They ride Black Hawk helicopters, fire mock assault rifles in combat simulators and can learn what it’s like to drive a Humvee. Some are so excited they want pictures of themselves holding guns.
But these enthusiasts aren’t about to join the military. They’re principals, teachers, coaches and mentors — people who New Jersey military recruiters believe hold the key to getting more high school students interested in the armed forces.
The strategy seems to be working. With the military sometimes struggling to meet recruitment goals nationwide, New Jersey’s National Guard has seen an increase in enlistment in the two years since the inception of its “Educate the Educator” program.
“If it wasn’t for programs like this, educators wouldn’t have an understanding of what we do,” said Lt. Col. Dennis Devery, who runs recruitment efforts for the New Jersey Guard.
Devery credits the hands-on tours at Fort Dix, held two to three times a week in the past year, with putting the New Jersey Guard on track to sign up 900 high school and college students this year. Before the program, the Guard averaged about 500 high school and college enlistments, he said. The 900 recruits this year are part of a total 1,500 expected enlistments.
Used in other states, too
The program has also been tried in other states, said Jack Harrison, a spokesman for the National Guard Bureau in Arlington, Va.
Guard officials say by educating the educators, they gain valuable allies in recruiting students whose parents are often concerned their children will be sent into battle.
Sgt. Steve Lawrence, a Guard recruiter, said he often points out to parents that he’s been in the Guard for six years and has yet to see combat duty — but he knows that’s possible. “It’s always the first thing I hear: ‘Iraq, Iraq, Iraq,”’ said Lawrence. “The parents are afraid.”
With at least 2,500 members of the U.S. military dead since the beginning of the Iraq war, Devery acknowledged concerns about safety are legitimate.
“I understand that not everybody’s going to go. But why would you take a young person who could so benefit from joining the Guard, and not provide them with the information?” Devery said.
During one tour in late May, a Black Hawk helicopter landed at Audubon High School, about 7 miles southeast of Philadelphia, and flew about a dozen educators to Fort Dix. The group checked out faux indoor combat environments and fought an ammunition-free gun battle in a combat simulator.
Principal wants to be supportive
Audubon High School Principal Don Borden said the tour was fun and underscored the importance of military training and recruiting.
“What we do, we’re just supportive of the kids who want to join. That’s something I’ll always do as long as I’m there,” Borden said.
High schools across the country generally treat military recruiters as they would any recruiter from a college or potential employer; for example, letting them set up tables to disseminate information to students during school lunch periods, said Jill Cook, programs director for the Alexandria, Va.-based American School Counselors Association.
At Pennsauken High School, near Philadelphia, guidance counselor Denise Wrzeszczynski said some students see the military as a way to obtain an affordable college education or develop career skills. Their parents are often worried they’ll see combat, she said.
“Sometimes they’ll express that their parents are unhappy with their choice and we discuss reasons why their parents might be unhappy,” Wrzeszczynski said.
Tom Vara, athletic director at Hopatcong High School, about 40 miles west of Manhattan, doesn’t encourage his students to join the military. He tells them to get an education first.
“It’s really patriotic, but there’s another side as well. We’re at war right now, and there’s a degree of risk you have to be aware of,” he said.
One recent recruit from Audubon, 18-year-old Joe Werner, attended the Fort Dix tour with the educators. He said getting on the Black Hawk with his classmates made him feel like the “president of the United States.”
Werner said he isn’t worried when other students tell him he’s going to end up taking gunfire in Iraq. “I say, ‘First, I’ll have great stories to tell my kids. And second, I’ll be able to save my country,”’ he said.