In an oil-stained gas station parking lot, Army recruiter Justin Broadwater drinks iced tea and waits, paperwork ready, for an 18-year-old he says is "hard-core ready to go."

Sgt. Broadwater hopes so, anyway. His wedding plans give him only two weeks to meet his monthly quota of three new soldiers. One is already in hand. He's hoping that this will be No. 2.

His cell phone rings. "Yeah, buddy, I'm down here. . . . Yeah? Ah. That's bad," then a quick sign off and a sigh. The candidate's mother is sick. He'll reschedule soon; he's not sure when.

Broadwater's smile slips, rights itself. "It's a good sign, calling like that," he says. "Most of them, if they don't want to join, they'll just no-show you."

A military recruiter's job is rarely easy, but few have it harder than Broadwater, who's drawn what might be the toughest task in the stateside military: trying to fill openings in the notorious 372nd Military Police Company, in Cresaptown, Md., seven members of which are charged with abusing Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. Across a swath of Appalachian Maryland and West Virginia, Broadwater works 12-hour days, hunting for volunteers on increasingly hostile terrain.

The Army says it is recruiting enough soldiers nationwide, but here, in the epicenter of the scandal, it's falling short. Last year, Broadwater, 24, signed up more reservists for the 372nd and other units than anyone else in his battalion. This year, he struggles to find one in a month.

"Tough or easy, it's what you make it," Broadwater says of his job. For him, "it's a privilege."

Broadwater and three other Army recruiters work in LaVale, Md., in a strip mall office next to a bridal shop. When the phone rings, they all lunge for it. Each must find one to four new soldiers a month, and it takes nearly every waking moment to do it.

To reach his goal, Broadwater drives nearly 5,000 miles and makes 2,000 phone calls a month, getting, if he's lucky, one appointment for every 65 calls. He has signed kids up at football practices and on basketball courts, in cars and in one-room houses crowded with extended family. He chauffeurs the recruits to Pittsburgh for their physicals, coaches them for their aptitude tests and calls them every few days to ward off cold feet. Despite all that, he's missed his monthly target several times recently, including a couple of months when he went without a single recruit.

By the end of May, the battalion was more than 500 soldiers short of its year-to-date goal of 1,574. Last fall, LaVale was the most successful station among 34 in the battalion, which covers the Maryland and West Virginia panhandles and western Pennsylvania. But by spring, 11 recruits had backed out of their commitments, a rate "at least double" the rate last fall, said Sgt. 1st Class John Summerfield, the LaVale station commander. Iraq, he says, "is a big part of it."

Poor and patriotic regions like this one are the lifeblood of America's volunteer military. Kids join as soon as they leave high school, for the college money, the job training, the opportunities so scarce at home. They join because they're proud of their country and they want to help. But during the past three years, they've been seeing more combat and less college. Every reserve unit in this area has been called to the Middle East at least once. Two active duty soldiers died, one with young kids, the other a kid himself. Then came Abu Ghraib and the photos that disgusted the world. Now, pride comes mixed with anger and growing doubts about the war.

"It's the parents holding me back," Broadwater says. When he calls, they hang up the phone, refuse to put their children on the line, tell him off. They try to talk their sons and daughters out of joining, and, more often now, they succeed.

Broadwater pushes the numbers hard: Serve one weekend a month for six years and earn thousands in college money, bonuses and pay. He tells the mothers, "If the Lord's going to take you, he'll take you sitting right there in your chair." They remind him that an Iraqi bomb took Pvt. Brandon L. Davis, 20, this spring. The parts of his body that could be identified were buried near his home in Cumberland, Md., and the rest, weeks later, in Arlington. It was a mortar attack that took Sgt. George A. Mitchell of Antioch, W.Va., a soldier's soldier who used to take his toddlers to church on Sundays so his wife could get some sleep.

This is what Laura Anderson thinks about when her daughter Cecelia Haslicker -- blonde and athletic, bubbly and accident-prone -- says she wants to be an Army truck driver. "Are you sure this is what you want to do? Are you sure?'" the Winchester, Va., mother asks. Anderson's 21-year-old son just came home from Iraq, his back injured from dodging an ambush. "Does anyone listen to their parents?" she wonders.

"I don't want to just sit around this town," says Haslicker, 18, of Cumberland, who ships out to basic training later this month. "I'm up for adventure. I want to make something of myself."

Broadwater helped sell Brandon Davis on the Army and says he's "up there" -- pointing heavenward -- "proud." Like Davis, Broadwater was a combat engineer, but in the reserves, which he joined at 17. Broadwater's family members were shocked two years ago when he left a good-paying construction job for active duty in the LaVale recruiting station.

"After September 11th, one weekend a month in uniform wasn't enough," he explains. He grew up in this region, too, in Meyersdale, Pa. In high school, he wrestled against Joseph Darby, the 372nd MP who slipped a note under a superior's door describing the prisoner abuse by his comrades-in-arms. Broadwater has put three recruits into the 372nd this year, he says. "Are they going to be good soldiers? Yeah, they will be."

"I love the Army," he says a half-dozen times in a day. It's given him a career path, and, certainly in this job, firm goals. He's had Army logos and colors stitched onto his new leather jacket and painted on his motorcycle. Broadwater would go to Iraq "right now," he says.

Instead, he is headed to Frostburg, his wheeled suitcase filled with brochures and key chains for the freshmen at Frostburg State University.

Broadwater strides across the campus, his crew-cut head swiveling. "Some days I'll walk along . . . and the kids are all like this," he demonstrates, hiding his face and turning away. A week ago, Broadwater was at another college when an administrator tried to run him off. She knew Davis, the dead soldier from Cumberland, and she told Broadwater that she'd tear down his recruiting posters. Broadwater lost his temper. "He died for your right for complain!" he shouted at her.

The campus is empty. Broadwater gives his business card to an administrator whose foster son "needs the military" and suggests a basketball game with a muscular senior who's favoring the Air Force.

"Where're the kids today?" Broadwater keeps asking. They tell him to come back tonight for the freshman barbecue.

Back in LaVale, Broadwater calls Joshua Hickey, his first recruit this month, who says he wants to serve "to do my part, and earn bonuses for college." Hickey has a friend who might want to join. Broadwater sets up a meeting at the Keyser gas station. "You really need to push him for me," he tells Hickey. Three times, he says, "If there's a problem, call."

Dale Terry, the battalion's advertising and public relations chief, bustles around the office. He has come from Pittsburgh to find ways to stem the losses. He might order a larger sign for the center. He is thinking about sponsoring a local running race. He's checked into doing more TV ads. He has wandered through the Wal-Mart, asking local people how they feel about the Army. "Ninety percent positive," he says, riffling through a stack of questionnaires, quoting from a few. "Good job!" writes Ruth, 45. "When they abuse people there's no excuse for it," writes Stacey, 33.

"We are a nation at war," Terry says. "The moms and dads are hearing conflicting stories from the media. But the Army drives on."

The four recruiters look at him, then go back to their phones. They remember the surge of walk-ins after Sept. 11, when the war on terrorism began. These days, hardly anybody walks through the door and into the Army. Candidates with a felony or a drug or weapons charge on their records won't do. Some flunk their aptitude tests. In the past few days, three LaVale recruits failed their physicals: one for a wart, one for a bunion and one because he'd been poked in the eye a day before. The men call the Army doctor "the anti-recruiter."

Broadwater shrugs into his leather jacket with Army logos and mounts the motorcycle painted Army colors. His feet barely touch the ground as he revs up, then zips through the foothills to Frostburg.

Peach-fuzzed kids in shorts reflect off his mirrored sunglasses as Broadwater scans the crowd. He's looking for Steven McKelvey, a reservist from Bel Air, Md., who wants to transfer to a unit closer to campus. When the recruiter finds him, the pre-law freshman says he'd like to be a military policeman.

Broadwater brightens. An MP for the 372nd.

"Awesome unit," he says. "Awesome."

Recruit Cecelia Haslicker, 18, of Cumberland, Md., checks in with Sgt. Justin Broadwater. The Iraq war and prison scandal have hurt area recruitment.Army Sgt. Justin Broadwater talks to Steven McKelvey, left, and Michael Wasserberger at Frostburg State University about joining the Reserves.