WASHINGTON -- Joining the Army started as a daydream for Gabrielle Zoellner as she sat in her middle school classroom. But she quickly began to view the Army as a career choice during her high school years.
Growing up in rural Perryville, nestled in the southeastern Missouri Ozarks, she had seen how the town honored service members.
Banners that depicted photos of veterans decorated the city’s downtown. Through the nonprofit work of an Army veteran, the city erected Missouri’s National Veterans Memorial in the town’s outskirts, a replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, to honor fallen troops and those currently in uniform.
During a class project, her junior high school teacher asked students to write about their future careers. Zoellner wrote that she wanted to join the Army despite not knowing much about the service at the time.
However, she did not commit to the Army until after she met a recruiter, Staff Sgt. Eugene Ward, during a special event at Perryville High School in the fall of 2019. She said that she saw more opportunities in the Army than in the other military branches.
Zoellner, 17, had considered going to school to become an anesthesiologist before looking into a military career.
“The Army just stood out to me the most,” she said. “I immediately liked it.”
She now sees the Army as a first choice, not as a second option after her high school graduation. She finished high school a semester early so that she could prepare herself for basic combat training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in July. She will train to become an active-duty Army intelligence analyst.
The Army seeks to attract more recruits, like Zoellner, during Army National Hiring Days, which runs from Monday through June 14 as the service pushes to meet its recruiting goals. The Army exceeded its recruiting goals last year with help from the first hiring days campaign.
During hundreds of virtual hiring fairs, potential recruits nationwide will have the opportunity for one-on-one meetings with recruiters and can learn about signing bonuses of up to $40,000 or student loan reimbursements of up to $65,000. Recruiters will also discuss health insurance, tuition assistance and retirement plans.
The service will offer an additional $2,000 incentive for recruits who enlist in one of 11 priority career fields during the five-week event, including jobs in psychological operations, explosives ordnance and infantry. Soldiers must ship to basic combat training by the end of September to qualify.
The Army will also offer incentives to those interested in health care professions. Additional information on the campaign can be found at www.goarmy.com/hiringdays.
In recent years, the Army has prioritized creating a more inclusive and diverse workforce. It has even made more opportunities for women with the opening of combat career fields and allowing them to enroll in its combat engineer and Army Ranger schools.
Zoellner said she looks forward to her Army experience and hopes to make a career working in military intelligence or as a member of a government intelligence agency, like the CIA. She said she originally considered joining the Missouri National Guard and the Marine Corps.
“I have a boyfriend who's in the Marines. And I just thought that wasn't the best [branch] for me,” said Zoellner, whose cousin, Pvt. Lane Berkbuegler, currently serves in military intelligence. “And I thought the Army was the perfect thing for me.”
Since his youth growing up in Edinburg, Texas, Spc. Matthew Bernal had always wanted to make the Army a career. He joined junior ROTC at J. Economedes High School and enlisted in the Texas Army National Guard after his first year of college. He used the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill to pay for his tuition and also received a reenlistment bonus.
“I always recommend [the Army] to people if they're willing to make a commitment and they want to get a free education and be physically fit,” Bernal said. “It's a very rewarding experience. I've done so many things that I wouldn't have gotten to do if I had never enlisted, so I always tell people that. And then there's so many benefits associated with it.”
Sgt. 1st Class Garrett Ehrmann, an Army Reserve recruiter with the 5th Recruiting Brigade, took a different route in his Army enlistment. Ehrmann initially joined in the Army Reserve in 2012 as a means to pay for college tuition, but later learned that he could apply his skills from the civilian sector toward his military career.
Ehrmann had worked in marketing for seven years, most recently as a nurse recruiter for the University of Texas at Tyler. After Texas underwent a hiring freeze on state positions, he decided to make a career change: working as a full-time recruiter for the Army Reserve and the active duty Army in 2017. He found the Army provided an opportunity to use his skills in marketing and apply them to recruiting Soldiers.
Ehrmann, who earned a bachelor’s degree in marketing from UT Tyler, quickly learned that he had a talent for recruiting and earned the 2020 Army Reserve Recruiting Noncommissioned Officer of the Year award. His unit recently named him the deputy station commander at the Cape Girardeau Recruiting Station in Missouri.
“I have enjoyed it. I’ve created a lot of great relationships over this time and connections within the community,” Ehrmann said.
Just outside the capitol building in downtown Austin, Bernal and fellow Soldiers continue to administer COVID-19 tests for Texans who wish to see if they have contracted the virus.
Bernal had previously traveled to rural parts of the Lone Star State to distribute vaccines as part of a state pilot program and has been activated for the COVID-19 mission since April 2020. He also assisted the U.S.-Mexico border mission for five months in 2019.
In the summer of 2017, Bernal deployed to the Gulf Coast city of Port Lavaca in to help deliver aid to residents who had lost power during Hurricane Harvey. The storm had shut down electricity in Port Lavaca and even the grocery stores had closed. Bernal and fellow Guardsmen distributed packages of food and water to residents.
He said he chose serving part-time in the Guard over active duty and serving in other military branches so that he could see the local impact to his state.
“We've been able to speak to a lot of the public and they're really grateful,” Bernal said. “They’re always telling us how much they appreciate us being there and it’s a good experience for me as well.”
Bernal, who has served for five years, currently studies biology at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and plans to commission in the Guard after his graduation in 2022.
“I see [the Guard] as a career choice. I knew I'd probably stay in for a long time,” Bernal said. “But after being in it now, I have a lot more respect for it because I've met a lot of great people here in this organization. So I definitely want to put in my 20 years [of service].”
To prepare for the Army, Zoellner made a makeshift gym at her family’s house in Perryville. She also attended training at the Cape Girardeau Recruiting Station where she learned the basics about the Army including the Soldier’s Creed and Army ranks. Her recruiter even introduced her to the basics of land navigation.
“Right now I'm just really anxious,” Zoellner said. “But I'm so ready. I've been waiting for this for so long.”