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07-24-05, 09:02 AM
Military Tactics
With Schools Closed, Recruiters Move To Wherever There Are Young People, Even A Heavy-Metal Festival
July 24, 2005

Commerce at the Ozzfest in Hartford is plentiful and brisk, and tends toward the countercultural. Items for sale include marijuana-flavored candy, clothing with spikes, and Cat-in-the-Hat-style hats with pictures of pot leaves.

The river of people that flows from booth to booth on a recent Sunday boasts a lot of fishnet and hairstyles that fully exploit the color spectrum. Fresh from a body-painting booth, a few women are topless, except for elaborately designed layers of air-brushed paint.

Peering over all this, like a very unlikely Lord of Misrule, is a 20-foot-tall inflatable drill sergeant. It's the signpost of the U.S. Marines tent, which has set up shop amid the T-shirt, tattoo and body-piercing booths. Some Marines wear camouflage, but instead of blending in, the uniforms have the opposite effect. A few hundred yards away, the U.S. Army has its own booth.

Certainly, the Ozzfest environs seem at odds with selling young people on the militaristic rigors of life in the service. That the touring heavy-metal music festival, now in its 10th year, was organized by Ozzy Osbourne - self-proclaimed "prince of darkness" and television's famously confused father - only adds to the incongruity. The all-day event features 20 bands.

Compounding the unlikeliness: According to Marine Staff Sgt. Larry Thomas, six or more tattoos disqualify applicants. Here, that would eliminate many.

But in military recruiting, you go where the young folks are. That usually means going to schools, but the summer gives recruiters room to try other tactics.

And the current numbers don't afford recruiters much down time. The U.S. Army, the biggest of all the military branches, has a goal of 80,000 new enlistees by the end of September. By the end of June, the Army was more than 6,000 short of the 54,935 enlistees it needed to stay on pace, and more than 2,000 short of its goal of 15,554 Army Reservists.

So, if it takes setting up a booth at the Ozzfest and shouting to prospects over the chugga-chugga sounds of the nearby bands, then so be it. Not that the military guys seem to mind. The conversations are generally friendly, and the soldiers have a good time. A lot of the concertgoers tell the recruiters about friends or relatives in the military.

It's the first year the Army has officially come to the festival, but Sgt. Robert Nerkowski Jr. is a five-time Ozzfest veteran. Events like this, he says, show that joining the military doesn't mean the end of fun. "We're a bunch of rockers, too. People think we're a bunch of robots."

Aesthetic differences aside, the metal-military gap really isn't so pronounced. Precision and aggression - traits that serve a soldier well - are two staples of the music. And unlike its equally aggressive (but less musically disciplined) cousins, punk and hardcore, metal is generally apolitical; its legions are an ideological blank canvas.

"The kids who go to these shows make great soldiers," says Nerkowski, who works in the Hartford recruiting office. Reel in that energy, he says, and "undisciplined kids can make great leaders."

This is the sixth year the Marines have been to the Ozzfest, and as always, they bring the pull-up challenge. Guys get a U.S. Marines T-shirt for 20 pull-ups and a hat for 15. Women earn a shirt for holding their chin above the bar for 70 seconds, and a hat for 50 seconds. Posters and keychains are given to all who try. Competitors sign a liability form and check off whether they want informational material sent to them. The challenge is a good draw, and for much of the day, rockers crowd around and cheer on their friends.

As he does at every Ozzfest, Raymond Magden stops by the booth to talk. The 20-year-old Waterbury resident, who came mainly to see Rob Zombie and Mudvayne, is thinking about joining within the next year. He doesn't agree with the president's reasons for invading Iraq but ultimately believes the war is for a good cause.

"I'm not scared about going over," Magden says, before giving it some thought. "I am a little bit scared, but I also feel it is a duty because they do so much to protect us."

The Army has no pull-up challenge, but it does have prime real estate. Its booth is right next to where the radio station WCCC is broadcasting and drawing a decent crowd.

Besides raffling off an Xbox and a Playstation 2 signed by the Ozzfest bands, there's plenty of Army loot, and no physical exertion is required. Free for the taking are water bottles, bags, dog tags and the official video game of the U.S. Army, "America's Army."

Of course, summer recruiting isn't all fun and metal mayhem. There's a lot of going to malls and shopping plazas, handing out cards and talking to people. It's the equivalent of cold-calling in sales. It helps when people contact the recruiters themselves. On a recent morning in the much quieter U.S. Marines' Middletown recruiting offices, Jason Cass comes in for an appointment. The 17-year-old is entering his senior year at Berlin High School and delivers pizzas for the summer.

Staff Sgt. Keith Gerena shows him a few promotional videos and writes down Jason's thoughts about them. Jason completes some forms, and Gerena's office mate, Sgt. Ross Spear, sits down to talk with Jason. Spear asks about the economics of pizza delivery.

"It kind of sucks, doesn't it?" Join the Marines, he tells Jason, and he'd have medical, dental and plenty of pocket money.

He tells Jason he can expect a boost in self-confidence: When he visits a school, "I don't walk around that school like I own it; I walk around like I built it, brick by brick," Spear says, "all because I'm a U.S. Marine."

Then there's physical fitness: "When you're chiseled, they'll all be like, `Hey, you busted your ass, didn't you?'"

More than the other branches of the service, though, the Marine Corps employs an if-it-doesn't-kill-you-it-makes-you- stronger sales approach. Parts of boot camp, he tells Jason, will be "the toughest thing you'll go through - you'll be thinking, `I'm a machine; I'm a warrior.'"

All of which seems to embolden Jason's resolve, and he agrees to come by for Spear's Wednesday-night meetings - a gathering of recruits preparing to leave for 13-week boot camp. The meetings give the recruits an idea of what to expect, physically and mentally.

On paper, Jason seems a slam dunk. He's wanted to join since the eighth grade, has no police record or medical problems to disqualify him, and he does well on his preliminary tests. But he has parents, and parents can often be a recruiter's final obstacle.

Though he declines the pull-up challenge at Ozzfest, 16-year-old Keith Toohey of Westbrook talks to the Marines about what exactly he needs to do to join.

"I just want to shoot some guns - rock and roll," he says. The back of Keith's Iron Maiden T-shirt says "World Piece Tour 1983," which would be some six years before he was born. He says he's not scared about going into combat.

"Yeah, not 'til you're there, with bullets whizzing past your head," says his friend, 17-year-old Jeremy Dufour, also from Westbrook. "You'll be screaming for your mama."

Jeremy says he thought about going into the military also, but not anymore: "I don't feel like dying right now."

The war is a common topic of conversation, but the recruiters say most of the kids they talk to have a good idea of what's going on. Some want to know if they would be shipped off immediately. They're told that there's a lot of training before anyone goes overseas.

Andrea Penta, a recent graduate of Vernon High School, approaches the Marines' table wearing a Bob Marley T-shirt. She hasn't ruled out a career in the service but isn't sure how she feels about the war. And there are a lot of other options to consider.

"It's hard just growing up and deciding where you stand. You hear the news, and you hear a lot of different things."

She lasts 38 seconds on the pull-up bar. Embarrassed, she laughs and covers her face with her hands. Thomas tosses her a keychain. "I like your shirt," he says.

Sgt. Jim Hewston, spokesman for the western New England region of the U.S. Marine Corps, says the marriage of Ozzfest and Marines may seem strange but hardly unproductive.He figures 200 to 300 signed up for the pull-up challenge. Most chose not to receive information, but Hewston says that's OK. Just getting the word out goes a long way.

The national numbers are down, but Hewston says the Marines go about their business as usual.

"We haven't changed any of our marketing," he says. "It's one of those things - we're not going to change our image mid-stream to meet some temporary demand level. It's just who we are."

Events like Ozzfest call for casting a wide net, but office work is a more nuanced matter. A few days after meeting with Jason, Spear looks a little frustrated. His parents have some worries.

"They're looking out for him now," he says. But they're not the hard cases he sometimes encounters. They're willing to talk to him, and Jason has gone to the meetings.

"Some parents are like, `No. No. No. If you come here, I will shoot you'."

Jason's father, John Cass, says his concerns boil down to his son's age and the war.

"He's 17. He's young. I don't want him to make a decision now, especially with the way things are," says Cass, who's a cop for New Britain. "I don't want him to graduate from high school and then get shipped off to Iraq."

He wants Jason to finish his senior year and then decide if he wants to join. If he does, Cass says, at least he won't have made a rash decision. "If he were 25, that's different. But he's 17."

A few days after the Ozzfest, both the Army and Marine representatives look back on their experience positively. Nerkowski got a bear hug from Black Label Society's Zakk Wylde and met Will Smith and his wife, actress Jada Pinkett Smith, who sings for one of bands on the bill. And he met a lot of nice people.

"Nobody had a problem with us being there," he says. "I would have to say that fans of that particular genre of music are among the most respectful and value-based people."

Though relieved the body-painting booth was on the other side of the plaza, Hewston says the Marines and the metal-heads got along fine.

"A lot of those guys with the long beards and tattoos come up and shake your hand and talk to you about their service in the Marines. It's a lot of fun."

Bill Weir can be reached at bweir@courant.com