By Donna Miles
Fort Meade, MD, Aug. 2, 2006 – A step through the doors of the Military Entrance Processing Station here blows away the myths that the military is struggling to get enough recruits, dropping its standards to get those it does, or glossing over the fact that it's recruiting into a wartime force. July 31 was the last day of a month in which all the services had already met their quotas for recruits. It was a relatively slow day at the station -- one of 65 dotting the country. Yet the station buzzed with activity as 102 men and women processed through en route to the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard.
"It's pretty quiet today, but we're always busy," Station Commander Army Lt. Colonel Robert Larsen said. "People come in and are always shocked to see how many people are processing into the military. And what amazes them most is the fact that we do this every single day." The military has gone through a 13-month stretch during which every service consistently met its active-duty recruiting goals. There's never a down day at the station, especially during the busy summer season. Over the course of fiscal 2006, the Baltimore station will send almost 8,000 new members to their entry-level military training.
The station sends soldiers, the largest group processed, to basic training at forts Leonard Wood, Mo.; Benning, Ga.; Jackson, S.C.; Knox, Ky.; or Sill, Okla. Sailors, the second-largest group, all go to boot camp at Naval Training Center, Great Lakes, Ill. Marines recruits from the station go to Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C. Airmen will go to the Basic Military Training course at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. Coast Guardsmen, the smallest group to process through the MEPS station, go to Training Center Cape May, N.J.
But before they can start their training, all recruits process through a MEPS station. The Baltimore station, one of the three busiest in the country, serves as the link between the military and recruits from Maryland, the District of Columbia and parts of Delaware, Virginia and West Virginia. Recruits enter as civilians and leave as new members of the armed forces who have signed their military contracts and taken the oath of enlistment.
Recruits arrive at the station before 5:30 a.m. to begin a flurry of tests -- a medical exam, drug test and HIV test, among them -- to ensure they're fit for duty. Another test, the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, ensures they meet the military's aptitude standards. Military-wide, more than 60 percent of all recruits come from the top half of the aptitude categories, and more than 90 percent are high school graduates, David S. C. Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said during a Pentagon news conference in July.
"Typically, we see an above-average high school graduate" processing through the Baltimore MEPS, Larsen said. Army Master Sergeant Mark Schoeppner, an Army liaison with the station, bristles at talk that military standards have dipped. "There's a perception that we will allow anybody in, and that's absolutely wrong," he said.
Schoeppner pointed to big improvements he's seen in the force during his 19 and a half years in the military. "It's way better than when I came in, and I feel very comfortable sleeping at night, knowing that we have not lowered the standards," he said. The quality of new recruits "gets better and better every day," agreed Marine Gunnery Sergeant Derrick Benton, a Marine Corps liaison who meets one-on-one with Marine recruits as they process through the station.
A high score on the ASVAB equates to the broadest choice of jobs opened to recruits. "I can pick any job I want," 19-year-old Corey Robinson, from Boonesboro, Md., said of his score as he processed for a four-year stint in the Army. But Robinson didn't have to consider his options; he already had his heart set on infantry, then becoming an airborne Ranger. "There's no question that that's what I want to do," he said. "I want something exciting and fast-paced, definitely not a desk job."
Career counselors at the MEPS station sit with recruits to review their options and help steer them to the military job that most closely matches their interests and aptitude. "We want to ensure that when we put you in a particular field, that we are setting you up for success," Army Sgt. 1st Class Todd Dreeszen, an Army Reserve liaison, said. "The overall concept for us is retainability," he said, emphasizing that a good initial "fit" is a good indicator of how long a servicemember will stay in the military. "We're not looking at a single enlistment," Dreeszen said. "We're looking for 20 years."
Finally, after all their testing is completed and their job specialty selected, recruits sit with a career counselor and review their contract line by line. "We review the contract with them so they understand it fully and to ensure there are no surprises," Larsen said.
Part of that review includes a frank discussion about the possibility -- even probability -- of being sent into a combat zone. "Especially if they're going into the ground forces, they need to understand that for all practicability, a year from now, they could be in the desert," Larsen said. "We make it clear to them that everyone -- from the flute player to the infantry soldier -- has a chance to go to Iraq," Schoeppner said. "There are no false pretenses."
"We remind them that this is not the Salvation Army," Dreeszen agreed. "We reiterate what's already been said to them and remind them that their primary mission is to wage war. There's a reason that even if you're a mechanic, you carry an assault rifle." “They are fully aware that they could end up in Iraq," Benton said. "They know exactly what they are getting to, but they really want to serve their country."
Asked their views about going off to war, recruits processing through the Baltimore MEPS expressed a range of reactions, from nonchalance to anticipation. "It's not a factor," said 22-year-old Salvador Goines, who was processing for a four-year-stint in the Army under the Delayed Entry Program and expects to go to basic training in January. After growing up in "a rough neighborhood" in Wilmington, Del., Goines said he there's not much he might encounter that he hasn't seen before. "It doesn't bother me," Robinson said of going into combat. "I know I'll be with people who are well-trained and that I will be fine." "I'm not scared," said Jeremy Gardner, age 20, who was processing to go into the Navy. "People die here on the streets. There are no guarantees."
Seventeen-year-old Bethany Wade, a high school senior joining the Marine Corps through the Delayed Entry Program, said she has no trepidation about going to war after she graduates from high school in January, five months ahead of her classmates. "If they told me today that I had to go, it wouldn't bother me," she said. "I feel that everybody should be willing to go and fight for their country. We lost so many people on 9/11 that I think if you live here you should be willing to support your country."
At the end of their day at the MEPS station, Larsen reminds recruits of the seriousness of the decision they're about to make as they take the oath of enlistment and begin military careers. "If there is any perception that they're apprehensive about what they are getting into, we won't swear them in," he said. He recalls one time when he refused to enlist a recruit, despite the fact that she was scheduled to ship that day to basic training. Instead, Larsen sent her home to think about her decision. She returned the next day, convincing him that she was sure she wanted to join the military.
On July 31, as 28 new Marine Corps and Navy recruits assembled to take their oath of enlistment, Larsen reiterated his reminder. "This is a monumental day in your life, and I want you to make sure it's what you really want," he told them.
Larsen offered one more tidbit of advice -- about teamwork -- to the recruits as they lined up in formation in front of a line of flags. "Not one of us can get through basic training as a lone wolf," he told them. "You won't make it by yourself. You have to take care of each other -- that person to your left and right -- and they will take care of you." Then, Larsen told each recruit to raise his or her right hand and began the oath of enlistment. "I, your name, do solemnly swear. ..."
No matter how prepared they were for the moment, the new servicemembers said they recognize the importance of the step they're taking. They marched out of the room silently, breaking the tension with giddiness only after taking seats in the adjoining room to sign their military contracts. "This is a change of life, a change of direction," Samuel Blevins said after taking the oath of enlistment and just before heading to Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport to catch a flight to Navy boot camp.
"This is a big step for me today. It's a part of growing up," Blevins said. "You feel the chills."