Saluting a Tough Job
Monday, July 28, 2008
The sales pitch is a tough one: Leave your family and your home, go through a grueling training program and then ship off to war -- where you could come home without all your parts, or not come home at all.
For Sgt. 1st Class Clay Usie, recruiting young men and women to join the Army is the "hardest job in America today." Support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has eroded, parents and teachers and coaches are less likely to recommend the military as a career and fewer than three in 10 young Americans are qualified to join.
But Usie, who believes his job is critical to defending the nation, turns recruiting into a lifestyle, rising at 5 a.m. to lift weights with candidates and to run with teenagers who struggle to make it two miles. Usie is not only one of the nation's best recruiters -- he is also a friend, a mentor, a cheerleader, a drill sergeant and, beneath it all, a salesman.
"The Recruiter," an HBO documentary that premieres tonight, follows Usie as he works in his home town of Houma, La. It is a touching portrait of a man dedicated to serving his country but also a starkly honest view of the nation's struggle with military service in a time of war.
Although focused on a small town in Louisiana, the story could take place almost anywhere in the United States. Teenagers decide whether to pursue dead-end jobs, a college education or the military, all the while navigating the desires of their parents, some of whom desperately want them to stabilize their lives while others fear sending their children to violence halfway around the world.
"I'm sure Iraq is full of a bunch of nice people, but should my son die for them?" asks one father and military veteran, whose son Bobby could be college-bound but has dedicated himself to becoming an elite Army Ranger. "That's the conflict I have."
The documentary is as much about Usie as it is about four young recruits with dramatically different reasons for considering the Army. In addition to Bobby: Lauren wants to emerge from poverty, and her mother wants her to straighten out; Chris is enticed by financial benefits; Matt idolizes Usie and his dedication to the country.
The United States is facing its toughest recruiting environment in the history of the all-volunteer Army, with the armed services aiming to grow at the same time they must fight two wars. In fiscal 2005, when the film is set, the Army missed its annual goal of 80,000 recruits by about 10 percent. It got back on track but then missed marks twice last year, as young Americans again were opting for other types of work.
Likewise, during Usie's recruiting, Houma is hit with tragedy as six Louisiana National Guardsmen are killed in January 2005, when a roadside bomb rips through their Bradley Fighting Vehicle in Iraq. The community, shaken -- as many are when casualties leap from the faceless statistics in the news and hit close to home -- begins to spurn the recruiters. People hang up the phones, candidates dwindle, college fairs empty when Usie steps to the microphone.
At a memorial service for the dead, Usie assures a family member that the Army is not going to quit. "Your son gave me everything," Usie says. He then turns to one of the soldier's younger brothers and begins his pitch anew, inviting him to come by the recruiting station if he needs anything; Usie also wants to give him a new Army video game.
Another recruiter in the office says they're just doing their part "to fill the foxholes in Iraq and Afghanistan." A veteran of Iraq, the recruiter says he saw lots of people hurt on the battlefield, noting grimly, "I don't like talking about stuff that I saw in Iraq."
In perhaps the most revealing element of the film, "The Recruiter" moves past the courting phase and on to the Army's basic training program, providing a rare glimpse inside Fort Jackson, S.C., and Fort Benning, Ga. It strips almost all romance from the process, highlighting a young recruit's panic attack -- "It happens quite a bit," says one trainer -- endless sit-ups and push-ups, and the sudden realization by some that this is all in preparation for going to war.
At the same time, the young recruits are inspiring, showing unbridled enthusiasm and dedication to doing it right and defending the nation. They leave their tearful loved ones behind to pursue a dirty, gritty, dangerous job that does not promise survival. "The Recruiter" captures all of this, not judging the teenagers' decisions but careful in showing that none of it is easy -- for Usie, for the families at home or for those who have chosen the Army as a way of life.
Bobby's father, tearing up and stumbling over his words, says he will be thinking one thing when the time comes to take his son to the airport: "Old men start wars that young men fight."
The Recruiter (90 minutes) debuts tonight at 9 on HBO.
Josh White is a military correspondent for The Post who was embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq in 2004 and 2006.