I am a Staff Sergeant in the United States Air Force. A few years ago I took part in a program known as “Recruiter Assistant Program”, or RAP, in which airmen are permitted to spend two weeks shadowing and assisting an Air Force recruiter of their choice. Most choose to shadow their own hometown recruiter, because since RAP doesn’t charge against leave days, and since the work itself looks pretty cushy, it is a great way to spend some time with friends and family back home, free of consequences.
When I took part, I chose to shadow my recruiter back home, who was not the same recruiter as the one who put me into the Air Force. She left for an assignment in Germany and another recruiter took her place in the states. I don’t think I got the true recruitment experience when I originally joined. My recruiter didn’t have to play games with me or bullshit me because I did all of my own research beforehand and made up my mind before speaking to a recruiter in the first place. I only needed her to put the papers in front of me to sign.
But during RAP, what little time I spent seeing the recruiting profession from the inside completely disgusted me. Recruiters are unethical liars and manipulators by trade. Among military and probably even some civilian circles, recruiter dishonesty is nothing new or surprising, and is often a punch line or the center of a funny anecdote, like “I know a guy whose recruiter told him he could keep his long hair in the military, and he totally bought it!” or “My recruiter told me I would travel the world in the military. Ha!” However, the problem is far more sinister than that.
Here I thought I’d just be expected to stock shelves with AF brochures, stand at a booth somewhere, and talk to prospective recruits about my experiences in the military. In reality, I was expected to learn the art of recruiting as if I wanted to be one myself. That’s not how I wanted it to play out, but it wasn’t a deal-breaker, not that I’d be authorized to turn it down anyways. Here are some things that I learned:
Each year, recruiters go to high schools and ask the principals and administration for a list of names, home phone numbers, and addresses for their respective senior classes. Most of the time, they comply. If you’ve ever been in high school and gotten a call from a military recruiter out of the blue, it’s because your high school is perfectly fine with releasing your personal information to them when they ask. Are schools allowed to release this information? Is the consent for sharing that information needed/provided by parents and students? Did they ever check a box or sign a document that authorizes the school to give out their home phone numbers to these glorified telemarketers? Would I even get an honest answer to these questions if I asked the recruiters? I can’t look at that practice and not see something very, very unethical and shady about it.
They sat me down with a clipboard and several pages of phone numbers for high school seniors. My job was to go down the list, one by one, calling the numbers and preaching the good word of the Air Force to them. I had an unwritten, flowchart-style script that I’ll explain in a moment. Next to each name on the list was a box where I was supposed to log any “progress” made with that individual. Maybe they are interested, maybe they are thinking about it, maybe they are 100% against the idea… those kinds of things are documented in the log.
Because these were home phone numbers of minors, parents were usually the ones to answer the phone. I dreaded this most of all. If the parent answered, I had to ask to speak to the student, and if they asked who’s calling, I was supposed to say only my first name, and use a tone that would make it seem like I’m the kid’s friend or classmate. So, already they are using deception and trickery to try and sneak behind parents’ backs. If they didn’t fall for it and called me out, I was to explain that I am so-and-so calling from the AF recruiter’s office, just wanting to speak to [student] and discuss any possible interest in seeing what the AF has to offer. At this point parents usually got quite upset, and I don’t blame them the slightest. “My son is not joining the military, you son of a bitch. Never contact us ever again” was the standard parental response.
So what was I supposed to do when parents told me to leave their family alone? You would think I could cross out that name on the list, or mention in the log that this one is a no-go. According to my recruiter, respecting someone’s wish not to be harassed is for quitters. Believe it or not, my recruiter told me that when parents say their kid isn’t joining the military, and refuse to let us speak to him, I am supposed to shame them for being overbearing control freaks. Something like “Isn’t that his decision to make?” or “You’re not him – I’d rather he speak for himself” comes to mind as the scripted response. I couldn’t summon my inner asshole to bully parents, so I didn’t. The recruiter wasn’t too pleased about that, but don’t worry – he said I can keep trying that same number later, in hopes that the kid will pick up the phone rather than his parents.
In the event that the prospect himself answers, I am, again, supposed to take on a tone as if I’m his longtime pal. I introduce myself as being from the AF recruiter’s office and immediately pose the question: “So dude, what are you planning on doing after high school, brah?” I grew up in a yuppie region and the region has only gotten yuppier – no shit, the answer is always going to be “college”. When they answer “college”, I was supposed to follow up with “how are you going to pay for it?” Obviously I am trying to segue into talking about how the military pays tuition. But again, they are yuppies, so most of them answered that their parents were going to pay for it. But remember, no excuse not to join the military is ever good enough! There is always a way to keep pushing it, and in this case, it’s… oh wow, more shaming and guilt-tripping. If the prospect says his parents will pay his way through college, I was supposed to make him feel bad for costing his parents so much money.
“You don’t really want to make your parents shell out tens of thousands of dollars of their hard-earned money, do you?”
“Come on, how long are you going to rely on your parents? Don’t you want to be independent?”
Recruiters obtain contact information through sketchy means, they use that contact information to harass families, insult parents and ignore their legitimate requests to be left alone, and then they try to make minors feel like terrible people for accepting their parents’ financial aid as they go through higher education. And they are completely blasé about all of the above. It takes a special kind of scum to be a recruiter.
Just a word of advice to anyone considering joining the military: joining is a huge life decision that cannot be taken lightly, and you need as much information as you can get before deciding. Recruiters are not legitimate sources of this information. Do your own research. Talk to a diverse group of people who are in the service and pick their brains about their experiences. Recruiters are not there to help you make an informed decision. They are there to sign you up by any means necessary and will say anything to make it happen. They are not the gatekeepers, they are the ones who hunt people down and drag them to the gates. If the thought of joining the military never really occurred to you before a recruiter initiated contact with you, chances are you are being misled about a lot of things. Take a step back and start looking for the facts elsewhere. Unfortunately, the only way into the military is through a recruiter, so make sure you have your mind at least 90% made up by the time you first meet with one.