He was a Double Oh Echo, which distinguished him in subtle but critical ways from a Double Oh Romeo.
In Army shorthand, that meant that Sgt. Ray Hessler was a temporary Army recruiter rather than a permanent, career recruiter. It meant that his three-year stint in central Florida, nurturing and harvesting young recruits, was not his idea, but a duty imposed by the Army.
"I didn't think I could sell an egg to a bunch of starving people. I talked to the chaplain and told him I was going to fail," the 31-year-old soldier would recall. "I didn't want to be a recruiter."
There were the 3 a.m. telephone calls for help from recruits stuck in the sand at Daytona Beach, or the female recruit seeking advice on whether to surrender her virginity.
There were, in 1984 alone, eight weddings and three funerals. There were maternity waiting rooms and weeping mothers and furious fathers and at least one pistol cocked at him in anger.
There was the illegal immigrant who dumped a sack of Romanian money on Hessler's desk as an attempted bribe for "the right to fight and die for this country."
There was Gator, the recruit so huge that the room darkened when he filled the doorway, bellowing, "I wanna kill a commie for Mommy." There was the chain-gang escapee in his prison greens volunteering as a "kiss-and-ship," ready to go anywhere the Army needed him as long as it was right now.
There were the sties in Hessler's eyes from stress, the near-collapse of his marriage, and the beery, midnight counseling of another recruiter so battered by the pressure of his job that he threatened to kill the company commander.
By any measure, Hessler was extraordinarily successful. He wore the coveted Army recruiter's ring, the highest emblem of recruiting success. Many recruits who came from broken homes spoke of him as a surrogate father. A bulletin board in his office was papered with snapshots of some of the 217 volunteers he "put in," far exceeding his quota, or "mission," as the Army prefers to call it.
Shortly before leaving DeLand in July to resume his regular duties in Texas as a paratrooper-turned-dental technician, the town named him "citizen of the year."
"If I had to do it all over again," Hessler said several weeks ago, "I wouldn't do it. I'd get out. I'd quit the Army. I couldn't do it again."
Between the would-be soldier and Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger are 10 rungs of bureaucracy in the Army's recruiting trellis. None is more vital, however, than the 4,830 eyeball-to-eyeball recruiters sown through 50 states.
In the late 1970s, when the Army found it impossible to fill the ranks and nearly half the volunteers were drawn from the lowest acceptable mental category, scandal swept through the service. Particularly in the Southeast, always the most active recruiting region, scores of recruiters were disciplined for cheating.
Desperate to meet their quotas, some provided potential recruits with beaded bracelets color-coded with answers to the armed forces entrance examination. Other recruiters hired ringers to take the test for those likely to fail, or knowingly recruited persons with epilepsy, asthma or hearing disorders.
Prodded by Congress and the public, the Army cracked down on recruiter malpractice and reemphasized integrity. Many recruiters, such as Ray Hessler, were hand-picked. In 1980, the Army relieved 440 recruiters of duty; in fiscal 1984, the number had dropped to 40.
In a related step, the Army began moving many of its recruiting stations from railroad and bus depots to tonier locations in shopping malls and suburban enclaves, in a hunt for better-quality volunteers.
Ethics aside, the Army recognized that if it could eliminate attrition among first-term soldiers -- still running at about one-third of the recruits -- it could save $140 million annually. The Demographic Black Hole
But of all issues facing the U.S. Army in the next decade, none is as nettlesome as the looming demographic black hole.
Having studied the market as thoroughly as any sales force in America, the Army knows that the number of U.S. males aged 17 to 21 will drop from 10.4 million in 1983 to 9.2 million in 1990.
After culling out high school dropouts, college students and those unqualified physically or morally, the Pentagon will be left at decade's end with a target group of 1.3 million to divvy up between the four armed services and nonmilitary employers.
Despite the best recruiting year ever in 1984, there are darker portents, including a sharp drop in the number of recruits signed up in the Army's delayed entry program for 1985.
Also, there is a crucial unknown in how attractive the Army will look in contrast to the civilian economy. As a rule of thumb, the more robust the economy is in providing jobs, the less inclined a bright young man or woman is to contemplate a voluntary hitch in the service. Although the Army regularly analyzes 20 economic variables -- from new construction starts to personal savings in billions of dollars -- only the national unemployment rate appears correlated to recruiting success.
Among the strategies now contemplated to overcome the shortfall is an intensified appeal to older recruits, junior college graduates and college dropouts.
The Army also has an advertising agency in San Antonio churning out recruiting pitches in Spanish, aimed in part at the parents and priests of potential Hispanic volunteers. Although Hispanics are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, they make up 4 percent of the Army, roughly half their proportion of the nation's population.
Some experts say the Army should worry less about recruiting and more about keeping the soldiers it has, a strategy that probably would result in a more senior force. That could trim recruiting and basic training costs but cost more in salaries and pension benefits.
"We've had a very good three years of recruiting. Now we need to focus our attention on keeping those very good recruits," said Gen. Maxwell R. Thurman, the Army's vice chief of staff. "A lot of it has to do with the tempo of activity. If it's high, people feel good about what they're doing."
"I've never fretted over the demographics," added Assistant Defense Secretary Lawrence J. Korb, the Pentagon's manpower czar. "Isn't it amazing that each year we've had less to draw on and we've done better? The thing started in '79 . . . . I don't think it's going to be a problem if patriotism remains high."
For now, however, the bottom line for recruiters, according to Army analysts who appear to have a statistic for everything, is that in the next five years they will have to work 12 percent harder just to stay even in meeting their quotas. Recruiting by the Book
Hessler hailed from a North Florida family of 14, poor enough to smash the water meter in an effort to forestall the bill collector. He joined the Army 11 years ago for the proffered $1,500 bonus -- enough of a grubstake to get married -- and made a living jumping out of airplanes.
When he arrived as the sole Army representative in the DeLand recruiting office, he found file cabinets crammed with old C-rations, recruiting brochures from the 1960s and a parachute. He painted the walls and posted the recruiter's code of ethics, which reminded him in bold type that his failure "could place in danger the American way of life and the sacred cause of human freedom."
He resisted emulating the Marine office in nearby Daytona, where a sign urges recruits to "give a communist the gift that lasts -- death."
In the main, he went by the book. He scoped out the high school like an infantry scout reconnoitering an enemy bunker. He made regular entries in a monthly log, such as this notation for July 1983:
"July was a bad month to go out to the high school. The school had a shakedown in the chain of command. Too much going on as far as drugs among students and other uncanny things. The principal down to the teachers are being relieved."
He kept a "smart board," a detailed map of the 365 square miles in his recruiting district. Each recruit was charted by zip code with appropriately colored dots: purple for females, green for males in a high mental category, green with an X for dumber males. And once a month he phoned headquarters with his "enemy report," a summary of what the other three services were doing to recruit in DeLand.
Some volunteers were lured with cash, including college funds of $20,000 or more. Others were wooed with a thick list of Army job openings -- 362 military occupational specialities (MOSs) for men, 301 for women -- such as 19 Delta (cavalry scout), 55 Golf (nuclear weapons maintenance specialist), 71 Quebec (journalist) or 57 Foxtrot (graves registration specialist).
From Army surveys, Hessler knew that nearly half of Army enlistments come from those who once had said they were disinclined to join the service. Thus, he took to heart the recruiters' unspoken motto: "Don't take no for an answer."
For those who assented, he kept $20,000 in Greyhound bus tickets locked in the desk for trips to the military processing station in Jacksonville.
Behind it all, there was the endless paper work and the bromide that for any task there was the right way, the wrong way and the Army way.
A message last January from the recruiting brigade headquarters in Georgia warned in impeccable Pentagon prose: "Selective disobedience is a NO GO. This brigade, down to recruiter level, will work within prescribed guidelines from USAREC the recruiting command and this brigade."
It was seldom dull. There was the old vet who burst into the office one afternoon and belted out all the stanzas of "The Star-Spangled Banner" while braced at attention. There was the father who offered $3,000 to enlist his unqualified son.
There were the "station hoppers," who migrated under assumed names from recruiter to recruiter, trying to find one who would let them back into the Army from which they had been kicked out. The trick was to listen for certain telltale shibboleths, such as calling an M16 a weapon, as soldiers do, instead of a gun.
There were deeds beyond the call of duty, such as the relentless pursuit of one recruit's natural mother from Florida to Pennsylvania to Ohio so she could authorize the enlistment of the underage son she had abandoned 16 years earlier.
And there were occasional gaffes, as when he promised on the phone to enlist a young girl only to discover she was a paraplegic. The mistake, engendered by a desperate drive to fill his quota, made him feel "knee high to a duck," he said.
At the end of every month, Hessler had met or exceeded his quota. But at the beginning of each subsequent month there was a new quota. Failure meant a black smudge on the record and potential career damage.
Even in the golden age of recruiting, the pressure from higher authority was unremitting, as in this message last year from the brigade colonel:
If a recruiter "fails to achieve mission," the message warned, "then the station commander will use the Recruiter Evaluation Checklist (USAREC Form 661) to identify the recruiter's deficiencies and conduct hands-on training to correct them . . . . Good judgment dictates the retention of quality recruiters and the elimination of those who do not measure up to acceptable standards. We must work hard to make every recruiter a winner."
Eventually, Hessler felt his life begin to unravel. His wife left him for eight months, fed up with his 16-hour workdays and the pressure from a company commander who seemed to endorse the old adage that "if the Army wanted you to have a wife they would have issued you one."
Prematurely, he bought new stripes for a promotion to sergeant 1st class that didn't come through -- and then gave them away because it was bad luck to keep them.
Last April, unnerved by the emotional collapse of his recruiting buddy who threatened to shoot the captain, Hessler decided to return to the dental clinic when his tour ended in the summer.
"They've got a good product, but I don't believe they need to put it in a pressure cooker. Now we're starting to fall short of quotas and the pressure's starting to really come back," he said.
"We will have another 1978 a repeat of the pressure-induced recruiting scandals . I don't know when. It may be five or 10 years down the road, but it's coming." The Human Legacy
As a legacy, Hessler bequeathed the Army a couple of hundred recruits, including many who were exceptional.
John Pennington, 17, and his 19-year-old brother, Leon, last saw their natural mother when they were 12 and 14. After bouncing between temporary homes in Miami and Orlando, they were adopted by a DeLand high school art teacher, Charles Royster, who had seen action in the Korean War with an 81mm mortar crew.
John, in particular, seemed to be everything the Army is seeking. Bright, black and self-contained beyond his years, his high school record included wrestling, weight lifting, soccer and football. He was vice president of Youth Against Cancer, active in Students Against Substance Abuse and an orderly in a nursing home.
His idea of the fast lane was a pizza and midnight movie at the Athens Theater. Under Hessler's tutelage, John enlisted as a 91 Delta, an operating room specialist, while Leon signed up as a 91 Uniform, an ear, nose and throat technician.
John, speaking of the mother he hadn't seen in years, said, "I'm going to make something out of myself and someday she'll say, 'Look what I missed.' But I won't hold it against her."
David Autrey, 28, grew up in the Florida Keys before Hurricane Donna and the Cuban missile crisis clobbered the tourist business and drove his restaurateur father -- who had collected nine World War II battle stars as a Navy boatswain -- to Miami.
Young Autrey dropped out of high school in 1973 and spent a decade working jobs that never seemed to go anywhere: truck driver, gunsmith and, most recently, 10 hours a day on a Daytona assembly line putting together storm doors. Last year he finished high school and signed up as a 67 Yankee, an attack helicopter repairman.
In the recruiting office he met Justine Disano, 10 years his junior, a statuesque firebrand who saw the Army as a dispenser of both discipline and skills.
"I wanted to go Green Berets," she said. "I know it sounds dumb, but I wanted the challenge. It would have been really physical. If a woman could fight, I'd be the first one out there on the front lines, shootin' whatever it might be."
Autrey and Disano married on March 22, her 18th birthday, and she opted for a specialty they hoped would allow them to reunite after three or four months of basic and advanced training.
"I'm a little afraid that I'll change. We're 10 years apart in age. He's 28 and I'm 18. I still have some maturing to do. Yeah, it worries me a little," she confided, foreshadowing an eventual twist of fate unforeseen at the time.
As spring succumbed to summer and the 30 volunteers from DeLand prepared to enter the Army, many were given a brochure on what to expect at basic training. It included this warning about that mythical figure known as a drill sergeant:
"You will probably think this individual does an unusual amount of shouting, all of which seems directed at you."
NEXT: Boot camp and beyond