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Selling service: On the road with National Guard recruiters



Each road is different.
Some weave. Others shoot straight ahead. Many are scarred with potholes, while a few sport fresh pavement.
For more than four years, Staff Sgt. Todd Sharkey has navigated the side streets and highways that run through Iowa, and many memories line the routes driven by the non-commissioned officer seeking soldiers to serve Uncle Sam.
"See that house? The one with the flag?" he asks. "Two brothers joined us there. Good guys. I get kind of emotional when I drive past."
Silence settles as the car veers north, and recollections linger only seconds before Sharkey focuses on the faces of the future.
"Her name is Amanda," he says.
Saying the name out loud is a ritual as familiar as the roads.
"We've got to mentally prepare before going into the drop zone," he says.
Then the car stops, and Sharkey opens the door.
Each road may be different, the military man says while gazing at the white-sided house, but his destination never changes. No matter where the roads lead, they reach the same place. No matter how he gets here, Sharkey always arrives at the unknown.


***
Fewer than 100 men and women in the Iowa Army National Guard share Sharkey's burden.
"A lot of people look at it as a potential career-ruining position," he said. "They avoid it."
Military recruiters know their profession is unpopular among those both in and out of uniform.
"Everybody hears the horror stories," he said.
Recruiters promising bogus bonuses, sergeants falsely assuring stateside stints and recruits signing their names as non-commissioned officers paint a prettier picture of military life. Sharkey knows civilians think he employs these tactics to enlist America's protectors and defenders.
"That's the stigma," he said. "But that's not who we are."
He says his mission means more than a quota or a name on the dotted line.
"I am called to be a mentor, a motivator and a role model," he said. "We all go through life looking for role models, for guiding lights, and I realized real quickly when I became a recruiter that I have to be that as closely as I can for these kids. Nobody's perfect, of course, but that's my duty."


***
The sun already is sinking as Sharkey folds his frame into the compact, government-issued car with brakes that grind and squeal. At home, his wife and three sons -- ages 10, 8 and 3 -- should be starting dinner.
"But duty calls," says the camouflage-clad man as he thumbs through a stack of stats.
Gender: female.
Age: 17.
Grade: senior.
Background: older sister already serving in the Iowa Army National Guard.
Parents: supportive.
Education: honor roll.
Reason for interest: college benefits.
"All right, let's do this," Sharkey says to the recruiting assistant doubling as the driver.
Sgt. Justin Hendrickson, also decked out in a green and tan uniform with laced-up boots, plugs the address into the Global Positioning System and zooms off. They already are late, and punctuality is key in home visits.


***
Work weeks range between 50 and 60 hours, and a regular schedule exists only in dreams. Some days start as early as 6 a.m., while others end at midnight.
"The cold, hard fact about recruiting is that it has a high burnout rate," Sharkey said.
The Dubuque resident meets daily with at least a dozen individuals interested in serving their country. By week's end, he has chatted with as many as 90 men and women, and throughout the month, he has discussed military benefits with about 350 people. That monthly figure can jump to 1,000 if Sharkey attends large events, such as job fairs or trade shows.
Each conversation cuts into precious minutes that Sharkey could be spending elsewhere in his coverage area that stretches from Dubuque to Guttenberg to Elkader.
"It takes time to meet with them face-to-face, to answer their questions, to get some questions of your own answered," Sharkey said. "And the whole time, you have to be thinking about the next person, the next question."
The job never stops.
"From the time I leave my house in the morning to the time I get back to my house at night, I am in a different zone," Sharkey said.
While that zone is far from being a military zone with weapons and warriors, it proves a battle all the same.
"It is a struggle, being what it is you are supposed to be," Sharkey said. "The recruiter is an individual's first real exposure to the military service. And if they do sign up, one thing is for certain -- you always remember your recruiter and your drill sergeant. They make the biggest impact."


***
The white-sided house pops with American pride. A flag flutters next to the door, and the picture window boasts a smaller banner.
"Here goes," Sharkey says to Hendrickson, and together the two trek up the sidewalk, their arms laden with tools of the trade -- a laptop, pens, books, folders and forms.
A tiger-striped kitten waits for them on the front porch, and as the soldiers knock on the door, the tiny feline rubs his fluffy grey fur against their tan leather boots.
The door opens, and a petite brunette with braces and a nose piercing gives a half-wave.
"Hello, Amanda," Sharkey says.
And the interview begins.


***
The door to a recruiter's office is always open, Sharkey said, but this year more people seem to be stepping through.
"We're getting a lot more inquiries now with the economy being the way it is," he said.
With some 12.5 million people out of work, military services easily exceed recruiting goals. Additionally, President Barack Obama's commitment to troop withdrawal from Iraq has sparked inquiries.
"Whenever there is a major administration change, usually there's an influx of interest," Sharkey said.
The two elements set the stage for success. In 2008, military recruiters signed up more enlistees than each of the previous four years.
According to the U.S. Department of Defense, last year's recruits totaled 324,737. That number far exceeded the usual 300,000 new members brought in annually to maintain the nation's 2.2 million-strong troop force.
The Army National Guard recruiters played their part. They enlisted 65,192 soldiers, topping the recruitment target of 63,000.
Even though branch recruiters exceeded their goal by 3 percent, Sharkey takes nothing for granted as recruiters must meet a monthly recruitment quota. In Iowa, that's two soldiers a month.
"People hear that number and think, 'That's all?'" Sharkey said. "But trust me, that number requires hard work."


***
Brochures, pamphlets and charts litter the kitchen table where the two soldiers sit.
As Amanda mulls over the material, her mother offers beverages to the two men about to start their spiel.
The first line is a familiar one.
"Tell me a little bit about yourself," Sharkey says. "What are you looking for in the military?"


***
Before each interview, Sharkey writes down a group of letters -- T.E.A.M.S.
Each letter represents a reason a recruit might want to join.
T -- Training. They want a job skill.
E -- Education. They want a higher degree.
A -- Adventure. They crave excitement, and they think the military can provide it.
M -- Money. Bonuses and benefits prove their main incentive.
S -- Service. They want to serve their country.
"Our job is to sit down with these people, talk to them, listen to them, and find out what they want to do, why they want to join the Guard," Sharkey said.
Ideally, the enlistee lists three of the five reasons for joining.Some possess the desire. Others do not.
"There are some who are like, 'Touch a gun? No way!' And then there are some of us who are meant to be here," Sharkey said.
No matter the response, the recruiter has a job to do.
"First, I try to get them to enlist in the Guard," he said. "But if it's not for them -- and you can tell -- then I try to get them to leave with a positive attitude about the Guard. We, as recruiters, are the first line of defense for protecting the military image."


***
Once Amanda's questions start, they never seem to stop.
"How much money would I get for college?" "When would I have to go to basic training?" "Would I get to pick which college I go to?" "What benefits does the ROTC have compared to the regular Guard?"
As she rattles off questions, her mother and stepfather, Angie and Shawn Rodenberg, pitch in.
"What if she gets deployed? What happens then?" Angie Rodenberg asks.
"What would her bonus be if she signs up?" Shawn Rodenberg asks.
During a break in the conversation, Sharkey turns to Shawn Rodenberg and asks, "How's Shannon?"
Amanda's older sister, Shannon, joined the Iowa Army National Guard six years ago, and the two men talk about her adventures.
"Back then, all those years ago with Shannon, it was just like it is tonight," Shawn Rodenberg says. "Recruiters come to your home, and as a dad, you're kinda concerned, thinking, 'God, is she going to have to go to war?' But after the fact, you realize the things they do after floods and hurricanes and for their communities, and it makes you feel proud that your daughter's a part of it."
More practical than the service aspect is the financial aspect, Shawn Rodenberg says as the family discusses Amanda's options.
"We have two daughters who are struggling, doing the hard way, working their way through college," he says. "But Shannon, boy, she was able to focus on her studies where the other two really have to struggle to find that time."


***
At the Iowa Army National Guard Armory in Dubuque, two recruiters dedicate themselves full-time to attracting soldiers. A recruiting assistant also helps the process.
Last year, 33 soldiers joined. Sharkey enlisted 26 while new recruiter Sgt. Melanie Fedeler signed seven before taking maternity leave.
Although their goals are similar, their methods meld with their individual personalities and experiences with the Guard.
Fedeler enlisted more than five years ago with one dream.
"I wanted to make a difference," she said. "I felt like I was missing something, so I became a medic in the National Guard."
The Manchester, Iowa, resident found her home with her fellow soldiers. Through both community service and a tour in Iraq, she managed to make her dream a reality.
"I have helped people," she said.
Now she wants to help others looking for their home.
"I like to share my experiences because that's what people are looking for," Fedeler said. "They want to know what being in the National Guard is like. When people ask questions, they are looking for the real answer."
Hendrickson began his recruiting work only months ago after returning from Iraq, and he brings a solemnness to his task. After a buddy was killed in action, he flew home to attend the funeral, where Hendrickson said protesters demonstrated against the war. Yet when he speaks to potential soldiers, he shares his pride in serving.
Sharkey joined the Air Force more than 18 years ago, signing up the same time as his twin brother. They later joined the National Guard together. He has served in England and Egypt, and he shares stories of his service with a smile. He has won several awards for his recruiting, and he recently attended a drill weekend where he realized he had enlisted half the soldiers there.
"You absolutely bring your experiences to your recruiting technique," he said. "That's part of who you are."
Yet not every potential soldier appreciates the tales of adventure and camaraderie.
"I didn't feel like I was told the other side of it," Nate Schroeder said.
The 17-year-old Dubuque resident halted his recruiting process after realizing service was not what he had expected.
"They make it sound exciting, but once I got into it, a lot of the things I thought it was, the things the recruiter said it was, it wasn't really at all," he said. "It was the small things. I guess I would say it was an exaggeration, not so much a lie. It was just like bending the truth a bit."
While the Dubuque Wahlert High School senior opted not to join, he still says his experience with recruiters remains positive.
"I feel that Sgt. Sharkey was a lot better than a lot of the other recruiters because he'll tell it like it is, like he experienced it," Schroeder said. "But he needs to realize that other people's experiences aren't going to be the same as his."


***
Fear floods her face.
"I can't do this," Amanda says. "Seriously, I think I am going to cry."
Alone at the table, Amanda looks at the laptop and panics.
Sharkey and Hendrickson wait outside as the honor roll student finishes the practice version of the military's standardized test, the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery ASVAB.
"I am so bad at tests," she says, scribbling on a piece of scrap paper.
Then time runs out, and the recruiters return to see a test score much lower than required.
"I don't know how that happened," Amanda says.


***
Less than 5 percent of people meeting with National Guard recruiters actually join.
"It's not that they don't want to do it," Fedeler said. "In a lot of cases, they just don't qualify."
Test scores set back some. To enlist in the Guard, a soldier must score a minimum of 31 out of 99. For bonuses to apply, they must score 50. Age weeds out more. Starting March 23, people between the ages of 35 and 42 are no longer eligible for enlistment. Legal history throws out some. Certain law violations automatically disqualify some would-be soldiers.
But the largest obstacle is the medical field. Recruits cannot be overweight. They cannot have braces. They cannot have asthma. They cannot have had certain surgeries in their past.
"We become investigators," Fedeler said. "We start out with a person who is interested, and then we dig into their past to determine whether or not this is even an option for them."
Sharkey said too many people consider the military a last-chance option.
"Kids think this is a catch-all, a net. They think they've messed up and now they can come here," Sharkey said. "All we can tell them at that point is go back to school. We have standards, and we have to follow them."


***
They return to the road.
They are headed home.
Three hours after crawling into the car and heading to Amanda's house, they begin the trip to their offices where e-mails and voice messages await.
Amanda's score dominates the drive home.
"She just has text anxiety," Sharkey says. "I know she can do it. She's on the honor roll."
In that moment, the two recruiters do not know that Amanda will cancel the appointment they scheduled for her to re-test. They do not know that she will tell them she made a mistake and that she wants to back out. They do not know that a week after canceling the appointment, she will text message Sharkey, asking him if she could re-take the test, that she has reconsidered and she still wants to be part of the Guard.
They do not know it, but it will be no surprise.
"This happens all the time," Sharkey says as the two pull into a gas station and grab day-old pizza and a Kit Kat for supper. "They think they want to, and then they take that test, and they have doubts."
An hour and a half later, the car pulls into the armory and the two men get out.
It is 9:30, and Hendrickson contemplates his next steps.
"Should I go home? I know my wife is still awake and will probably be mad," he says. "Or should I stay here and go home after she's already in bed?"
He slings his bag over his shoulder and heads inside.
Duty calls.
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