Looking for the few, proud

Marines: Recruiting efforts are receiving more interest at area high schools as the nation begins a long-anticipated war against Iraq.

March 22, 2003|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

Staff Sgt. Joseph Scott Freeman is a salesman without a tangible product. He can tell potential Marine Corps recruits how many pull-ups they'll be expected to do, that the chicken at boot camp is "pretty good," that they'll join "the greatest fighting unit in the world."

But "it's hard to tell them exactly what their life will be like," he said.

Not anymore. All he has to do is point to the television in his Columbia offices and to the images of Marines crouched in hills, refueling planes and flying helicopters.

"That's what you could be doing," Freeman says.

He also pointed to the pictures of the helicopter crash in Kuwait that killed four Marines on Thursday, showing potential recruits the possible dangers they may face.

Freeman, the officer in charge of the Marines recruiting efforts in the Baltimore area, oversees the recruitment of nearly 100 young men and women every year.

It's unclear what, if any effect, the unfolding war in Iraq will have on the group's efforts. In 1991, during the Persian Gulf war, the Marines recruited 37,240 people, an almost unheard-of 4,000 more than their recruitment "mission."

These days, as Freeman and his team of recruiters walk through malls and area high schools, they say they are receiving more inquiries.

"It seems the people who are interested stand a little closer to you," he said.

Firing off questions

Staff Sgt. Kenneth O. Balderson had barely set up his table full of brochures and posters outside the River Hill High School cafeteria yesterday when the students were coming at him in waves, firing off questions that Balderson tried to answer as quickly as possible.

"Can I have a poster?"

"Yes."

"What's boot camp like?"

"Hard."

"What does Semper Fi mean?"

"Always faithful."

Balderson, dressed in a black uniform with gleaming shoes, greeted each potential recruit with a big smile and handshake.

"Hey, man, what's up?" he said to each student, as if they were old friends.

After a few minutes of conversation, he encouraged students to fill out information sheets so that recruiters could contact them later to schedule an interview to try to convince them that the Marines is their best choice--better than college, a full-time job -- and certainly better than the Army or even the Navy.

Balderson said if he gets information sheets from five students, he considers it a successful school visit. Yesterday, he got 10. This was good because Marines regard River Hill High as an environment rich in "alphas," recruits who score high on the Marines standardized test.

Balderson carefully tucked the sheets into his briefcase. He had visited Long Reach High School on Thursday and got personal information from nearly 15 students.

"It's been a good run," he said.

Balderson and others said the enthusiasm could partially be traced to the war. "People see what's on television, and they want to know what you think about it," Freeman said. "It's a good starting point."

Welcomed efforts

Balderson and other recruiters were prepared for the worst as the military buildup began and war became more likely. "You hear about protests, and you just have to wonder if that would happen here," said Freeman in his native North Carolina drawl.

But students didn't cast so much as a dirty look at Balderson yesterday, and many who approached his table said they had often thought about becoming Marines and that the war triggered their interest.

"The war brings a lot of things to the surface," said Marcus Stader, a 17-year-old senior at River Hill. Stader said he had always been interested in the Marines and had talked with recruiters before, but he had never volunteered any information.

"These guys come around all year, and you sort of go talk to them for fun, but now [that] you really can make a commitment, it's a lot more tangible," he said.

And Andrea Craft, a 16-year-old junior from Clarksville who filled out an information sheet, said she has always been fascinated by military life. "I've always heard old stories and imagined what war would be like, but now it's becoming more realistic," she said.

Even some students who said they had no interest in becoming Marines wandered over to the table and filled out an informational sheet.

"I'm a dove through and through," said a slightly bewildered Sean Hester after filling out an information sheet. "I was just being polite."

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