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