Signing up new soldiers, one way or another

More recruitment woes for the Army, after a rash of incidents in which recruiters have harassed prospective soldiers -- including falsely threatening them with arrest.

By Mark Follman
Published May 11, 2005 5:57PM (EDT)

The Army's recruiting woes continue. According to a report in today's Houston Chronicle, the Army will suspend enlistment efforts for one day later this month to address a rash of incidents around the country in which recruiters have harassed prospective soldiers.

It's another measure of just how much pressure is on the U.S. military, which has been dogged by months of recruitment shortfalls in the face of the Iraq war and other commitments around the globe under Bush foreign policy.

A key event prompting the Army to order the "values stand down," to be observed on May 20, took place in Houston in late April, when a recruiter, Sgt. Thomas Kelt, threatened to have a prospect arrested if he resisted recruiting efforts. Kelt left a voice mail message on the cell phone of Christopher Monarch, 20, of Spring, Texas, ordering him to show up for an appointment -- under the false pretense that Monarch would be violating the law if he didn't. Here's a transcript of the message (available as an audio file, here):

"Hey Chris, this is Sgt. Kelt at the Army, man. I think we got disconnected... I know you were on your cell probably, and you just had bad reception or something -- I know you didn't hang up on me. Anyway, by federal law you've got an appointment with me at two o'clock this afternoon at Greenpoint mall, OK? That's the Greenpoint mall, Army recruitment station at two o'clock. Fail to appear, and, uh, we'll have a warrant. OK? So give me a call back."

Monarch said he didn't receive the message until after the designated time -- and that he hadn't made such an appointment, nor had he been interested in joining the military. "I was scared," Monarch said, regarding the message. When he called Kelt the next day to clear up the matter, Kelt explained that threatening to issue an arrest warrant was a "marketing technique."

Monarch's account of his experience with Kelt was confirmed by Army officials, according to the Chronicle. "What the recruiter did in Houston was inappropriate. He lost his cool and said some things that shouldn't have been said," an unnamed Army official said. "It was similar to a spike in problems we've seen across the country. So there was a decision to take a day to address that, to reaffirm Army values, and the recruiting values the Army teaches."

Bill Grimes, a spokesman for the Army Recruiting Battalion in Houston, said that Kelt remained on duty, but that "corrective action" had been taken.

Another unnamed official quoted in the report downplayed the wider pattern of coercive actions: "We need to make sure everybody has their head on straight. We've got lots of people across the country doing good things the right way, and we've got a few people doing things the wrong way."

It's no shocker that official didn't want to be identified. Though by no means comparable in substance, it's difficult not to hear echoes of Abu Ghraib here -- the "few bad apples" line handed down by the higher ups once again. But if Kelt told Monarch he'd been using a "marketing technique," is the problem only one of getting a few renegade foot soldiers to fall back into line?

Not likely. For more evidence of systematic pressure on military recruiters to do whatever it takes to fill new boots -- whether "official" policy or not -- start here and here.

Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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