FORT SILL, Okla. (Oct. 11, 2017) -- Army recruiters sometimes get a bad rap for being "headhunters" meeting an enlistment quota without regard for the individual's needs or desires.
Nothing could be further from the truth, say those whose job it is to find qualified young people to join the Army.
"We have a passion for people," said Staff Sgt. Bill Nicholson, Army recruiter in the Central Mall recruiting station in Lawton. "We are in the business of changing lives. We want to help you become the best version of you."
He said they don't have individual quotas for enlistments, and recruiters try to align a person's interests and aptitudes with what the Army needs. "The ultimate goal is the Army's mission and what's best for the applicant," said Nicholson, "Our mission is to maintain the Army's all-volunteer force."
Nicholson and fellow recruiter Staff Sgt. Chris Clark, a Lawton native, say they get their reward helping young people explore opportunities they might not have otherwise considered.
"There's not many career choices out there that a young person age 18, 19, or 20 can just jump straight into with no experience and be able to retire," said Nicholson. Retirement is earned after 20 years, and the Soldier can either continue as a civilian in the same career field or choose another.
"One of my favorite things to talk about is not necessarily what do you want to do for the Army now, but what do you want to do after? You're not going to do this forever," added Nicholson.
He said many recruits might pick a military occupational specialty (MOS) based on family tradition, such as air defense or field artillery, or based on what career they want in civilian life, such as medic. He also said Soldiers have the opportunity to change their MOS when they re-enlist.
"You're not tied to a specific job for 20 years," he said. "Maybe your goals and interests have changed, and the Army wants people to grow and become better and more motivated at their jobs."
Clark said the duty of infantryman is one of the most popular MOSs requested. "It's a sense of adventure and having a challenge," he surmised.
Clark, who describes himself as a "natural introvert," said his aptitude is in "turning wrenches" and fixing things. But during the military drawdown awhile back, there wasn't a place for him as a 91C utilities equipment repairman. He was "DA selected" to be a recruiter, and being a Lawton native he asked to be assigned in his hometown.
"I started out with smaller classes to build my confidence," said Clark of his school recruiting visits, "to get out of my shell and be able to talk to people." He puts a lot of energy into his presentations to dispel stereotypes and determine a student's interest. He said one of the biggest stereotypes is that Soldiers are all infantrymen.
Nicholson also countered the myth that Soldiers are in the business of hurting and killing. "We are a business of taking care of people," he emphasized. "We have medical, engineering, mechanical, intelligence, you name it."
Nicholson studied hospitality in college as an Army Reserve Soldier between his six years as an active-duty infantryman and his current assignment, and said recruiting is a good fit.
"I'm naturally a people person," he said. "I enjoy talking to people about anything and I think that's going to help me be successful in this new career." He said he can initiate a conversation on unrelated topics and that might present an opening to talk about the Army.
"I can walk up and talk to a person at Cameron University about what kind of shoes they're wearing, and we can take that conversation anywhere," said Nicholson. "That's probably my biggest tool."
The recruiters use social media because that's where the young people hang out, but Nicholson said he prefers face-to-face communication through career fairs, community events, and classroom presentations, in addition to just chatting up a stranger.
For instance, he stepped outside his office and saw a basic combat training Soldier from A Battery, 1st Battalion, 79th Field Artillery who had just come from her unit's Family Day, walking in the mall with her sister. In no time he was showing Shaunyqua Joseph of Atlanta, some brochures and finding out what kind of things she was interested in doing.
Oneisha Joseph of the Virgin Islands said she thought an Army career would be good for her sister. "It gives discipline," she said.
One-on-one interaction is the biggest tool they have in recruiting, said Nicholson. "They can see we're an actual person, we live in the community, we're not just somebody sitting behind a desk trying to talk them into joining the Army."
He added, "To me, every single person that I can help, whether it's change their environment, or give them a future that they didn't have, is all a success story. That's what I came back to do."
He said some recruits thank them for providing options in their lives.
However, according to Army Recruiting Command, 71 percent of today's youth do not qualify for military service.
The obstacles could be inability to meet weight or physical fitness requirements, trouble with the law, or other shortcomings. In addition, 80 percent of those who join the military have a relative who served, and the percentage of veterans is on the decline, along with the number of high school graduates. It makes for a challenging recruiting environment.
"There are people I would really like to see be a Soldier and they might be a good fit, but for some reason they can't," said Nicholson. "That's probably the worst for me."
"The best part is helping those who are qualified get in and reach their goals," said Clark.
What does the Army have to offer a prospective recruit over the other military branches that have recruiters next door in the mall?
"If you want to join the Marine Corps I'm not going to talk you out of it," said Nicholson. "I take a lot of pride in the Army. I made this decision to come to the Army after talking to the other branches, and this is where I feel at home. If that brotherhood and camaraderie of the Army is in your heart we want you on the team. If we feel like we have to fight you and pull you from another branch, that (branch) is probably more in your heart."
Clark said the Army's ability to guarantee a recruit the MOS of their choice is one motivator.
Nicholson said the change of his MOS to that of recruiter has several rewards. First, he appreciates getting to exercise his creativity. Second, he enjoys drawing on his skill set of getting out and talking to people, while being flexible in achieving the various objectives of his job.
As for the young people he encourages to give the Army a try, he said being a change agent in their lives is meaningful to him.
"The Army is meant to change a person from being a civilian where all they think about is themselves, to learning how to work and operate as a team and take care of the person to your left and right," said Nicholson. "That's the biggest success story for me."