View Full Version : Critics say recruiting is Marines' motive in billboards

01-02-06, 08:00 AM
Hometown heroes
Critics say recruiting is Marines' motive in billboards recognizing bravery in war
- Matthew B. Stannard, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, January 2, 2006

When Cpl. Michael Montemayor dashed into enemy fire to pull a fellow Marine from a stinking canal in the southern Iraq city of Nasiriya in March 2003, he wasn't exactly thinking of becoming the Marine Corps poster boy.

"I was just doing my job," the 30-year-old San Jose native, who was later promoted to sergeant and has since left the Corps, said Friday. "My mission was to get my Marines home."

Nevertheless, posters bearing Montemayor's image -- billboards, actually -- will be going up in about 20 locations around the Bay Area, beginning this week. They will bear his name and a snippet of the citation he received with his Bronze Star medal, with combat distinguishing device.

The billboards are part of the 12th Marine Corps District's "Hometown Heroes" campaign, which started in November in Montana. The unveiling in that state brought a warm reception from the lieutenant governor and dignitaries.

In the Bay Area, some critics say the Marines are using propaganda as a recruiting tool. But that has not dissuaded the Marines.

"We're going to try it here, because I don't think red states necessarily have a corner on heroism," said Maj. Michael Samarov, commanding officer of Recruiting Station San Francisco.

"We have all of these tremendous young people doing all these incredible things, and the story's not getting told," said Samarov, who, like Montemayor, was in Iraq in the first days of the war.

Montemayor's story happened on March 23, when he was a machine gun team leader running with his fellow Marines across the canal-cut fields around Nasiriya, trying to guard a path for the heavy vehicles behind.

Making it safely across one patch of open ground, Montemayor looked around and realized he was short one private first class. Spotting a flash of Kevlar in the distance, he ran back into the kill zone, alone.

"I should have said something," he said, a little chagrined.

The missing Marine, bogged down by extra ammunition and a chemical suit soaked with sludge, had gotten mired up to his neck in a sewage canal.

For long minutes, as bullets and rocket-propelled grenades flew past, Montemayor struggled to pull his fellow Marine from the muck, finally getting him far enough up the bank to scramble out with help from Montemayor and another Marine who arrived just in time.

Montemayor didn't think much more about it until he was put in for a Bronze Star.

"I didn't think I deserved it at all. It's what our job is over there," he said. "There's stuff like that going on over there every day."

But it's important to recognize that kind of action, said Vince Rios, who fought with the Marines in Vietnam and is now vice commander for the American Legion, Department of California, Area 2.

"You would be hard pressed to find even an article in the newspaper about people coming back from Vietnam," Rios said.

"That sort of activity eases the transition from the trauma of combat into the civilian world," he added. "They get that and recognize, by golly, somebody out there actually does care."

That's the reason even some anti-war activists say they like the billboard project.

"I think it's great," said Judith Ross, a San Francisco member of the anti-war group Military Families Speak Out and the mother of a Marine.

"In our view, they're all heroes. We're really proud of our loved ones," she said. "We disagree with this particular war ... and we want them home as soon as possible."

Other anti-war activists were more skeptical.

"This billboard campaign should be seen as what it is -- a recruitment program," said Josh Sonnenfeld, an activist with the Resource Center for Nonviolence in Santa Cruz, who described the billboards as "propaganda."

"The military tried to convince youth to enlist by offering false claims of money for college or job training, but still failed to meet their quotas. Now they're aggressively trying to convince youth and their 'influencers' that killing and war is 'honorable.' "

Diana Morrison, a California National Guard staff sergeant who returned from Iraq to co-found Iraq Veterans Against the War, said she agreed that the stories of individual troops should be honored.

"But for the Marines to use that as a recruiting tool just seems really underhanded," she said. "I feel like they're exploiting this guy ... 'I'm a war hero, look at how great I am, you can be great if you go fight in Bush's war.' "

Samarov, who commands the Marine recruiters for most of Northern California -- where recruiting numbers are back up to quota after a slump -- agreed that the posters might bring in candidate Marines.

"If educating the local community about heroes in their midst gets the attention of those that have the predisposition, have the talent, have the wherewithal, have the skill to be a United States Marine ... so much the better," he said.

"(But) in the end, what we're trying to do is recognize the individual contribution. What's important is that this person, Sgt. Montemayor in this case, went further than most people would go. That's what's important here."