The new star of Columbia's Marine recruiting station pulls his sports car to the curb just past 7:30 a.m. It's a drizzly, gray spring day, and Staff Sgt. Jason Baxley is not in a particularly good mood, despite his stellar performance over the past four weeks.

During March, Baxley somehow landed five recruits for the United States Marine Corps -- an extraordinary feat of perseverance, charm and luck that not even he can fully explain. If he had recruited just two, he would have met the monthly minimum expected of every Marine recruiter. Three would have been solid work, especially with Marines dying in Iraq. Four would have been outstanding, given his territory, an affluent Maryland suburb where the overwhelming majority of teenagers go to college without giving the military a thought. But five has transformed Baxley from a nervous novice with just six months of recruiting experience under his belt into a hero who helped his station meet its quota of new Marines.

While it feels great to have won a plaque commemorating his "Big Nickel," Baxley knows everyone will be watching to see whether he can deliver again. Today is the beginning of a new month -- April 1. With the turn of a calendar page, he is starting from scratch in this what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business. And he's not looking forward to what lies ahead.

Baxley gets out of his car and opens the door to the recruiting station, which, at first glance, could pass for a war room. Maps of the Baltimore-Washington region cover one of the walls; key targets are marked with little flags and past successes with pushpins. The flags represent area high schools, and the pushpins indicate the home addresses of recent recruits.

Baxley wishes this were a real battle bunker. He desperately wanted to go to Iraq last year instead of being assigned to recruiting duty. Part of him would rather be shot at by Iraqi insurgents than shot down by some snotty teenager. While his fellow Marines are risking their lives, the only wounds he has to worry about are those to his pride.

Baxley greets his boss, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Gowl, who is as upbeat as Baxley is down. Gowl's job is to pump up his recruiters for the month ahead. The station's mission, again, is eight. Gowl divvies it up this way: The station's two new recruiters, fresh out of the San Diego school where the Marines teach their own to become salesmen, will be responsible for only one apiece. That leaves three each for Baxley and his colleague, Staff Sgt. Donald Stepney.

Baxley nods his head as he gets his orders, but he knows three could be tough. In January, he signed up just one. In February, he struggled to land two. Now it's April, the month when most kids receive acceptance letters from college, his biggest competitor. Even worse: Iraq is out of control, and the newspapers are filled with grisly pictures of wounded and dying Marines. Today television is airing shocking images of charred corpses of American contractors hanging from a bridge over the Euphrates River.

This, Baxley thinks, could be a very long month.

Gowl pats him on the back and gives him an encouraging smile. "Just do the exact same thing you did last month," he says, "and you'll be all right."

THE REGISTRAR AT ATHOLTON HIGH SCHOOL in Columbia shakes her head as she prints out the student's transcript.

"You might want to worry about him," she says, handing Baxley the paper. "He's skating on thin ice."

Baxley glances at the transcript. It's worse than he thought. There are two failing grades. The student, a senior, is supposed to become a Marine after he graduates. He enlisted in the fall and has signed a waiver allowing Baxley to check his grades. But if he fails, he doesn't graduate. If he doesn't graduate, he can't join the Corps -- and Baxley loses a recruit. It's not even noon, and Baxley is looking at the prospect of losing someone who has already joined. This is not how he wants to start the month.

He grimaces as he scans the transcript again. "Is there any way I can go yell at him?" he asks.

The student is in class, the registrar says, and can't be pulled out. "You might want to talk to his guidance counselor," she suggests, pointing to a nearby office.

"He's got to understand, he needs that diploma," Baxley tells the guidance counselor, who nods his head sympathetically. "I can get drastic. I don't know what you'll let me do, but I'll sit in class with him."

That strikes the counselor as a bit extreme. But he concedes that someone needs to stay on top of the kid and is glad Baxley can fill that role. Students are away for spring break next week, the counselor says. When they get back, he'll talk to the kid as well.

Baxley isn't going to wait that long. "I'm going to call him tonight," he declares. "If he has to sit in my office to do his homework, he will."

The words come out slowly, rounded by Baxley's South Carolina drawl and softened by his Southern manners. He doesn't speak often, or for long, but when he does, he's direct and candid, the result of the instruction drilled into him by his mother and the Marine Corps. At 27, Jason Baxley still has the broad shoulders and short, wide neck that made him a defensive lineman in high school. Since joining the Marines nine years ago, he's had a constant crew cut that keeps his hair prickly short on the sides, with just enough of a wisp on top to reveal its orange tint. An oversize watch is strapped to one of his thick wrists.

He hands the counselor his business card and asks him to stay in touch. As Baxley walks out of the school, past the puzzled stares of students surprised to see a Marine in his dress uniform, a gangly teenager peeks his head out of a classroom.

"Hey, what's up, man?" the young man says. It's the student whose grades he came to check.

"You know your report card is coming out tomorrow?" Baxley demands.

The boy, tall and awkward in a red Marine Corps T-shirt, says nothing as he steps into the hallway.

"What's your mom's work number? I'm going to call her before she calls me," Baxley says. She has already called him once, just a couple of days ago, worrying about her son's grades.

"What's going on?" Baxley says, jotting down her number. "You're no dummy."

"I know. I know," the boy says, staring at his feet. "I'm on it. It's just -- it's just senioritis."

Baxley repeats the threat that he's been making all morning: If the kid doesn't shape up, he'll have to do his homework in Baxley's office. Or worse: "I'll sit in class with you."

At this the boy looks up from his shoelaces, stares at Baxley and then at the class, which is proceeding without him. The thought seems unbearable, a uniformed Marine baby-sitting him in school. He nods, shuffles his feet and mumbles again -- "I know. I know."

BY MIDAFTERNOON, Baxley has returned to his office near the Mall in Columbia and turns his attention to a list of prospects he calls his "players." This month they include: a senior at Wilde Lake High School whose mother won't sign the release form that all 17-year-olds must get from their parents; another 17-year-old with reluctant parents who has promised to enlist on his 18th birthday, when he won't need their consent; a track star whose high school coach has been telling her that "she's too good for the Marine Corps" and should go to college instead; and a student at Catonsville Community College who has failed the Marines entrance exam but is about to take it again.

Before Baxley can call any of them, however, a flustered 20-year-old with acne on his cheeks and neck and a peach-fuzz mustache walks into the office and announces that he has heard some disturbing news: Recruits are allowed just one phone call at boot camp, to tell their parents they've arrived safely.

"So that means, like, no cell phones?" he says incredulously.

Of course, there are no cell phones, Baxley says. This is Marine Corps boot camp, the toughest training in the world. He uses a tone that indicates they've been over this territory before, but his answer seems to raise more questions about boot camp in the frazzled boy's mind.

"Are there, like, days off, or is it seven days a week?" the recruit asks, fidgeting anxiously. He's just a few weeks from his "ship date," the day he'll go to Parris Island, S.C., and start to become a Marine, and he's clearly getting cold feet. Technically, he can still change his mind. The Marines can't force him to go to boot camp. But dropping out this late is something the Marines strongly discourage, and there is considerable pressure on the recruiters to keep it from happening. Which is why Baxley seems to spend almost as much time making sure recruits stay in as he does wooing new prospects.

"Oh, this changes a lot of stuff," the recruit says, when Baxley reminds him that boot camp is 13 weeks straight. No days off. But then you graduate and become a Marine, and all that pain and suffering is worth it, Baxley says.

A band of other recruits waltzes into the office, which is often an after-school hangout for those waiting to ship off to Parris Island. In front of the other recruits, the panicky young man straightens his spine and tries to erase the fear from his face. Baxley doesn't take his eyes off him.

"You look so worried," Baxley says. "You got to smile more."

The recruit nods his head and says softly: "I'm straight, man. Don't worry."

But Baxley is worried, at least a little. "Man, I think every time he comes in here he's going to say, 'I changed my mind.' " Baxley says later. "He'll be all right," he adds after a moment, though he sounds as if he's struggling to convince even himself.

By now, it's close to 7 p.m. Time to do some actual recruiting. He picks up the phone to call 17-year-old Bradley Secrest, whose mother, Kathy Jacobs, won't sign the release form.

Jacobs doesn't want her son to join the Marines, though she knows he's eager to serve. "I fear for his safety," says Jacobs, an assistant principal at a local elementary school. "I hear every day about our soldiers being killed, and many of them are Marines."

She's been annoyed by the constant calls her son is getting from recruiters from every branch of the service. If she gets home in time, she deletes the messages before he can listen to them. "I have never considered that he would do anything other than go to college," she explains. There's good reason for that: Bradley Secrest is an outstanding student at Wilde Lake High School and a member of the National Honor Society.

Baxley knows there is going to be a lot of resistance at this house. He leaves a message anyway, asking if Secrest is still interested in signing up.

"Hopefully his mom won't delete it," he says, hanging up.

ZIP. NADA. A BIG FAT ZERO. An entire week has gone by, and Baxley hasn't landed a single recruit. Secrest did get the message. But he also got an acceptance letter to the University of Maryland -- and a full academic scholarship to Villa Julie College near Baltimore. Now there is no way his mother will sign the release form.

The prospect who vowed to enlist on his 18th birthday also called. But when Baxley called back, he had to leave a message with the teen's mother, who was not happy to hear from him. He'll have to track down the kid another time, he decides, when she can't interfere. "I'm going to have to get him at school," he says.

His best hope for now is Manveet Chadha. At 19, he's sick of community college and says he's ready "to do something with my life." All he has to do is pass the Marines entrance exam. But that hasn't been so easy. He's already failed once, and if he fails again he has to wait six months before he is able to retake it. Today, though, the scores are due, and should be in any minute.

Gowl paces in the Columbia recruiting office, impatient for the results. He makes Baxley call the regional headquarters for them once, then again, but they're not in yet. As head of the recruiting station, Gowl is under pressure, too. His station has made its quota only twice in the past six months -- not good. A tally sheet that tracks the progress of all the stations in the area like a baseball box score shows that Gowl's shop is off to a decent start this month, thanks to Stepney, who has already recruited two. But so far he's the only one of Gowl's four recruiters who has enlisted anyone.

Finally, the phone rings. Chadha has passed by a slim margin. Gowl and Baxley exchange smiles of relief. They don't high-five or slap each other on the back. Chadha has passed the test, but he hasn't signed yet. Baxley calls to give him the news. "Congrats," Baxley says. "We ready to do this today?"

Baxley wants to get him processed as soon as possible, before Chadha has second thoughts. But there's no cause for concern. Chadha assures him he'll sign whenever Baxley wants him to.

"That takes a load off my back," Baxley says after he hangs up the phone. "Once you write that first contract of the month, you feel better."

The next day's tally sheet from headquarters notes Baxley's contract, and a handwritten note on the sheet says, "Congrats on #1 today." But just because he's gotten one doesn't mean the pressure is going to let up. The note continues, "Can you get a double nickel?"

AT ANY GIVEN TIME, there are about 3,300 Marine recruiters looking for prospects across the country. Since the creation of the all-volunteer military in 1973, Marine recruiters and their counterparts in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard have been charged with finding the young men and women willing to defend the country. They've gotten help from increasingly slick marketing campaigns. The Army spends $180 million a year on its "An Army of One" campaign, airing frequent commercials and even creating a video game that can be downloaded from the Army's Web site. Marine recruiters are backed by $45 million annually in marketing that is orchestrated, in part, by the advertising firm J. Walter Thompson, which also helps Ford craft its message.

Recruiters are the public face of the military, "ambassadors" to the civilian world, explains Master Gunnery Sgt. Scott M. Hansen, the chief instructor of the San Diego recruiting school. They personify military honor and discipline. The best take the mission so seriously they go well beyond merely filling the ranks. They become fixtures in their communities, helping to coach high school teams or helping students with homework, becoming mentors.

During peacetime, many young men and women join the military for the leadership skills and money for college touted in the commercials. But as the death toll rises in Iraq, recruiting has become more complicated, more crucial -- and more controversial.

Rep. Charles Rangel, a Democrat from New York, says relying on a recruited military, especially in wartime, is wrong. He has proposed restoring the draft, an idea that he concedes is a tough sell in an election year. Still, he thinks, the issue is worth raising during a war being fought, he says, largely by poor and working-class people from inner cities and rural areas. They join the service because they have limited prospects, and wind up risking their lives in Iraq or Afghanistan. The sons and daughters of America's middle- and upper-class families are largely absent from the service, he says, creating a fundamental imbalance.

It was easy for politicians to support invading Iraq "when you're fighting a war with other people's children," he says. "It's not shared sacrifice. It's so unfair . . . The people in the military are those who can't afford not to be in the military."

Meanwhile, many of those already in the military are having a hard time getting out. The Pentagon has lengthened the tours of some units serving in Iraq. It recently invoked a provision known as "stop-loss" to prevent many soldiers from leaving active duty at the end of their volunteer service commitments. In June, the Defense Department announced that thousands of veterans who have completed their active-duty requirements will be called back to duty. Critics, most notably Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, have labeled this a "backdoor draft."

There is growing concern in Congress and at the Pentagon that many service members won't reenlist when their time is up. Recruiters for the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force already have to find more than 180,000 new active-duty enlistees every year -- a number that could spike sharply if reenlistment rates take a nosedive.

Some lawmakers and military leaders are especially worried about the Army Reserve and National Guard, whose ranks have been relied on heavily since September 11, 2001. Members of the Guard and the Reserve make up about 40 percent of the 146,000 troops serving in Iraq.

"This is the first extended-duration war our nation has fought with an all-volunteer force," Lt. Gen. James R. Helmly, the chief of the Army Reserve, said earlier this year. "We must be sensitive to that. And we must apply proactive, preventive measures to prevent a recruiting-retention crisis."

So far, no crisis has emerged, though the Army acknowledged last month that the number of people in the "delayed entry" program -- those who have enlisted but not been shipped to boot camp -- has dwindled to a three-year low. That could make it tougher for the Army to make its numbers next year.

The Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines all met their quotas for the first half of this fiscal year. The Army, which signs up about 100,000 active-duty and reserve enlisted soldiers a year, hasn't missed its annual goal since 1999, when it fell nearly 17,000 soldiers short of its objective of 120,084. The Navy has made its numbers every year since 1998, when it was able to fill only 88 percent of new active-duty enlisted slots.

The Marine Corps, which signs up about 38,000 recruits a year, has had the most success, making its annual quota for almost 10 years. The Corps can sell a mystique -- "Semper Fi," "First In, Last Out," "The Few. The Proud" -- that the other branches don't have. But there is always tremendous pressure to "make mission," especially during wartime.

"The chances of getting shot at so closely after signing on the dotted line are higher probably than any other time since Vietnam," acknowledges Maj. Joe Kloppel, the public affairs officer for the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego. But whatever the political climate, he says, "we can't ever fail."

LIKE ALL MARINE RECRUITERS, Baxley spent seven weeks learning the art of persuasion at the San Diego recruit depot.

Only about half the students who come through the school request recruiting duty, and many of them do so in pursuit of a promotion. The other half are ordered to become recruiters. Baxley fell into the latter category. He was, as he puts it, "voluntold" to do it.

Regardless of how Marines become recruiters, almost all of them voice apprehensions about their new assignment once they arrive in San Diego. When instructor Jackie Freiberg asks a new class of 125 recruiters how many will be nervous speaking before groups of teenagers, almost all of the hands go up. When she asks how many are scared to go into combat, none do.

The reason, she says, is that, while they've been trained for combat, they haven't learned the strategic maneuvers required for approaching a clique of teenagers at the mall, or keeping the attention of a high school class for 45 minutes. One of the recruiting school's favorite techniques for getting Marines comfortable with public speaking is to have them each make a "What Makes Me Angry" speech.

"Beautiful day. Sun's out. I got my rooftop open. Listening to the tunes. Just driving," one sergeant begins his story softly. "Then, all of a sudden, a car cuts me off," he continues, his voice and brow rising in unison.

His audience, a small group of about 10 other recruiters-in-training, goad him on: "No way," one says. "What are you going to do?" demands another.

"So what am I going to do? I SPEED UP! AND THEN I GET OUT OF THE CAR. I GO UP TO HIS WINDOW. BAM!" He swings his elbow into the air and his face turns bright red, a purple vein bulging in his forehead. "I SMASH IT."

"YEAH!" the other Marines yell.

"AND THEN YOU KNOW WHAT I DO? I PULL HIM OUT. I GRAB HIM. AND TOSS HIM TO THE GROUND. AND I HIT HIM. I HIT HIM. I HIT HIM. AND THEN I SMASH HIS FACE. AND THEN I PUT HIM IN THE REAR CHOKE HOLD."

"RIP HIS HEAD OFF," screams one of the Marines in the class.

With that, the vitriol crests. The sergeant takes a breath, and the red runs out of his face. "But you know, it's just not worth it," he says. "I'm a United States Marine. And the Marine Corps keep us at a high standard, teaches us discipline and patience."

The class erupts into raucous applause, and a public-speaking teacher, who has been jotting notes on a piece of paper, gives him a big smile.

"Good job," the teacher says. "You're looking good. You're looking a lot more comfortable up there."

Though no recruiters will ever deliver a speech about road rage to teenagers, the "What Makes Me Angry" exercise helps them get rid of their apprehensions about public speaking. When Marines are angry, instructors have discovered, they become impassioned, gesticulate and lose their inhibitions -- key ingredients of a good speech. Now they simply need to do all that without getting so violent.

To be successful recruiters, they have to learn to behave in ways their drill instructors never would have allowed and shed some of the strict mannerisms pounded into them during boot camp. Their new assignment is to sell the Corps, and, to do that well, they have to be able to relate to teenagers, to talk like them, act like them, loosen up. But for Marines, who have been taught precisely how to sit, stand, walk and eat, something as simple as smiling doesn't always come easy. Which is why the Marines look outside their ranks for help.

Jackie Freiberg, co-owner of Freibergs.com, a private consulting firm, has been teaching communication and salesmanship to recruiters for more than a decade. She is tall and stylish, with long blond hair, engaging blue eyes and a nurturing demeanor -- nothing like the instructors her students are used to. She says "Goooood" when someone gives her a correct answer, and never yells at the incorrect ones. While she says the Marines are quick learners who are particularly adept at following instructions, they also pose special challenges that she does not encounter from other clients, which include executives from Sprint and Southwest Airlines.

"We're going to try to deprogram you," Freiberg tells the class at the start of school. "We've got to tear that military speech down. We don't call ourselves civilians. The only people who call us civilians are you. We don't go to the head. We go to the bathroom. We don't go to chow. We have lunch. We don't have MOSs [military occupational specialties]. We have jobs. You have to go back to your roots, remember how you used to talk."

Many of her students have been Marines for so long that they have a difficult time remembering how they used to talk. "It's very hard leaving that Marine mentality," a sergeant says as he heads to a classroom for extra help.

In the classroom, there are Marines in almost every corner of the room facing the wall, as if being punished, practicing their "Why I Love the Marines" speeches out loud. "Good morning, class. My name is . . ." One starts and stops his speech several times without ever getting past the third sentence, until he finally bends over at the waist as if in pain.

Soon, a speech coach asks the sergeant to recite his speech.

"Good morning," he says, introducing himself. "I am your local Marine Corps representative. Today I am here to talk to you about why I love the Marine Corps. There are many reasons why I love the Marine Corps, but, unfortunately, today I only have time for two. The first reason is tuition assistance. The second reason is educational benefits -- "

"Okay, I'm going to stop you right there," the speech coach interrupts. The sergeant is what the Marines have made him: a warrior, big, tough and strong. But the coach sees something different in him, something the high school kids will like.

"You look like a big teddy bear," she tells him. "You look really warm and approachable."

"Is that bad?" he asks sheepishly.

"No. It's good . . . That warm, approachable nature, we want to capitalize on that. There's a couple of things we're going to do right off the bat to help. One of them is: I don't want you to curl your fingers. If you have them open, it looks more relaxed to civilians. This," she says, curling up fingers into her palm, "looks like a fist to us . . . Okay let's do the introduction again."

She interrupts him five more times to offer bits of advice -- smile, slow down, don't be so stiff -- before he finally gets through the whole thing. Then she sends him to the corner to practice his speech facing the wall.

Slowly, with each recitation, he gets better. He'll practice the speech over and over, forcing himself to smile, to create a more approachable persona. And with a few more weeks of training, he'll be ready to hit the streets.

WHEN BAXLEY GOT THE ORDERS assigning him to recruiting duty early last year, his unit was preparing to go to Iraq. It was the first real war since he had joined the military, and he didn't want to miss it. Plus, the thought of having to go up to teenagers in a mall or a school hallway made him shudder. He asked if he could postpone recruiting school until after he returned. But the Marines said no.

"It's like training for the Super Bowl and then having to sit on the bench," Baxley says with a trace of bitterness.

In the small town outside of Myrtle Beach, S.C., where he grew up, lots of kids join the military, eager to serve, eager to fight if that's what they're called to do. About a dozen of his high school classmates went into the Army after their senior year. Baxley was one of four to join the Marines.

His family couldn't afford to send him to college, he says. After he lost a scholarship to study drawing at the Art Institute of Atlanta for getting into a fight at school, he figured he could join the military, work for his dad doing odd construction jobs or get a job in the steel factory. The first option was a lot more appealing than the other two. So he enlisted and, like the commercials say, saw the world. When he came home to visit, his travels -- to Italy, Japan, Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, Australia -- and the medals on his uniform were sources of pride.

Thanks to the Marines, he believes he has done something meaningful with his life. He plans to remain in the Corps for another 11 years, when he thinks he'll have earned enough benefits to retire comfortably. He is a dedicated Marine -- upright, faithful, handsome in his uniform. In other words, just the kind of person the Marines are looking for to sell the Corps to others.

By the time he got the orders to go to recruiting school, he had been promoted to staff sergeant, become an expert in the weapons systems for F-18 fighter jets and sometimes had as many as 30 Marines under his command. Serving a three-year tour as a recruiter will increase his chances of being promoted, this time to gunnery sergeant.

So, reluctantly, he went to San Diego and studied his 285-page textbook, which laid out the secrets of landing recruits: how to calm a reluctant parent, get inside classrooms, befriend guidance counselors and find out where kids hang out after school.

"The first time you call the prospect, his mother states, 'He's not home right now, he's at school rehearsing for the senior play.' (Use this information to get the prospect to do the talking.) Recruiter: I understand you're in the senior play. Tell me more about it!"

Baxley also learned how to handle what the textbook refers to as "stallers."

"When you reach the moment of decision and John begins the 'staller two step,' control your urge to strangle him and simply state, 'John, I'm confused. When we began this conversation I asked . . . if you would describe yourself as the type of person who, when given enough information and whose questions have been answered, can make a decision? You said yes. Now were you trying to impress me, or were you serious?' "

If that pressure doesn't work, recruiters can try the "challenge close," where they say something like: "I'm not sure you have what it takes to be a Marine." Or they can try the "Puppy Dog close:" "Have an extra set of dress blues in the office and have the prospect wear the jacket looking into the mirror. Ask them what they see."

Baxley tried out his pitch on kids at a shopping center near the recruiting school, honing his sales skills and learning to balance the pressure to sign up new recruits with upholding the Corps' exacting standards.

It's a tricky, stressful business, he was told. Not everyone is right for the Marines, and not everyone is going to want to join. But just because it's a tough assignment doesn't mean recruiters can bend the rules or make false promises.

"Don't try to make an applicant or their family believe it's a piece of cake," the textbook warns. A popular Marines poster reinforces the point: "We'd promise you sleep deprivation, mental torment and muscles so sore you'll puke. But we don't like to sugarcoat things."

"One out of ten will agree to an appointment, and two out of four appointments will not show up," the textbook continues. "Don't take it personal. If you do, odds are you will cross a line, and do something stupid like threaten them with bodily harm or just plain lie to qualify the one who did come in."

The Marine brass was just as blunt with Baxley: He was going to become a recruiter whether he liked it or not. He definitely didn't like it; but by the time he left San Diego for Maryland, he had accepted it.

THERE ARE THE SKILLS YOU LEARN in recruiting school and those you learn on the street. One of Baxley's predecessors in Columbia was brilliant at getting inside Howard County high schools and connecting with kids. He chaperoned high school proms, helped out with a school play and spoke to high school classes whenever he could persuade teachers to invite him. He was an operator. If a potential recruit had smoked marijuana recently, for instance, he would pay for a private drug test with his own money to make sure the kid was clean before letting him take the Marine Corps' version. He was eventually bounced from recruiting after being convicted of misdemeanor assault and a sexual offense against a 17-year-old female recruit.

Baxley is nothing like him. He wouldn't go to a high school prom, and the thought of having to stand in front of a class for most of an hour scares him. He has his own tactics: He bought a PlayStation II, which he brings into the recruiting office, "so I'd have something to talk to them about," he says. He has gotten to know a couple of coaches who recommend a prospect every once in a while. And he has befriended one high school principal, who turned out to be a former Marine.

Mostly, he relies on his recruits to do much of the recruiting for him, a fairly common approach. Kids trust other kids more than they'll trust a Marine in a uniform. And if the recruits get two other friends or classmates to join, they'll be promoted automatically once they graduate from boot camp.

Like all recruiters, Baxley works brutally long hours. Twelve-hour days are typical, and not a weekend goes by that he doesn't work at least one day. When he's not out trolling for recruits at high schools or the mall, he is making hundreds of cold calls to potential recruits and logging the responses on note cards. The No Child Left Behind Act, landmark education reform signed by President Bush in 2002, requires public high schools to provide military recruiters with lists of students' names and phone numbers unless parents specifically request that their information be withheld. But that rarely happens. Out of the more than 6,200 juniors and seniors in the Howard County school system last year, only 30 had parents who made that request.

For Baxley, the constant calling -- and the constant rejection noted in a brief running diary next to each student's name -- makes him feel like a telemarketer.

Next to one name he's written: "Mom said NI" -- not interested -- "Don't call."

Next to another: "Interested in military. Parents won't sign. Don't want him to sit down with me."

Another: "Dad said no way . . . His son is not going to fight no war."

Another: "Mom says he's going to college."

That is one of the most frequent responses -- and the most frustrating. "They're so wealthy, and the parents say, 'You're too good for that,' " Baxley complains. "They all want their kids to go to college."

Not that he's dead set against college. He just thinks that too many people write off the Marines without fully exploring the perks, which include college tuition money. He often capitalizes on the intense teenage desire for independence by asking prospects: "Do you want to be living off your parents for the rest of your life?"

And if one of them fires back the inevitable question -- Will I go to war? -- he tells them it's possible. Lots of jobs, like his, are not on the front lines. Still, many are, and he tries to be straight about it. But he doesn't think fear of dying should prevent anyone from joining.

"More people were murdered in Baltimore last year than the Marines have lost in Iraq," he says. "And we're at war."

THE THIRD-PERIOD BELL RINGS, and the students at River Hill High School spill out of classrooms and into the hallway. Suddenly, there is a trove of potential recruits all around, many smart and athletic -- exactly the kind of kids the Marines are looking for.

Baxley straightens the glossy Marine Corps brochures on the table the high school administration has let him use. The principal has stationed him in the hallway between the cafeteria and the guidance office, whose windows are adorned with names of the colleges that seniors have been accepted to: Johns Hopkins, Virginia Tech, Cornell, Duke, New York University.

The stream of students approaches, but most of it flows right by him to another table, which has a sign for the prom. There are three, then 10, then 15 students in line to sign up for the dance, all of them passing by Baxley and the future he wants to sell them. For these kids, the script seems to have been already written -- prom, graduation, college -- and there is nothing Baxley can do to change their trajectories.

But if the forces conspiring against him are in plain sight, he doesn't seem to notice. He can't afford to be distracted. It's now April 21, and Baxley still has just one recruit for the month, Manveet Chadha. Stepney got another one, which means he's now at three. That's great for the station, which is now halfway to its goal of eight, but it isn't making Baxley look any better.

With his acceptance to the University of Maryland, Secrest is definitely out of the picture until he turns 18 -- and that's not for another couple of months. The prospect who called Baxley on his 18th birthday was, as Baxley puts it, "conned into doing a semester" at Howard Community College by his mother. So he's out, too.

But Baxley still has a few good leads. The track star, Sarah Mero, who runs for Long Reach High School, wants to join the Marines to earn money for college. She promises she'll sign by the end of the month, despite the opposition of her coach, Gregory Johnson. The 18-year-old has good grades and is an excellent runner -- she can run 1600 meters in 5:39, a time that will win her a Maryland regional championship title. Johnson thinks she could land a track scholarship, but Mero says she won't be getting any help from her family and can't afford college on anything less than a full ride. Johnson has been trying to convince her that she could make it work, and he doesn't like the way Baxley has been pursuing her. The recruiter has started showing up at some of the practices, which Johnson thinks is "a little heavy-handed," even "creepy."

Johnson hates that military recruiters come to the big track meets, watching kids who ought to be focused on their event. "To me it seems a little predatory or opportunistic," he says.

Baxley knows he's not a welcome presence at Mero's track meets, but he can't waste any time worrying about it. The tone of the daily tally sheets has gone from urgent to alarmed, because many of the other recruiting stations in the region also are falling short.

"Get up and assault," read the message on today's faxed tally sheet. "Everyone stop screwing around and PUT SOMEONE ON DECK!!!!"

If things don't get better, Baxley sighed when he read the fax, "next week is going to suck."

Here comes an opportunity walking toward him now, a tall, shaggy-haired River Hill senior with a goatee who flips through one of the brochures on Baxley's table.

"Is there any place I can go to get some more information?" he says, putting a brochure in his pocket.

"Yeah," Baxley responds, "my office."

But the student apparently was thinking about the Internet or more brochures, because he suddenly looks nervous at the thought of sitting down with a Marine recruiter and takes half a step back.

"Don't worry," Baxley says. "I ain't gonna do no Jedi mind trick on you. There's nothing in my office you can sign that says you have to join the Marine Corps."

Baxley can't get him to commit to an appointment, but the student does write his name and phone number on a sign-up sheet.

Next comes a young-looking, red-headed student. He wants to go to college, but he still hasn't heard if he's been accepted anywhere, he says. "Well, the Marine Corps might be your backup plan," Baxley says. "It was mine. I lost my scholarship."

He follows with a brief sales pitch: "I joined to travel, to see the world . . . I didn't just want the house in the suburbs. I wanted to do something with my life." Plus, the Marines will pay for college, he says. You don't want to be living with your parents the rest of your life, do you?

The kid seems mildly interested, but keeps glancing over at the cafeteria, where all his friends have gone to eat lunch. Baxley could lose him any second, so he moves fast.

"What are you doing tomorrow?" Baxley says.

"I'll be here."

Baxley asks him if can stop by his office, but the student doesn't have a car. Baxley asks Lee Souder, a River Hill student whom Baxley recruited earlier in the year, if he can give the student a ride after school. But as they're discussing it, the student mumbles that he has to go and slips away into the cafeteria.

And so it goes. For the next couple of hours, Baxley gets a few nibbles, but nothing that he thinks will happen this month. River Hill, one of the best high schools in Howard County's vaunted school system, can be a tough sell. More than 90 percent of its graduates go to college. But at least he's here, being seen, showing these kids that there is another option out there. Maybe he planted an idea in someone's head. Maybe one of the juniors he spoke with will come to him next year.

It's not as if River Hill closes its doors to the military. The principal, Scott Pfeifer, is receptive to recruiters as long as they don't abuse the privilege. "Not everyone in college or in this school is affluent," says Pfeifer. "And not everyone is ready for college right away."

Right away. Which, of course, implies that eventually they'll go to college. Perhaps Pfeifer means that not everyone is ready for college, period. But the college-bound sensibilities are so ingrained here that they seep in even as he is trying to be open-minded about the military.

The Marines would desperately like to change that. Which is why every year they take a group of area school officials such as Pfeifer to the place where Marines are made: Parris Island.

THE TRIP TO PARRIS ISLAND is a public relations offensive, and the Marines are not coy about their intentions. If the Marines can convince this group of 75 teachers, guidance counselors and principals from the Baltimore-Washington region that the Corps is a viable option for their students, they are that much closer to convincing the students of the same.

Even if the educators don't become die-hard Corps supporters, the recruiters make valuable contacts in the schools. As Lt. Jeff Banasz, the executive officer overseeing many of the recruiting stations in the region, explains, "I can walk into their schools and say, 'Hey, I need this transcript, can you help me out? And, say, remember when we were drinking a beer together in the officers club?' "

Last year, the Marines spent nearly $1 million transporting almost 2,000 educators from around the country to South Carolina or California for a three-day, all-expenses-paid taste of the rigors of boot camp.

At the beginning of this trip to Parris Island, a colonel tells the teachers that their help is vital because less than 10 percent of recruits walk into a Marine recruiter's office and say they want to enlist. "The rest must be located, sold and motivated by a recruiter," he says. "We say we're an all-volunteer force, but really we're an all-recruited force."

Peter Vogel, a 40-year-old social studies teacher at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, listens with a fair amount of skepticism. A self-described "firebrand liberal," he says he "wouldn't send one of my own kids to war, let alone someone else's." His wife "hates that I'm here," he says. "She abhors guns."

Most of Vogel's students, like those at River Hill, go to college, but every once in a while he comes across one who could benefit from the military, he says. His principal excused him from school so he could take this trip. A substitute is teaching his class.

But not all school administrators think their staff should spend teaching time being wooed by the Marines. George Kispert, the principal of Northeast High School in Anne Arundel County, told one of his social studies teachers that if he wanted to make the trip, he would have to use personal leave.

"I did not see the direct connection between the trip and what the teacher was doing within the realm of the classroom," Kispert says. He wouldn't have a problem sending a guidance counselor who's dealing with career planning, he says. "I just had trouble, though, with a teacher who has a full course load." The teacher, Kaz Mahmud, decided to use personal leave to see what the Marines have to offer students.

The Marines do their best to win over the educators, giving them tours of F-18 fighter jets, allowing them to shoot M-16 rifles, introducing them to fresh-faced recruits with "Yes, ma'am-No, sir" manners.

On their final day at Parris Island, the visitors watch newly minted Marines march onto the parade ground in perfect lockstep during a boot camp graduation ceremony. When the drill instructor shouts halt, hundreds of boots hit the pavement in one coordinated stomp. "You have paid your dues and have been found worthy," a first sergeant tells them as their families wave flags in the stands. When "I'm Proud to Be an American" plays over the loudspeakers, at least three of the educators start to cry.

Vogel's eyes don't water, but he does buy a Marine Corps T-shirt from the base's post exchange. When he gets back to school the following week, he shows his students a slide show of the pictures he took. Thanks to the trip, he has a much better understanding of how the Marines work, he tells them, and thinks that the Corps is one of the most awe-inspiring institutions he's ever seen.

Nevertheless, Vogel says, he'd be hesitant to recommend the Corps to his students, especially now, when there's a war going on. He knows someone has to end up on the front lines. He just hopes it won't be any of his students.

ON APRIL 23, BAXLEY'S LUCK CHANGES. Lee Souder, the River Hill student, walks in with his 20-year-old next-door neighbor and announces: "He wants to join."

"Yeah, right," Baxley says. Other recruits have tried this stunt before -- tease the recruiter, get his hopes up, especially late in the month when he still is short of his quota, and then tell him it's all a joke. But this time, it's not a ruse.

"I'm serious," the 20-year-old says. "I want to join."

He's sick of working for his parents' landscaping business. He aces the entrance exam, passes his physical a couple of days later and, just like that, he's in. Baxley has his second for April.

Then Sarah Mero, the track star, makes good on her promise, over the objections of her coach, and suddenly Baxley has signed his three with four days to spare.

With Stepney having a stellar month, the office makes its quota, and Gowl is ecstatic. But by April 29, the last full day of recruiting for the month -- any prospects to be counted in April would have to be at the processing station by 5:30 a.m. the next day -- several of the other stations under the region's command have fallen short. When Baxley and Gowl checked in with the region's headquarters, "it sounded like death," Baxley says. "There's going to be some ass-chewing."

Gowl orders his crew to stay late and work the phones like a telethon. If they can enlist a few more, it would help out the bottom line.

"We're getting someone on deck tonight," he says. "We're not going home till we get one."

A teenager strolls by on the sidewalk outside the station, and Baxley's eyes light up. He turns to a recruit who is hanging out in the station and pulls him to his feet. "Go get him. Go," Baxley says, pushing him toward the door. "Go. Go!"

Baxley and Gowl watch from the window, but the recruit strikes out. If they are really desperate to find someone, the recruit tells them as he walks back into the station, he has a friend at Howard Community College who might be interested. Baxley tells him to get the kid on the phone. Now. And within a few minutes Baxley is midway through his sales pitch: "When I was 19, I was in Italy snowboarding in the Alps every weekend."

"You know what they say about HCC, don't you?" he continues. "HCC is the 13th grade. My dad has people with college degrees working for him. You know what they're doing? Digging ditches. I know people who got out of the Marine Corps making $90,000 a year."

Just before he hangs up he says, "I just hate to see you waste your time." Then he turns to Gowl, who has been hovering nearby. "He won't come in tonight. But we can write him next month."

That's one less Baxley will need to get in May.

Christian Davenport is a reporter for the Post's Metro section. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article at 1 p.m. Monday on washingtonpost.com/liveonline.