By Katherine Pearson, Columbia BattalionMay 23, 2012
The retirement of an Asheville, N.C., recruiter on July 31, marks the end of an era. After nearly 27 years in the military, Sgt. 1st Class Joe Rappise, the last recruiter who is a Vietnam veteran, will take off his uniform and join the civilian world -- this time -- for good.
Rappise's military career began in 1969 when he joined the Marine Corps at the age of 18.
Tradition will have us imagine a young man's enlistment into the military as a noble, heroic moment, compelled by a sense of duty to his country. That was not the case with Rappise.
That year he found himself face-to-face with a judge in a courtroom as a result of some trouble-making. Faced with two choices, go to jail or join the Marine Corps; Rappise chose the latter and embarked upon a two-year tour with the Marines as a radio operator.
His first day in Da Nang, Vietnam, in October 1969, Rappise was told to follow a group of Soldiers sweeping for land mines. For nearly 12 hours every day for two years, the small group of men scoured the roads with metal detectors hoping their meager security would not be ambushed.
When his tour ended in 1971, he left the Marine Corps with a Purple Heart -- which he jokingly refers to as the "I can't run fast enough award" -- and a Marine Corps tattoo on his arm.
He then took a 16-year sabbatical from the military, during which time, he hitchhiked and traveled across the country from Alaska to Arizona. His experiences ranged from the incredibly exciting, such as working as a cowboy driving cattle 1.5 million acres across northern Nevada, to the less exciting of stocking shelves in a convenience store. He ended up in New Jersey working as a waiter for a woman who eventually became his wife.
Then in 1988, feeling homesick for the military -- although not ready to commit -- Rappise started talking to an Army recruiter he'd met in a store about the possibility of reenlisting. Crediting the man's dogged persistence, Rappise joined the Army National Guard in 1988.
A year later he switched to the Army Reserve and then became a recruiter in 1992.
During his 19 years as a recruiter, Rappise has enlisted almost 500 Soldiers, and in his 10 years with the New York City Battalion, he was continuously one of the top three recruiters.
The secret to his success, said Rappise, is not to try to sell anyone on the Army, but to just be honest telling potential recruits what he knows about the Army. He builds relationships in his community and shares stories of his own Army experiences, even with people he just meets on the street.
This approach helped him recruit Socrates Stalin Rodriguez, an immigrant from communist Venezuela, as well as recruiting an Islamic woman who had never been in public without her burka until she came to Rappise's recruiting station.
He even recruited a man he met while bass fishing in New Jersey by thrilling the fisherman with tales about trout fishing in the Owyhee River located in the Wild Horse Reservoir in northern Nevada, bass fishing in Shasta Lake in the Cascade Mountains of California, and surf fishing off the coast of Guam.
After learning Rappise was able to travel to all these places through the Army, the fisherman wanted to know the first step in starting an Army career. With a smile, Rappise replied, he had already taken that step when he started their conversation.
When Rappise retires, he will have spent a combined 27 years in the military -- long enough to have earned the nickname "Viejo" (a Spanish term of endearment meaning "old man"), and long enough to witness many changes in the military.
Some of these changes Rappise approves of, such as the more merit-based system of promotion that replaced the old, much more political system. Other changes -- not so much. Recalling the grueling basic training he went through in 1969 with in-your-face, screaming drill sergeants like those in the film "Full Metal Jacket," he believes the Army has grown softer. It's an element of toughness he misses.
"We're the Army," he said. "We're not nice people, but we're good people."
However, he does endorse some of the Army's regulations for the treatment of Soldiers, particularly the rule that forbids drill sergeants from hitting Soldiers.
"Never hit [your Soldiers]," said Rappise. "If you have to hit them, then either you can't teach them or they can't learn."
The military's been a good experience for Rappise, one he would absolutely do all over again.
Working in western North Carolina provides Rappise with constant reminders about what he truly loves about his job.
Many of the kids he recruited in Appalachia lived in single-wide trailers with three generations of family, their situations offering little opportunity and hope for improvement.
Today, these kids are educated, disciplined, have bright career prospects and often call Rappise to thank him.
"At the end of the day," said Rappise, "take all the crap away, you're changing lives."