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    Marine recruiting program takes educators to school

    Subtitled: Corps sees teachers, counselors as allies

    Rick Rogers

    War or no war, the Marine Corps recruiting juggernaut just keeps rolling.

    The Corps' ability to attract men and women has led to the recruiting equivalent of Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak: the Marines' nine-plus-year run of making its personnel enlistment quota, unofficially known as "The Streak."

    The next closest service is the Navy, which has made its recruiting numbers for three years.

    Part of the Corps' success arrived at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego last month when educators from Redding, Folsom, Shasta and other towns within Maj. David Sosa's recruiting district in Northern California arrived for a four-day, expenses-paid visit to observe the metamorphosis from a civilian to a Marine.

    Typically, 70 to 80 educators a month from the Western United States visit the MCRD and Camp Pendleton to watch the making of a Marine. The program started in the 1980s when educators paid their own way. The Marine Corps recognized the value of the program and began funding it in 1997.

    The Marines say the workshops are a way to promote "an open and honest relationship with the educators" that is "really about product knowledge," said Master Sgt. Michael Pinon-Larkin, a Marines spokesman.

    But the Marines also know that a teacher or guidance counselor can be an ally when high school students are planning their futures, and Sosa describes the workshop attendees as "educational influencers."

    Last year, the Corps spent spent $858,490 on the MCRD program.

    A spokesman for the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island, S.C., said that depot also funds an educators' workshop, but he did not have the figures at hand.

    "We are making the (recruiting) numbers, but we are just making them," said Sosa, a Bronze Star recipient during the Iraq war.

    "So this program is as important now as it's ever been," Sosa said. "For the most part, the educators leave here impressed."

    While some services struggle to meet recruiting goals, or in the case of the Army National Guard fall short, the allure of Marine Corps tradition and training is holding steady.

    The Marines enlisted 36,794 recruits last fiscal year, the Defense Department says, topping its goal by 21. A little more than half of those recruits came from the Western recruiting region and trained at the MCRD. There are about 177,000 Marines in the Corps.

    The Army recruited 77,000 enlistees, 587 above its goal, but had to dip into its pool of applicants for next year.

    The educators' first taste of Marine life mirrors that of a typical recruit. Their bus stops on the tarmac and drill instructors greet them with voices that clearly tell them what to do and when to do it -- in this case following yellow footprints painted on the cement.

    The command "NOW" requires instant obedience.

    Col. Mark Callihan, commanding officer of the Recruit Training Regiment, described the transformation from civilian to Marine like this: "It's like when you've first come into the world. You get bald and naked real fast."

    The fact that more than 190 Marines have died in Iraq and more than 2,005 have been wounded since March isn't brought up by the Marines during briefings and question-and-answer sessions.

    "I don't know if we address that," Pinon-Larkin said. "The focus of our brief is the transition process the individual goes through and the tangible and intangible benefits"

    "This program answers the question: What do they do at Marine recruit training?" Pinon-Larkin said.

    "I can't say that any of (the educators) have brought up any moral concerns about the war," said Lt. Col. Steven Suddreth, deputy assistant chief of staff for Marine recruiting in the Western United States.

    "We want skeptics. We want folks who might not see the Marine Corps as equally viable to a kid as going to college. We want them to see the quality of the recruits we have. We try to put the educators with these kids one-on-one."

    The Marines talk about imparting intangibles of confidence and honor and integrity and physical fitness in their charges.

    Then the group is taken to pugil-stick fights -- think of helmeted men fighting with cotton swabs big enough to knock you flat -- and the MCRD swim qualifications.

    For educators like Shawn Anstine, 37, an assistant principal from Foothills High School in Palo Cedro, it's the way the recruits carry themselves, their demeanor, their discipline, their determination -- in other words their "Marine-ness" -- that most impresses him.

    Anstine thinks of students who might benefit from a stint in the Corps, even if it means going to Iraq or Afghanistan.

    "When I came here, I wasn't anti-military, but I wasn't gung-ho either," Anstine said. "There are some kids that this would be the best thing for their lives, and there are others who will go to Stanford or Harvard and that will be the best thing in their lives."

    "From what I can see, this is a very valid option for a lot kids and people who want to better themselves who don't have the finances," Anstine said.

    For others, this just strengthens their stand.

    "I am definitely for the military," said Margie Komatsu, a guidance counselor at Cordova High School, about 20 miles outside Sacramento. "But now I am much better informed about the training and can speak to (students) from what I saw."

    When asked about advocating military service in the face of mounting casualties, Anstine said the loss of any life, especially a young person's life, is always a tragedy, but that dying in the service of one's country at least gives the loss meaning.

    "How many people do we lose on the California freeways? That is equally as sad," he said.

    Komatsu counsels high school seniors about their plans, and most of them know "that they will most likely go to war" if they join the military.

    Col. Suddreth said parents and educators are asking more questions today than they were a few years ago. But, he said, it hasn't seemed to hurt recruiting.

    "They are not being detractors, but they are definitely having more involvement," said Suddreth, whose region signs about 18,500 recruits, or a little more than half of the Corps' yearly recruits.

    "I'm not going to tell parents that their children won't be sent to Iraq or Afghanistan, because under the current operations tempo, they probably will."

    Asked if a prolonged war might alter recruiting, Suddreth said:

    "If we sell anything, we sell intangibles. We sell being part of something as opposed to getting money for college. We want a kid to be a Marine because he wants to be one of us. Are are we going to change? No. We have a very good product."

    — Rick Rogers
    San Diego Union-Tribune


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