This Man Wants Your Children: Army Recruiter 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."