Staff Sgt. Tony Bryant is a salesman whose pitch has a hitch -- an enlistment in the U. S. Army.
"You know, you stop at the gas pump, and you see these guys working there," said Bryant. "So you just ask the guy how he's making out. Then you offer him something better."
Increasing numbers of youngsters looking for something better have accepted offers from recruiters like Bryant, 27. His efforts and those of the other 6,000 Army recruiters will be a large factor in whether this country's experiment with the all-voluntary military will work.
In 1979 the Army suffered its worst year for recruiting since the draft ended in 1973. But last year it recruited 173,228 people, slightly more than its goal. With seven weeks left in this recruiting year, the Army had recruited 112,059 or 98 percent of its objective. Further, it is getting more of the people it wants the most: high school graduates.
The percentage of enlistees who graduated from high school jumped from 64 to 76 in 1981 after dipping to 54 in 1980. The Army's attrition rate among recruits who are not high school graduates is about twice that of graduates.
Even so, many high school graduates can barely read, Bryant said. "People point a finger at us for taking in a bunch of dummies," he said. "But for every finger they got pointing at us, they got three fingers pointing back at them, saying, 'Who sent us these dummies in the first place?' All the Army does is harvest these kids from the schools."
Last year, Bryant and the two other men on his team harvested 175 youngsters from rural Burlington county's seven high schools. It wasn't always easy. Two principals won't let him in their buildings, Bryant said. All the schools refused to provide him with student directories. So he compiled his own lists from yearbooks and talks with local recruits.
Every two weeks he visits schools to develop contacts with students and administrators, "centers of influence," in recruiters' jargon. He also cultivates prospects while helping coach the Pemberton High football team. "A hobby," Bryant said.
Back at work, Bryant addressed 15 Fort Dix trainees leaving for 30 days' special duty recruiting in their hometowns. He told them to tell their friends that basic training is "not a piece of cake."
"Did your recruiter lie to you?" he demanded.
A young man raised a hesitant hand. His recruiter had promised he would get up at 5:30 every morning, "but we got to get up here at 4," he said.
Bryant hesitated for just an instant, then answered, "Well, you tell the people in your town that you get up at 4 here. You tell them exactly what goes down in basic training."
Later, in his office, Bryant leaned over the desk for a low-voiced pep talk with a lanky 11th-grader who enlisted under a plan that lets him take basic training while still in school. He also agreed to be a "recruiter aide" at his school, which means he must wear his uniform to class every two weeks and give testimonials to his fellow students.
"Sometimes you're going to feel dumb," Bryant told him. "Kids are going to get on you and laugh at you because you're a patriotic kind of guy. But I want to see those stripes on your sleeve. I want to see those stripes on your sleeve." He nudged the youth and nodded. "Piece of cake."
Later in the afternoon, high school students lounged in chairs around Bryant's desk as soft rock played on an office radio. A 17-year-old boy told Bryant that he wanted to be an aviator, but his father, a career Army man, wouldn't let him enlist. "You want me to talk to your father for you? I'll talk to him," Bryant said.
Recruiters are not paid by how many they sign up, but they win points for a citation based on the quality and quantity of those they can persuade to be all that they can be. "A high school senior with a high test score will get you 16 points, and I think you can get eight for a prior serviceman," said Sgt. Len Buck, a former Fort Dix recruiter. Earning 98 points every three months will keep the citations coming, he said. Recruiters also earn about $150 a month incentive pay.
The son of a 20-year master sergeant, Bryant was born and raised in this area. He joined the Army after he graduated from high school in 1973. He is trained as a computer specialist and said he could earn five times his $12,000 annual salary in private business. But he stays with recruiting, he says, because of "job satisfaction." It also helps him toward his goal of being a sergeant major.
But Bryant is keeping his options open, taking six hours of business law and personnel management classes at a community college where he has completed 40 hours of business courses.