Recruiting duty tops the list of most dreaded assignments for many Soldiers.
U.S. Army Recruiting Command, or USAREC, has a reputation of being an organization in which quotas and numbers rule supreme over quality of life and welfare of Soldiers and their Families. In fact, statistics show only 31 percent of the detailed recruiters volunteer for the assignment; career program managers nominate and select the other 69 percent.
So, why would anyone want to become a recruiter? I did. Although I could not have foreseen it when I volunteered, the decision would become life altering. This duty challenged everything I thought I knew about being a leader in the Army.
After I enlisted in 1999, it didn’t take long for me to realize the Army was my golden opportunity. Growing up in a broken home and a rough neighborhood in an economically depressed environment in Louisiana, the Army was not considered a last resort; it was the only way out.
As a Soldier, I always worked harder and faster than my peers, and many just considered me extremely competitive. In reality, it had more to do with fear of failure.
The best part of the Army was that it allowed me to create a new identity. The more I evolved into it, the less I felt the shame of the life I left behind in Baton Rouge. The new identity I created had an insatiable hunger for success and opportunity.
One of the benefits of creating a new identity is that you are easily moldable. I developed into what I thought was the ideal Soldier. It was looking sharp in your uniform, obeying orders from leaders and working harder than everyone else.
My supervisors were impressed with my work ethic, and I was quickly promoted to sergeant, and then to staff sergeant. Being in charge was intoxicating. By simply wearing a piece of cloth denoting my rank, I was able to force others to take orders and perform my mission. If anyone were to dissent, I had a long list of ideas for punishment.
Being thoughtful, kind, personable or even smiling in front of subordinates was considered weak. To be a leader, I learned those attributes had to be removed from my ever-evolving identity — or risk failure. I had become the type of leader many in the Army consider toxic.
In order to increase my chances at future promotions, I decided to volunteer for recruiting duty. I was told to expect to work 25 hours a day, often eight days per week. I was warned that recruiting was all about quotas, and failing to meet those quotas was a surefire way to destroy my Army career.
Stories were passed along to me from those who had recruited long ago; recruiting is all about sales and morality, and values have no place in that world. None of these warnings bothered me. I had proven over the previous seven years that I was highly capable of evolving into any identity I needed to be successful.
I was formally trained in the Army Recruiter Course on how to market the Army to young men and women. I had memorized all of the benefits of the Army and could provide a glossy informational brochure for nearly any situation.
We conducted exercises by practicing how to overcome obstacles and objections from potential applicants, parents or influencers with cleverly worded rebuttals. I was so surprised with how well I did in training that I was beginning to replace any self-doubt with confidence. I was feeling prepared and excited about being an Army recruiter.
Once assigned at my recruiting center, the feelings of excitement did not last long. I felt like a fish out of water for the first several weeks. No one could have prepared me for the amount of rejection, insults and disrespect I would be subjected to. It was humbling to realize the rank on my chest had no authority, power or influence over civilians. I could not understand how these people did not appreciate the benefits of joining the service.
I tried to work on every flaw in my presentation, including my appearance, body language and delivery. It seemed like nothing was working.
My world was spinning and coming undone.
On a routine Monday morning, I headed to one of my high schools to conduct a planned presentation on the benefits of joining the Army. I wasn’t expecting much. After all, I had previously conducted this same presentation at least 10 times and was lucky to leave with a small amount of dignity, much less someone showing interest in enlisting.
I actually loathed going to this particular high school. It was on the poor side of town, the kids were disrespectful, and the teachers could be best described as disengaged and rude. Like each time before, I stood in front of the students and began to deliver my routine speech. Once again, it didn’t take long to see the overwhelming disinterest in their faces.
Then, all of a sudden, it hit me like a ton of bricks. The students were not the problem — I was the problem; it has always been me. The fact is they were only seeing me for the salesman I was portraying. I decided I was going to switch gears and tell them who I truly was.
I was really no different than them — something those kids would never know unless I told them.
I joined the Army to escape the life many of them were living. I looked deep into the eyes of those young men and women and saw a familiar pain. I saw the pain of poverty, despair, drug abuse, broken homes and lost dreams. As much as I tried to hold back, my eyes welled with tears as I vividly shared memories with them — memories I had long suppressed.
It was in that moment I realized that being a recruiter was not being a salesman as I had been trained — it was about being true to yourself and sharing your story. It was not about numbers and quotas, but being an example of redemption, opportunity and perseverance. The leader they needed had to be genuine, not the person I had allowed myself to become.
That year I went on to win several recruiting production awards, including the battalion’s top producer of the Army’s most coveted enlistment category — high school seniors.
Those who don’t know me well may measure my success by the numbers of enlistments I am responsible for. However, I measure my success in phone calls, emails and social media messages from the people I enlisted. It’s in those messages that I hear the simplest of words, “thank you,” from those Soldiers who once heard my story, and it changed the direction of their lives. What they may not realize, though, is just how much they taught me about myself and something I may have never found outside of Army Recruiting Command — the true meaning of leadership.
(Editor’s Note: Sgt. 1st Class Richard Conerly, who has been a recruiter since 2006, is one of several USAREC noncommissioned officers assigned to corps and division-level units across the Army.
The NCOs serve as USAREC ambassadors and develop closer ties to the operational force. They share their recruiting story, inspire NCOs to volunteer for a USAREC assignment and mentor those selected for recruiting duty. They also resolve Soldiers’ initial enlistment contract and bonus issues and provide support for the recruiting mission.
Learn more or ask questions about becoming a recruiter at www.facebook.com/ArmyRTR.)