Wednesday, February 5, 2014
The main artery at Ashley Ridge High School is clogged near the cafeteria by a large clot of students laughing and cheering as one of them attempts to do pull-ups on a portable bar. Nearby, two soldiers in dress uniform stand waiting to offer support and a token for the student’s attempt.
The soldiers are part of the Army’s recruiting office in Summerville. They are familiar faces at ARHS. There is a buzz in the air. Soldiers are hurrying back and forth.
“They said they were leaving and it takes about 45 minutes so they should be here any minute,” says SFC Justin Christopher to SSG Joseph Martial.
Christopher is Center Commander for the Summerville U.S. Army Recruiting Station on Bacons Bridge Road, in the BI-LO shopping center.
The “they” who are arriving at any moment are the bigwigs from Brigade Headquarters at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. They are in charge of the lower east coast recruiting stations including those in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia and North and South Carolina. Along the way, they have picked up one from Columbia Battalion Headquarters and two from the Charleston Recruiting Company.
ARHS’s Pat Bradley, career specialist, is the Army’s point of contact at Ashley Ridge. She is almost more excited than the soldiers.
“This is a really big deal,” she says, and hurries to the front office to be there when they arrive.
A few minutes later word comes down that the car has arrived in the ARHS parking lot.
In the front office there are introductions and welcomes. However, Army bigwigs or not, and fatigues aside, each and everyone has to present identification and write their name on a nametag which they must then stick on their respective chests before they are allowed admittance into the school.
Once past the Praetorian Guard, Bradley begins a planned tour to show the brass what their recruiters do at Ashley Ridge.
The entourage includes Top Brass Col. David Stewart, CSM Milton Rhodie, both responsible for all the recruiting offices and soldiers in the southeast area, LTC. Michael Standish, from Columbia and Cpt. Bonnie Hutchinson and 1SG William Weir, from Charleston.
According to the on-site recruiting staff, the visit to ARHS is to see the interaction between local recruitment personnel and the community.
“Ashley Ridge faculty is awesome,” says Christopher. “We have great interaction. In my years recruiting – 2007 to 2013 – I have never seen a faculty as receptive.”
His “point man” is Bradley. Bradley has an affinity for the military; her son is in the Air Force.
The recruiters spend a good deal of time in DD2 high schools. Their mission is to build trust and credibility, says Christopher. They will bring interesting Army “toys” such as Humvees and a dog tag machine, or the pull-up bars.
“These things expose them to the Army,” explains Christopher.
So far this year, he says, nine to 10 students have enlisted.
The Army offers career specialists to help students find an avenue for college. They offer options for the future, different routes to help students achieve their life plans. They meet with students on a one-on-one basis either at school or at the recruiting office.
Parents are integral to this process, Christopher says.
He admits that one in five parents object to their child enlisting. “But that is almost always because they don’t have accurate information.”
Once they meet with parents and answer questions and address concerns, almost all parents become supportive, he says.
Occasionally, a parent might prefer a different branch of the Armed Forces but that’s okay, he says, we [all branches of the military] are all here for the same purpose.
However, “the Army,” he notes, “is the only service that guarantees a job in writing!”
And after a student has served? The Army also guarantees an interview for a job after the service.
“In fact,” he explains, “their last year in the Army is spent in workshops and classes that aid them in getting a job when they are out. We help them build their resume.”
The Army is choosy, though. Not just anyone can get in. Run-ins with law enforcement affect the sort of job you might get to do in the Army. And any drug or drug paraphernalia charges (which can happen for simply being in the same car) or two DUIS will keep you out of the Army.
“Only one in four will qualify,” says Stewart.
Stewart adds that for those who do not qualify, often recruiters will take a student “under their wing” and “invest in a kid” to help them find a good path or a way to qualify.
“They might train together or the recruiter will offer guidance,” explains Stewart.
The Army sees education as one of the most important goals for its recruits. To this end, it offers myriad paths to students to get a college degree.
Once they have that degree they can switch from regular Army to Officer Training School.
Stewart’s goal with this tour is “to ensure that our soldiers and their families are okay. My key goal is to get out and meet my soldiers [under his command].”
Further, “our kids are in the same schools as your kids are, so we have a vested interest.”
Stewart stops to speak with each and every student he passes in the hallways.
“How are you? I like the bowtie! It’s good to meet you,” he says to various students, shaking their hands.
“We are about education,” he explains. “It’s not college or the Army but college and the Army…and we’ll pay for it. We are like a big scholarship.”
“We are an opportunity,” adds Hutchinson, “but we are different because we can create other opportunities for you.”
Students walking by also stop and initiate a handshake saying, “thank you for your service.”
Marcia Edwards, a business teacher at ARHS, is in the Air Force Reserve. She says “the most important thing is to give kids options and the military does.”
“We often have a ‘legacy force,’” adds Stewart, meaning generations of families serve.
“We [Rhodie and he] come out to connect with people … to ensure we are accomplishing our mission for the Army in support of the national strategy.”
Gabriel Lawson, 17, is walking down the hall and Stewart stops to speak with him.
“I enlisted,” says Lawson, “and I swore in a month ago. I ship off to Fort Jackson August 5, 2014.”
Lawson is beaming. “Everyone in my family is military,” he says, “I’ve kind of been bred into the military!”
He says he’s excited about the new skills he will learn and the fact that he will be sure of a job when he gets out although he wants to do a full 20 years. He says he will have the satisfaction of serving his country.
Amanda Adams meets the entourage in the hall and takes them to her Air Force ROTC class. In front of the class, she introduced the five-member team that she only met moments earlier. She does so with confidence.
Stewart asks the class if they have found it different than they expected it to be when they signed up.
One young lady says, “Yes, I thought we would get yelled at a lot.”
Another student says, “Now, I really appreciate all that the military does.”
Stewart asks Adams to step to the front.
“We in the military have a custom,” he says. “We recognize good leadership and the potential for good leadership. We do so with a coin.”
He takes her hand, places a boxed coin in it, and tells her she will make a good leader.