Army recruiters have forged a dishonest reputation for their actions when they're trying to get potential recruits to sign up, and I will admit that sometimes that reputation is completely justified. Whether they're duplicitous recruiters who are trying to nudge indecisive candidates over the finish line when these potential recruits are trying to decide whether military life is right for them, or if they're overeager recruiters who are simply trying to fulfill their recruiting quotas, it is nevertheless true that some recruiters have no problems bending the truth when it comes to their recruiting tactics.
However, that wasn't my experience when I signed up, so I thought I'd share my story.
To be honest, I hadn't thought about joining the military at first, but my younger brother was joining the Marines, and one day he asked me to drive him across town so he could meet with his recruiter. At the time, the recruiters for all four primary branches of service - Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines - shared a single facility with separate offices. While my brother walked into the Marine recruiter's office, I walked down the hall to the Army recruiter's office - mostly to bide my time - and thus began a process that was to change my life forever.
The first step when joining the military is - obviously - meeting and working with a recruiter. As I mentioned earlier, Army recruiters have a bad reputation for dishonesty - which in many recruits’ situations is totally justified. For example, it was blatantly obvious that some of the recruiters in the Tucson office were lying through their teeth whenever they spoke to me. However, that wasn’t the case for the specific recruiter with whom I worked. My recruiter was always straightforward with me, and I’ll explain why he was being so honest in a moment.
The military has a list of available jobs, called Military Occupational Specialties (MOSs), which have designations like 11B, 19D, 12B. Before I met with a recruiter, I already knew about the 98G "Signal Intelligence Voice Interceptor" MOS from my stepfather, who had done that job for several years and enjoyed it. In a nutshell, being a 98G meant going to the military's language school for several months, then being sent somewhere (hopefully) exotic where you monitored people who spoke the language you just learned. That line of work sounded exciting to me, and when I walked through the door of the Army recruitment office, that was the only job that I wanted. I told my recruiter that I wanted to be a 98G, and I wanted to learn Russian. My recruiter said that he didn't know about selecting a specific language, and he couldn't guarantee any MOS until I took the "ASVAB Test," which I will explain.
The second hurdle for potential recruits when joining the military is taking the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), which is a comprehensive test that measures all sorts of things and helps determine what you'll be able or allowed to do, and sometime within the next few days I headed to downtown Tucson to take this test. I had graduated high school a little over a year before, and I hadn't managed to forget anything over the ensuing months. With that in mind, I didn't find the ASVAB particularly difficult, and when one of the recruiters was giving everyone their scores after the test had ended, I was informed that I had scored a 98%, and the recruiter was stunned.
When I drove back to the Army recruiter's office, I was promptly informed that I could have any job I wanted, so the 98G MOS was mine for the taking – at least in theory. My recruiter informed me that there were two additional obstacles in my path: a thorough physical examination, and something called the "DLAB" (which I'll explain in a moment).
At the time of my enlistment, all physical exams for the state of Arizona were conducted at the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) in Phoenix, which was the main entry point for military recruits in the state. My recruiter arranged for me to travel by bus to the MEPS in Phoenix, and the Army put me up in a hotel on the night before my physical. On the following day I passed my physical for the most part, with a nagging medical issue that I needed to resolve before I could report for duty: I was horribly underweight. I had been an anorexic teenager, and I still weighed anywhere between 100 to 105 pounds on any given day. The Army made it clear that I needed to gain a few pounds before I could join.
The next item of the day was specific for the 98G MOS: I had to pass the Defense Language Aptitude Battery (DLAB) before I could become a military linguist. By way of explanation, the DLAB is an exceedingly difficult and very confusing test, wherein potential recruits are taught a series of artificial languages and submitted to a plethora of linguistic logic questions. The DLAB helps to determine – in theory – how adept potential recruits might be at learning languages. (Believe it or not, I learned some interesting things about languages during the DLAB that helped me later when I attended language school.) Nevertheless, my head was swimming by the time I was done with the DLAB. I thought that there was no way I could have passed that test, yet by no small miracle I did.
Having put both the medical physical and the DLAB behind me, it was time to meet with the recruiters at the Phoenix MEPS. They quickly outlined what my career would look like: Basic Training, Language School, Advanced Individual Training (AIT), then a tour of duty somewhere for my remaining time in service. Because the duration of my academic training would be almost two years, I would be required to sign away four years of my life. However, due to the high demand for my MOS, I had my choice between $32,000 for college when I left the military, or an $8,000 bonus upon completion of my training coupled with $10,000 for college.
The second deal that I was offered sounded good to me, and the recruiters had me fill out a "Dream Sheet" with my list of preferred language choices; I chose Russian, German, and French. However, the recruiters said that they couldn't guarantee that I would get any of my language choices, and I would have to take my chances if I joined. There was one potential pitfall to all this: if I failed out of any of my schools, I would belong to the Army for the duration of my four years, wherein I would have to do whatever job they chose for me.
I said that I needed to go home and discuss everything with my wife, at which point the MEPS recruiters dropped their sales tactics and shifted to outright mocking, with responses such as: "What??? You need your wife's permission to join???" Those guys were schmucks, but I stood my ground, and they eventually pointed me to the door. They made no offer to help me get home, they simply said, "The bus station is a couple blocks away down such-and-such street. Goodbye." To be honest, those jerks were so awful that it was almost a deal breaker for me. But then again, by that point I wanted to join, so I was kind of at their mercy, and I think they knew that.
And, of course, I did join.
When I arrived home and discussed everything that I had learned with my wife, we decided that my enlisting in the Army was really our best option for that season of our lives. I met with my recruiter in Tucson, and I signed up for the Army's "delayed entry" program, which allows recruits to formally join the military to lock in their MOS and the contract that they were offered, and then to report sometime later for duty (which could be up to a year). That being said, my "delay" was only a couple weeks.
And thus it was that on a clear day in the Spring of 1986, my recruiter drove my wife and me to the local MEPS for me to report for active duty. The time was still early, so my recruiter took us to a diner near the MEPS where he bought breakfast for the three of us. While we were eating, I asked my recruiter why he had always been honest with me, and he replied, "I knew that you were going to join from the moment you walked through the door, and I knew that if I didn't shoot straight with you, you'd probably change your mind."
He was right, too. I wanted the job, and I'm sure that he could sense that. However, I had also been a military brat for most of my young life, and I could spot recruiter BS a mile away. If I had thought that I was being deceived, I would have walked out the door and never returned. So my recruiter played it straight with me, and as a result of his honesty I was in Basic Training less than a month after I first entered his office.
In the years that followed, however, I had my life turned upside by incompetent clerks and jerks who incessantly ruined my life by failing to do their jobs correctly, thereby resulting in me being sent to the wrong unit because someone couldn't read my orders correctly, or being underpaid because someone couldn't do basic math, or temporarily losing my security clearance because someone didn't feel like filing the right paperwork at the right time, or having my family members suffer countless hardships as a result of my desire to serve, etc. The ocean of imbeciles whose myriad ineptitudes wreaked havoc on my life again and again will forever hold a place of scorn and contempt that wells up from the depths of my soul whenever I am asked about my time in uniform.
But my recruiter? To this day I have nothing but respect for the guy who helped me join. I'd love to shake his hand and say "thanks."