By the time he finished 12th grade, Damon Rubin was tired of school and knew he couldn't stand four more years in college.
After high school, Kenneth Yakle felt trapped in his tiny hometown of Wapello, Iowa (population 2,011). He attended community college, lived with his parents and worked at a grocery store full time, but that life was getting old.
So both men went to their local Navy recruiting stations -- one in California and one in Iowa -- and asked how they could become sailors.
"I just walked into the recruiting office and said, `How fast can I get in the Navy?"' Petty Officer 2nd class Yakle said.
"I was probably one of the easiest contracts a recruiter can have," Petty Officer 1st class Rubin said.
But few enlistments are that easy, as both men know. The pair are partners at the Navy recruiting station in Augusta's Southgate shopping center.
For every teen-ager who is gung-ho about joining the Navy, there are dozens -- maybe more -- who have to be persuaded that the military is better for them than college, technical school or a civilian job.
"In a month's time, we may get one, maybe two, seniors who are actually interested," Petty Officer 1st class Rubin says.
The difficulty they face in enticing others to join the Navy -- a job and way of life they love -- isn't unique.
Last fiscal year, the Navy fell nearly 7,000 sailors short of its recruiting goals, and the Army and Air Force also are struggling to meet enlistment goals.
Because of the disappointing recruitment numbers last year, the Navy has instituted some changes, including enlistment bonuses and better college benefits. The changes seem to be successful; in the first quarter of fiscal 1999, the Navy exceeded its recruitment goals by 379 sailors.
At the Southgate station, recruiters so far this month have signed up eight new sailors -- one short of their monthly goal. They have eight more "on deck" this week; those recruits will be allowed to sign enlistment contracts as soon as they complete processing at the Military Entrance Processing Station in Columbia.
In addition to monetary benefits, the Navy is opening more recruiting stations, including one in Evans, this year and staffing its stations with some lower-ranking sailors closer in age to potential recruits.
Seaman Apprentice Samantha Bush, fresh from boot camp and medical corpsmen school, spent a week on leave volunteering at the Southgate recruiting station as part of the Navy's Hometown Area Recruiting Program.
Seaman Apprentice Bush, a 1998 graduate of Evans High School who plans to become an emergency room physician, said she joined the Navy because college and medical school were too expensive to handle on her own.
"A lot of young people are looking more toward college here, and I go up to them and say, `How are you going to pay for it?"' she said.
On a recent Wednesday, the recruiters make their weekly visit to Greenbrier High School in Columbia County. They arrive during the first lunch period to set up a recruiting table inside the cafeteria, near the exit.
As the pair stride past a group of students gathered outside the cafeteria, they are greeted by whistles and catcalls, and peppered with a few derogatory comments about the military.
They don't acknowledge the comments and walk past the crowd toward the cafeteria.
Students tough to reach
Before reaching the lunchroom, Petty Officer 1st class Rubin pauses to talk to one freshman with Dennis Rodman hair. The teen-ager says he wants to join the Navy, but then shows a scarred elbow and says he can't the meet military medical requirements. Petty Officer 1st class Rubin shakes the young man's hand anyway, then moves on to a senior sitting beside him.
This 12th-grader says he still is uncertain about his plans after high school. Petty Officer 1st class Rubin promises to return to talk some more as soon as he sets up the recruiting display in the cafeteria.
By the time he returns, though, the prospective recruit is gone.
This is typical, the recruiters say. Ninth- and 10th-graders, and sometimes even 11th-graders, will approach them to talk about the military.
"The seniors try to dodge us," Petty Officer 1st class Rubin says.
During the busy lunch break, some students stop to look at the recruiters' laptop computer, which continually plays Navy commercials. Others slyly swipe brochures or bumper stickers from the recruiting table on their way out the cafeteria door.
A few students stop and ask questions about the Navy.
Junior Ronald Ogden, 17, approaches the recruiting table and tells Petty Officer 2nd class Yakle that he is considering a career with the Army, Air Force or Navy.
"I want to do anything with the government," Ronald says. "But the thing is, my parents say it's not as good as it used to be."
Ronald's father spent his career in the Army, and his mother briefly was a soldier, also. But they have discouraged their son from enlisting in the Army, telling him the incentives and benefits have changed for the worse.
"Right now, I'm still planning on going straight to college," says Ronald, who is interested in a career in aviation or medicine.
Petty Officer 2nd class Yakle hears this and begins his sell.
"It's a lot different than the Army," he tells Ronald. "The Navy stresses a lot of higher education."
Ronald listens, but he's not ready to enlist anytime soon. He leaves the recruiting table, still weighing college vs. the military.
"They always say men look better in uniforms," the teen-ager says. "That's a little incentive, too."
Surveys gather data
The recruiters ask every student who stops at their table to fill out an 11-question survey that is used to gauge how much teens know about the Navy.
The surveys are important recruiting tools. Recruiters may call juniors and seniors who fill out the surveys and express an interest in military service. The younger students' questionnaires may be filed away, only to be resurrected a few years later.
By the end of their two hours at Greenbrier, the recruiters have collected 16 surveys and given away nearly as many free Navy pens and pencils.
"This is a good day," Petty Officer 1st class Rubin says, thumbing through the thin stack of surveys.
It's early afternoon now, and the recruiters stop at the Kroger supermarket on Washington Road, where they hope to pass out business cards to some young men and women who are dissatisfied with their jobs. But no one here fits the Navy demographic.
Next they cruise down Bobby Jones Expressway to a trio of hardware stores, another type of business with young employees languishing between high school and a career.
During these forays to make PDCs -- which is recruiter-speak for personally developed contacts -- the petty officers have to dodge store managers who don't appreciate the men trying to lure their employees away.
Most of the employees the recruiters meet on this trip, though, are satisfied with their jobs or have a different plan for the future.
At Lowe's, Petty Officer 1st class Rubin talks with loader Leonard Parker. The 21-year-old says he is thinking about joining the Air Force Reserves.
Petty Officer 1st class Rubin unbuttons his shirt pocket and offers Mr. Parker a business card. They arrange a time "to discuss some Navy opportunities" before Mr. Parker signs with another service.
He's another maybe.
Some recruits excited
With a few leads and a stack of surveys to show for their day, the recruiters return to their office on Gordon Highway for a meeting with recruits who are enrolled in the Delayed Entry Program.
These teens are the recruiters' success stories. They are excited about the Navy. They have signed enlistment contracts. They will be shipping out soon, and it is the recruiters' job to make sure these teens are prepared for what comes next -- boot camp.
"Your Navy recruiters, we call them sea daddies, sea mamas in the Navy," says Chief Petty Officer Adam Woodruff, zone supervisor for the Southgate office and four other recruiting stations. "Our job is for you to be ready when you get there."
Once all the Delayed Entry Program participants have arrived, the recruiters gather the teens in formation and drill them on military time, the Sailor's Creed, the phonetic alphabet and flanking movements.
Petty Officer 1st class Rubin leads the recruits in their flanking movements -- left face, right face, about face.
"Now, we're about to go marching, right?" he asks. "Everywhere you go -- to eat, to PT, to the doctor's -- you're going to be marching and you're going to be doing these commands."
Then, Petty Officer Byron Evans takes over and has the recruits recite the phonetic alphabet, where worlds such as Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta and Echo are used to represent letters.
He calls 17-year-old Velton Moore to the front of the room. Velton, a senior at Burke County High School, ships out June 17 and will have a job in advanced electronics, but he still struggles to remember the phonetic alphabet.
"The one that you miss, you're going to give me a push-up for it," Petty Officer Evans says.
He calls out a letter, and Velton says nothing. One push-up, then another missed letter and another push-up.
"You're going to be nice and strong before you get to boot camp," Petty Officer Evans says, grinning.
Amy Joyner covers military issues for The Augusta Chronicle. She can be reached at (706) 823-3339 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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