This Man Wants Your Children: Army Recruiter Chad Christenson
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This Man Wants Your Children: Army Recruiter Chad Christenson

Sergeant First Class Chad Christenson is one of the Army's top recruiters. He feels driven to show young Texans how the Army can enrich their lives -- the way he believes it did his.

Army Appeal

Sergeant Chad Christenson
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Army Recruiter Sergeant
First Class Chad Christenson

At noon on a hot day in late August, Sergeant First Class Chad Christenson drives a 4,700-pound black Hummer H3 into the open breezeway of Winston Churchill High, a public secondary school of slightly more than 3,000 students in an upper-middle-class neighborhood of San Antonio, Texas. Wearing a pressed Army combat uniform and tan boots, Christenson, 34, one of the top Army recruiters in the country, steps confidently from the imposing vehicle into the Texas heat as a crowd of students swarms him.

"Hey, Sergeant, whatcha got for us today?" asks Sandy Nguyen, a thin 14-year-old Vietnamese-American girl dressed in a denim skirt, pink-laced sneakers, and a pink T-shirt imprinted with the word QUEEN.

"Free water bottles, but you'll have to earn one," says Christenson. Under the provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, public high school administrators are required to allow military recruiters access to students or risk losing federal funding. Although this policy has been met less than enthusiastically in some schools around the country, at Churchill, Christenson -- whose wife, Gina, is a former science teacher there -- is treated like a hero. During the past three years he has steadily cultivated what recruiters call "influencers" -- Churchill's parents, teachers, coaches, and counselors -- through a succession of goodwill gestures. Earlier in August, to welcome teachers back to school, he and the other recruiters in his office provided a barbecue lunch of brisket, beans, and potato salad in the school cafeteria, with Christenson himself serving the potato salad. Last year he paved the way for the Golden Knights -- the Army's world-renowned parachute team -- to drop from the sky at a Churchill football game. He also helped make it possible for Assistant Principal Christopher Throm, PhD, to skydive with the Golden Knights near Fort Bragg, North Carolina. "Our relationship with Chad and the other recruiters has been nothing but positive," says Dr. Throm. "Not a single parent has ever protested."

At the rear of the Hummer, Christenson tries, and fails, to install a White Zombie CD and a video war game called America's Army. Two lanky boys playfully push the sergeant out of the way. Within minutes White Zombie's heavy-metal music fills the breezeway and a small cluster of boys huddle over the blinking game, waging video war against terrorist insurgents from the safety of the open tailgate.

Solidly built with a round face, tawny brown eyes, and a standard-issue Army crew cut, Christenson appears to be a plain man, not the kind to attract attention. Yet his certainty of purpose, combined with an infectious charm, draws people to him, especially young adults. One of his recruiting colleagues, noting the natural way in which he relates to teens, describes Christenson "as a kid in a man's body."

"Anybody who gives me 30 good push-ups gets a bottle," Christenson shouts.

"I will! I will!" squeals Sandy. She drops in a jolt to the cement floor, feet on tiptoes, hands squared beneath her shoulders, back flat as an ironing board. "One, two, three..." Christenson bellows. "Don't quit, Sandy. A lot of people quit on us."

Sandy, one of 109 Churchill students enrolled in ROTC, is not one of them. A freshman, Sandy hopes to be an Army nurse, maybe even a physician. Today she effortlessly executes the 30 push-ups, jumps up, and claims her prize.

Not to be outdone by a girl, two boys follow her to the floor, then two more and two more after that. Suddenly it's a push-up party. Christenson now has so many volunteers that he organizes them, Army style, in linked groups of four.

"You have to work as a team," he tells them. "No one gets a water bottle unless you all stay linked." The crowd swells to more than 100, all listening to the clear, steady sound of Christenson's hypnotic count. Christenson gives away all of the 60 or so bottles he has on hand, but by then the students are so jazzed by the game that they do the push-ups without the promise of a prize.

After 30 minutes the bell rings and the party is abruptly over. The owner of the White Zombie CD hits eject and heads to class. The breezeway is silent and empty. "That was good," says Christenson, brown eyes shining. "We got a lot of kids to think positively about the Army today."

Recruiter of the Year

This episode is only a brief interval in a day that began at 4 a.m. and won't end until well after 10 p.m., but it illustrates why Christenson is so successful at one of the toughest jobs in America: recruiting soldiers for the largest of the military branches in the midst of a war that has polarized public opinion. In 2005 he was named the Army's "Recruiter of the Year" and honored at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. That same year the military recruiting budget ran to about $4 billion. Even so, recruiting numbers went down, with the Army falling about 7,000 recruits short of meeting its annual goal of 80,000.

Army officials admit that the war was partly to blame. In 2005, 846 American soldiers died in Iraq (out of nearly 2,900 American deaths since the war began) and nearly 6,000 were wounded. To address the problem, the Army added 1,000 new recruiters, doubled the maximum sign-in bonus from $20,000 to $40,000, relaxed standards, and raised the maximum-age limit. This strategy -- plus a new $200-million-a-year ad campaign, "Army Strong" -- appears to be working: The Army exceeded its 2006 recruiting goal for regular recruits by 0.8 percent.

Christenson's success can partly be chalked up to the fact that he is stationed in Texas, the state that contributed more 2005 and 2006 Army enlistees than any other and where support for the war remains high. Still, the fact that Christenson delivered some 42 inductees to the military last year -- nearly double the target of two per month for recruiters in his station -- and did so in a middle- to upper-class area defies all statistical odds. Moreover, he scrupulously avoids the sorts of ethical lapses -- such as misleading potential recruits (or their parents) about the chances of going to Iraq -- that have tripped up other recruiters. He receives no commission or bonus for any recruit he signs up; like all Army employees, he is paid according to his rank and pay grade -- in his case, about $64,000 a year. (The Army recently modified its bonus policy for recruiters.)

But the larger part of Christenson's success is that he absolutely believes in his mission. "The Army changed my life," Christenson says, seated behind a small wooden desk in the cramped office he shares with five other recruiters. "It made me who I am." The walls of the office, located in a drab strip mall, are lined with recruiting posters. "ANYBODY CAN FIND A JOB -- THE BEST JOBS FIND YOU," reads one. Another is in Spanish: "YO SOY EL ARMY " ("I am the Army"). Every desk is piled high with "Army of One" bumper stickers and brochures.

The average age of an Army recruit in 2005 was just under 21. This is the demographic that Christenson works with on a daily basis -- young people who are drawn to the stable salary, health benefits, money for college, and structured lifestyle that the Army provides. "Every day I see people, mostly 17- to 24-year-olds, who really need this stability and structure," says Christenson. "I understand that feeling because when I was that age I needed those things myself."

The shelves behind him bulge with more than a dozen white three-ring binders that hold Army-issued recruiting manuals. The manuals contain specific instructions on how to do everything from keeping a calendar to asking open-ended scripted questions ("How would you like to change your life?") to reading body language (if a prospect scratches his nose or messes with her earring, he or she is interested). Christenson prefers to steer his own course -- one that is more Pied Piper than General Patton. He coaxes rather than commands. "My number-one rule is to always shut up and listen," he says. "If you listen long enough, you can usually figure out how to help recruits get what they need from the Army. If you listen, they sell themselves."

Evolution of a Soldier

Christenson was raised by a single mother, who was 22 and unmarried when she gave birth to him. He grew up in Hesperia, California, and in high school played baseball and worked summers as a house painter to supplement the household income. After graduation he briefly attended a community college but felt adrift. He was close to his grandfather, who'd served in the Navy during World War II and had a battleship tattoo emblazoned on his chest. The first Gulf War was under way at this time, and the idea of liberating Kuwait from Saddam Hussein's Iraq appealed to Christenson. War seemed like an adventure, but by the time he joined the Army as an infantryman, late in 1991, Operation Desert Storm was over. He was sent to Hawaii instead.

By then he'd married his high school sweetheart and had a son, but the marriage broke up while he was in Hawaii. Not long after that he met Gina, a New Mexico native who was teaching science at a Honolulu high school. They married in 1995.

Gina attributes her husband's success to his awareness that "college isn't for every kid" and his willingness to "work really hard to get good jobs" for his recruits. She has a demanding job at a state agency that trains science teachers, and her husband's long hours often leave her feeling like a single parent to their 5-year-old daughter, Alyssa. "Don't get me wrong," she says. "I love the Army, but military families, here and abroad, really suffer."

Before becoming a recruiter, Christenson worked in what the Army calls a logistical field -- he moved large amounts of cargo from place to place. Along the way he earned an online associate's degree in computer information systems, paid for by the Army's tuition assistance program. His supervisors told him he could advance by becoming either a drill sergeant or a recruiter. He chose the latter. "I don't have the temperament of a drill sergeant," he admits. "Not enough bark or bite."

Christenson says he has found over the years that people enlist in the Army for one of a few primary reasons, including stability, adventure, and because of their sense that being a soldier is what they were born to do. He's familiar with the dark side of recruiting, of course -- the improprieties brought on by the pressure to meet quotas. In 2005 the Army officially investigated 836 allegations of recruiter misconduct -- a number representing about 10 percent of its entire recruiting force. Asked about reports that a Colorado recruiter offered tips on faking a diploma and beating drug tests, Christenson says, "That was just sickening," genuine pain registering on his face.

Some of the Army's recent changes in recruiting policy -- setting up a MySpace profile, accepting lower entrance scores on aptitude tests, and granting more "moral waivers" that allow convicted criminals to enlist -- have been controversial and have sometimes led, critics argue, to tragic consequences. A case in point is that of former Army Private Steven D. Green, of Midland, Texas, a high school dropout who joined the Army in 2005. Green was given waivers for two misdemeanor convictions for possession of drug paraphernalia and tobacco as a minor and an arrest for misdemeanor possession of alcohol. In September of the same year, he was deployed as an infantry soldier to Iraq, where he allegedly raped and killed an Iraqi girl and killed three members of her family. He was discharged from the Army for "a personality disorder" and now awaits trial for murder and rape in federal court. He has pleaded not guilty.

"I Think of Myself as a Big Brother"

One of two ringtones that Christenson has programmed into his cell phone is the opening phrase of "The Star-Spangled Banner." When the phone trills out "oh, say can you see" on a Thursday afternoon in May, it's one of his recruits calling. The young man doesn't have a car and needs the recruiter to drive him to a bank to open an account. Christenson arranges to pick him up at 4 p.m.

This is precisely the kind of routine errand that Christenson performs almost daily. He takes enlistees to get their immunization records, makes sure they have their Social Security cards, obtains transcripts from schools, even helps them get their cars to mechanics. "Sometimes I ask myself, where are these kids' parents?" Christenson says. "I think of myself as a big brother, not a parent, but kids this age need a lot of help."

Before the 4 p.m. appointment, Christenson has to pick up another one of his prospects, Kevin Alt, 20, and drive him across town to the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) at Fort Sam Houston, one of the nation's oldest Army bases, where he is to take a test called Armed Services Vocational Battery, or ASVAB. Alt, whose parents are divorced, graduated two years ago from high school and now works as a busboy at a steakhouse while attending a local community college. College, however, has not captured his interest.

Four months ago Alt bought an Army-produced video game called America's Army: Rise of the Soldier and has been playing it incessantly. "Ever since I was a little boy I wanted to be a soldier," he says. "But the game inspired me to do something about it." While surfing the Internet he found information about the Army's Special Forces -- a.k.a. the Green Berets -- and filled out an online form indicating that he wanted to talk to a local recruiter.

Soon after that Christenson telephoned Alt, thus launching the journey from initial contact to the swearing in and signing of an Army contract. In recruiting lingo this process is known as "flash to bang," a phrase Christenson believes originates from the flash of lightning followed by the bang of thunder. "You see the flash before you hear the bang because light travels faster than sound," Christenson explains. "Recruiters picked it up because we hope things happen fast, but they rarely do." Indeed, the time from "contact to contract" often stretches into months.

Every time a recruit initiates the process, it sets off family dramas involving parents, siblings, friends, and lovers or spouses. In Alt's case, his father, an electrician, is pleased with his son's decision. His mother, however, broke down in tears at the news. Even so, Alt says, "she's proud of me for making my own decision."

On this balmy May day, Alt is anxious about ASVAB, even though Christenson directed him to a Web site with sample questions from each of the test's six sections: basic math and algebra, English, basic science, puzzle solving, and a challenging electronics section. As Alt gets out of the Hummer, Christenson says, "Be sure to take your baseball cap off when you walk through the door -- you need to act like you're already in the Army."

Christenson salutes good-bye and takes off. Recruiters are not allowed inside MEPS. Their job is to sell prospects on the Army, but the swearing in and signing of the contract are handled by others at the 65 MEPS facilities throughout the country and Puerto Rico. The test takes him two hours and, as Christenson has anticipated, Alt passes, but with a score of 41 -- too low to position him for more than a modest bonus in his chosen specialty.

Step two is making sure Alt can meet the Army's physical standards. One morning Christenson takes him to the track at Churchill and Alt effortlessly exceeds the physical training requirements, completing 42 push-ups in two minutes, 52 sit-ups in two minutes, and running 2 miles in less than 15 minutes, 54 seconds. At 6 foot 1 and 137 pounds, however, Alt is a scant 10 pounds over the Army's minimum weight restriction. "Just keep your weight up," Christenson says.

"Okay," Alt replies, "I'll eat more mashed potatoes."

Before Alt makes his second visit to MEPS, Christenson warns him that the Army investigators will be thorough. And they are. Medical personnel examine every limb and orifice. His vision, hearing, and bone density are measured. His blood and urine are collected to check for, among other things, drug use. Then he is grilled. "Have you ever been treated for a sexually transmitted disease?" "Have you ever been a conscientious objector or done anything to advocate the overthrow of the government?" He is not asked if he is gay; MEPS personnel instead explain the Army's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

The Call of Duty

Step three -- choosing a job from among the 212 the Army offers -- requires more preparation. From the beginning Alt has known the job he wants: infantryman. Christenson warns him that in this position he may have an 80 percent chance of going to Iraq, but Alt is untroubled. "This just makes sense to me," he says, speaking in a calm, clear voice. "I want to fight for the freedom that other people, like my two grandfathers who served in World War II, gave me.

"I'm not afraid," he continues. "The Army will train me in the M16 rifle, M9 pistol, M249 light-machine gun, all kinds of grenades and grenade launchers. I want to go to war. I want to do my duty." Since making his initial inquiry in late April, he has begun following the news from Iraq on TV. "It's personal now," he says.

In mid-June Christenson drops Alt off at a hotel near MEPS, where the recruit stays up until well past midnight playing Rise of the Soldier. By 4 a.m. he is downstairs. A courtesy van picks him up and takes him to MEPS one last time.

That afternoon, at the recruiting station, Christenson is nervous. Even though he and Alt have rehearsed the interview with the job counselor, Christenson doesn't want Alt to become rattled and take whatever job the counselor offers. "He knows he can refuse if he doesn't get exactly what he wants," Christenson says. (Indeed, until a recruit actually ships to basic training -- or is "assessed," in military parlance -- he is not officially in the Army and thus is free to walk away, despite having signed a contract.) The infantryman job Alt wants is one of the most popular right now, which is why more mundane jobs such as mechanics often come with higher financial incentives.

When the cell phone rings, Christenson lunges. "Did you get what you want?" he asks.

"Yes," Alt says. "Come get me."

Half an hour later Christenson pulls up to the bus stop across the street from MEPS. Alt stands at the corner, baseball cap pulled over his eyes, his shoulder drooping under the weight of his new Army backpack. In the car Alt explains that he got just the deal he and Christenson discussed: infantryman. He'll do the standard nine weeks of basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, and stay on for 12 weeks of advanced military training there. He will receive a starting salary of $14,500 and a $10,000 bonus -- average for infantry positions for someone of Alt's rank and grade. He will get half of his bonus after he completes boot camp and the rest will be paid out over his enlistment period. (Once an enlistee signs a contract, is sworn in and ships off to basic training -- the fourth stage of the process -- he is obligated to serve on active duty from between two to six years. At the end of that enlistment period he can reenlist if he is eligible, as two out of three eligible American soldiers now do.)

Even though Alt has been a soldier for less than half an hour, the gravity of the oath he took is not lost on him. "This is the first decision of my life as a man," he says. "I'm finally a soldier and boy does it feel good."

Just then a motorcycle cuts in front of the Hummer. Pasted on the rear fender is a decal with a blue star in the center -- a symbol that the owner has a loved one currently serving in battle. In the backseat the Army's new private solemnly removes his baseball cap and places it over his heart.

Family Conflicts

Of every 10 potential recruits Christenson talks to, on average only about three will "flash to bang." A lot depends on the role of influencers, particularly mothers. As a recruiter, Christenson often finds himself in the middle of intense family conflicts over the war in Iraq. "No mother wants her child to go to war," he acknowledges. "When I talk to mothers, I tell them I've been in the Army 15 years and have never been in combat. Not everyone who joins the Army goes to battle -- it depends a lot on the job you pick. I also tell them the hard truth: America needs soldiers who'll fight."

One afternoon in June, Zach Thompson, 20, walks into Christenson's recruiting station and tells him he wants to join. Thompson and his wife, Crystal, are in dire straits: Since being forced by Hurricane Rita to flee their home in Sulphur, Louisiana, they have been living with her cousin in San Antonio and have not found jobs.

With three years of college under his belt and a high score of 96 on ASVAB, Thompson looks like a sure thing. He tells Christenson that he wants to serve one year in the regular infantry, then try for Special Forces, which will allow him to train for counterterrorist missions. "It's a moral thing with me," he says. "After what happened on 9/11, I can't live with myself if I don't go to war."

He faces his first hurdle after the medical exam. At 5 foot 11, Thompson weighs in at 240 -- over the weight and body-fat limit. "No problem," Christenson tells him with characteristic optimism. "We'll just get to work on it." Thompson is already on the Atkins diet; although Christenson doesn't need to lose weight, he observes the diet himself when he is around Thompson. Three days a week for three weeks they run together on a hilly, woodsy course near the recruiting station. At the end of the three weeks Thompson has lost 20 pounds and passes his physical.

Meanwhile, Thompson finds himself caught between his mother, in Louisiana, who is furious over her son's decision to quit college, and his young wife, who's proud of her husband for his display of independence and looks forward to the Army's benefits. "My mother thinks I'm throwing my life away," Thompson says. "But I'm doing this to make a better life for my wife and me."

In his job interview with MEPS, Thompson holds out for the job of infantryman. He gets a bonus of $14,000 and a starting salary of $18,000 plus medical benefits and a housing allowance. But before he is to ship to basic training, a series of family crises intervene, and Thompson and his wife move to Oklahoma. He assures Christenson that the delay is only temporary; he'll work construction for a while and ship out to the Army later.

A Mother's Blessing

Christenson is disappointed: He knows that he has lost the battle to Thompson's influencers. "Zach is one of those born soldiers," he says, slowly shaking his head. "Nothing else is ever going to feel right to him." Christenson has also been working with another smart young man -- Russell Aldrich, 23, a recent graduate of the University of Texas whose 3.6 grade point average and high law board scores have garnered him admission to five top law schools. "This kid is so intelligent I wouldn't insult him by asking him to take a practice test," Christenson declares.

Aldrich is prepared to postpone law school for a year to join the Army Reserve. A social conservative and a staunch supporter of President Bush, Aldrich tells Christenson he couldn't live with himself if he sat out this war. "Everyone should serve their country," he says. He hopes someday to run for public office and knows exactly what military job he wants -- civil affairs -- which his Army counselor has likened to the Army's version of the Peace Corps, only "without the peace," as Aldrich puts it. He envisions a job working with local government officials in Iraq or Afghanistan, helping to draft rules and regulations.

His mother, Linda, an editor for court reporters, initially resisted the idea of her elder son joining the Reserve. "I never thought I'd be a mom with kids over there, so at first I had a fit," she says. "But then I realized Rusty was going to do this and that I had to support him. I'm just glad he's not going to be on the front line with a gun."

Hewing to a strategy he has devised with Christenson, Aldrich secures a good deal for himself: During his six years in the Reserve, he will earn a base pay of about $1,500 a month. He also will get a $20,000 sign-in bonus -- $5,000 to be paid after he finishes basic training and the rest payable over the six years. Moreover, the Army will absorb $36,000 worth of student loans. He will also be eligible to apply for a program that will pay for law school.

At 4 a.m. on the morning that Aldrich leaves for boot camp, every house on his street is dark except for his. A flag flies on the front porch, and hanging just inside the door is a plaque etched with the words of Psalm 23, "THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD." Despite the early hour, Linda is up, standing in front of a refrigerator plastered with photos of Russell and his younger brother, Brady. "Rusty is so ready to go," she says, sounding as if she's trying to convince herself. A few moments later, the two of them walk to the front yard and say goodbye under a live oak tree. "Be careful," she tells him, her voice cracking.

"You too," he says, with a squeeze of her shoulder. Then he is gone.

Problem Child

Sometimes, of course, it is the parents who are pushing the child to join. One such case is a 17-year-old whose mother and father have both served in the military. In high school the boy was a rebel. He balked at reciting the Pledge of Allegiance every morning and wore an earring in violation of the school's dress code. Eventually he dropped out of high school and earned a GED. Now his father has decided he should join the Army and as such has sought out Christenson's services. (Because the boy is still a minor, his parents have to sign an affidavit giving their permission.)

There are problems from the start. The boy has a visible tattoo, which military regulations forbid. Christenson photographs it to document to the Army that if the boy is in dress uniform the tattoo cannot be seen. Next he tests positive for marijuana. Christenson has explained the test in advance; when confronted, the boy says he thought he could beat the test by taking a large dose of the vitamin niacin.

"If these drug tests could be beaten, don't you think those football and baseball players who earn millions would have figured out a way to beat it?" yells an exasperated Christenson. "Are you smarter than the million-dollar players?" The teen just shrugs.

Christenson continues to work with him for two more months, but when the would-be recruit fails the drug test at MEPS, Christenson washes his hands of him. "I'm done," he says. "You work with these kids every day for months. You think you know them, but you don't."

It is cases like this that strengthen Christenson's opposition to a draft. Despite flaws in the current system, he believes that the all-volunteer Army has a better chance than a draft does of weeding out people who are unfit for duty. "Our all-volunteer Army is far superior," he says. "The people who join want to serve."

A Sense of Responsibility

Throughout the spring and summer Christenson wrestles with his own personal crisis -- a growing sense that he should go to Iraq himself. "So far, none of the men and women I've recruited -- more than 100 -- have died or been seriously wounded in Iraq," he says one day in June, knocking on his wooden desk. "But it's only a matter of time and when it happens, I'd like to have served there, too."

The conflict is between his idealized image of himself as a warrior -- a vision he's carried since he was 18 -- and the practicalities of being a 34-year-old husband and father just four years away from being able to retire with a full pension and pursue a career in human resources for a private company. If he doesn't go to battle soon, he won't go at all. Every day his sense of obligation increases. Every day he sees people join the Army for motives that intensify his own desire to see combat.

For Jhony Pleites, a Honduran-born 23-year-old, a major motive is becoming a U.S. citizen. The Army has long recruited noncitizens who have green cards and who are in the United States legally, but until recently soldiers were required to complete three years of active service before applying for citizenship. In July 2002, however, President Bush issued an executive order that reduced the service requirement to one year of active duty.

Pleites has lived in San Antonio since he was 9 years old and speaks fluent English. Married with two young sons, he is employed for $8 an hour as a porter at a car dealership, far too little to support a family of four. His wife, Nicole, works as a medical assistant to an oncologist. When the time comes to pick his job, Pleites chooses "medical health specialist" since he considers it a shrewd career move. After four years in the Army he hopes to get a job as paramedic or a firefighter.

"First I need to get my citizenship, Pleites says. "It will mean a lot to me to be able to vote and to defend the country." He has already improved his family's financial situation: In basic training he'll earn about $18,000 a year, plus medical benefits and a housing allowance.

It is only 4:30 a.m. on the morning Pleites must bid his wife and sons farewell and leave for boot camp but Nicole, a slim woman with long, straight brown hair, is up and dressed. She is a U.S. citizen, born and bred in San Antonio, as are the couple's two sons. Their tiny apartment is decorated with photos of their children and a small wall hanging that reads "CLIMB HIGHER." As they stand in the living room, his Army backpack slung over his shoulder, Jhony and Nicole Pleites act out the epic story of a soldier going off to war, leaving his wife behind. "I'm so pumped for this," he tells her.

Her eyes mist over and her husband holds her close. "I'm so proud of you," she replies.

A Woman's Second Chance at a Dream

And then there is perhaps Christenson's most unusual recruit. Just five months after raising the enlistment age limit from 35 to 40, the Army raises it again, to 42. Not long after that, Jasmine "Jazz" Haynes, 41, a mother of five, walks into Christenson's recruiting station and says she is interested in enlisting. Haynes's two grown sons have both been to Iraq.

But her primary motive is not patriotism. "When I was 18 I had this dream of going into the service so that I could get money for college and see some of the world," says Haynes one Sunday evening. "But I already had two kids by then and that door closed for me."

She later married her current husband, Larry, who worked in an administrative job in the Army. When Larry, now retired, learned that the age limit had been extended, he asked his wife if she was still interested. Haynes thought about it for a week and decided to go for it. Her major obstacle is losing 20 pounds. Even though the physical fitness requirements for older recruits are less rigorous -- females must be able to do 17 sit-ups and three push-ups and run a mile in 10.5 minutes -- Haynes is not sure that she can meet them by her birthday, December 19.

Christenson, upbeat as ever, gives Haynes a pep talk and puts her on a strenuous workout program. Every evening after coming home from her job as an accounting clerk, she walks two miles. At first, it takes 40 minutes, but after a month, she has cut her time to less than 30. A month later she is running 11-minute miles and can do 25 sit-ups. "I still can't do a decent pushup," she complains.

Her friends think she's crazy, but the age extension has reminded Haynes of her earlier ambition -- to go to college and get a degree in accounting. "I'll do it in the Army or I'll do it on my own," she says. "Either way, this has given me something to work for."

Family Ties to Texas

Around the first of July Christenson resolves his own conflict by volunteering for a tour of duty in Iraq. By month's end, however, Christenson learns that his request has been denied. The Army gives no explanation, but Christenson assumes it is because his career choice -- logistics, his prerecruiting specialty -- is not needed. "I spend a lot of time reassuring families whose loved ones are in Iraq," he says, noting the irony, "and I can't seem to get there."

Christenson next volunteers to go to Camp Henry in South Korea to work in a transportation center, hoping to get deployed to Iraq from there. But in August his superiors ask him to stay put and become head of his own station, training other recruiters. It's a tempting offer.

That evening he and Gina have a long talk. They reminisce about where they were on September 11, 2001 -- in a hospital at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where Gina was about to give birth to their daughter, Alyssa. As Christenson watched the terrible images of death and destruction on the hospital's TV, he felt torn. One part of him wanted to stay close to home with his wife and newborn child; another part felt an urgent need to go to war against America's enemies.

Now, nearly five years later, Christenson finds himself in the same hard place. Relaxing in their wooded backyard, which is outfitted with a swimming pool, a trampoline, and a slide, he and Gina survey their home, a two-story white brick with plenty of room for both Alyssa and Nickolas, Christenson's son from his first marriage. By any standard, they realize, they enjoy a good life.

And, ultimately, it is this knowledge that tips the balance for Christenson. He decides that he needs to remain in San Antonio -- for his family, his future, and the Army. "Recruiting is an important job, and it's what I'm good at," he says, watching his daughter bounce up and down on the trampoline. "Staying here is the right thing to do."

Just then, the opening notes of "The Star-Spangled Banner" chime through the summer air. Naturally, Christenson takes the call.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, February 2007.