkers takes more time. "New Yorkers being New Yorkers and being a big cosmopolitan city you have to build up more trust before they can start opening up to you and you start getting though to a sales pitch," he said. "To be recruiting in Alabama, the [people in] rural areas would be less doubtful. They're more trusting. In New York City, you are under more higher scrutiny than you'd be anywhere else."

Perhaps surprisingly, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in September 2001 did not result in a significant rise in local enlistments, and recruit business is calm as the nation braces for a possible large-scale war in Iraq. Still, because they experienced the events of "9/11" and its aftermath as a local as well as an international story, New Yorkers may now view the Army and its recruitment mission differently than they did before.

"Most people here in New York City either lost a loved one or lost somebody they knew," Lieutenant Colonel Piper said. "The reality was this is not just a war where there are going to be front lines and the front lines are going to be in Afghanistan or front lines are going to be somewhere in the Middle East or in Asia. The front lines are often right here in the city."

This is a message that resonated with New Yorkers, and other Americans, recently when the government advised them to stock up on supplies in the event of another terrorist action on the homefront.