Recruiting the force

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Matthew Bates
  • Airman Magazine
Tech. Sgt. Frank McMahon III's dark blue Ford Explorer rambled down the two-lane blacktop highway, the scenery vanishing in a blur past his driver's side window.

Not that there's much to see anyway, except long stretches of prairie.

This is Montana's "Big Sky Country" -- a wide open area where the wheat field-dominated countryside is broken up only by the occasional herd of cattle. Even trees are rare; single ones adorn the landscape, looking out of place and forlorn.

The road stretches on for what seems forever, disappearing only at the horizon. There's seldom another vehicle in sight. Out here, the driver is alone -- his only companions being the occasional voice breaking through the static on the radio and the gentle whirring of tires on the pavement.

So, he keeps driving.

This is something Sergeant McMahon does a lot. He's a recruiter with the 368th Recruiting Squadron and in charge of the largest recruiting area in the country. Based in Great Falls, his Montana domain stretches east to North Dakota, north to the Canadian border and west to the base of the Rocky Mountains.

"It's definitely a challenge having such large area," he said. "And a lot of it is really remote towns that have small schools."

Growing up, remote was something Sergeant McMahon didn't have to deal with. He's from Marlton, N.J., a town of about 10,000 people just outside Philadelphia.

"New Jersey is the most populated state in the U.S.," Sergeant McMahon said. "Montana is one of the least populated."

Still, it's not like Sergeant McMahon didn't know what he was getting himself into -- after all, he volunteered for the job.

"When I signed up to be a recruiter, I knew I wanted to come somewhere like this because I love the outdoors," he said. "All the guys in my recruiting class thought I was crazy, but I love it here. The hunting is great, the fishing is great and there's a lot of outdoor stuff to do."

Not that he has much time to enjoy them. Being the only recruiter in such a large area keeps Sergeant McMahon very busy. There are the constant phone calls, the school visits, the meetings with parents and the seemingly endless piles of paperwork.

And then there's the driving -- miles and miles of it through the Montana countryside.

"I've definitely logged a lot of time behind the steering wheel," he said.

His blue Explorer, with its well-worn engine and odometer that spins more like an electricity meter, is a silent testament to this fact.

Filling a need
Over the past decade, thanks to recruiters like Sergeant McMahon, the Air Force has consistently met or exceeded its enlistment goals. In light of this, there are those who argue against the need for the Air Force to invest time and money into recruiting.

Some people say, "The Air Force is making its recruiting goals, so why does the service need so much money and people devoted to it?"

Easy, recruiting officials say. The goal of recruiting is to find quality men and women who have the right skills, at the right time and in the right numbers to sustain the combat capability of America's Air Force.

But the Air Force can't hope qualified candidates will simply walk through the door.

"You can't just stop recruiting because you're making your goals," said Col. Stan Chase, vice commander, Air Force Recruiting Service at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas. "We need to have recruiters out there, pounding the pavement and telling the Air Force story to young people. How else are they going to know about all the tremendous opportunities the service offers?"

This is one reason Sergeant McMahon became a recruiter in the first place -- it gave him the chance to talk about the Air Force. He joined the service right out of high school and never looked back.

"I love the Air Force," he said. "And I want other people to be able to experience what it has to offer. Recruiting gives me the perfect opportunity to do this."

No walk in the park
Ironically, making its recruiting goals is almost a double-edged sword for the Air Force.
"Recruiting is not easy," Colonel Chase said. "But by always making our goals, it almost looks like it is. Yet, the fact of the matter is recruiting is a challenging and demanding job."

Sergeant McMahon can attest to this.

On an average week, he works anywhere from 60 to 80 hours -- many spent on the phone, filling out paperwork or ferrying prospective recruits to and from the Military Entrance Processing Station in Butte, Mont., which is about a two- to three-hour drive away from his office.

Then there are the meetings and checkups with individuals who have already enlisted and are in the Delayed Entry Program.

"I check in with them regularly and expect them to check in with me, too," Sergeant McMahon said. "I make sure they're making good decisions and staying fit and ready to head to basic training."

One way Sergeant McMahon does this is by making his recruits who are entering special operations jobs give him a set of push ups every time they come to his office.

"I think it's cool and it shows he's invested in us and wants to see us succeed," said Patrick Preston, a senior at Great Falls High School who enlisted as a combat controller. "He's a good guy and he's got a tough job."

Tough is not the word. Sergeant McMahon's job is part recruiter, part parent, part marketing specialist, part secretary, part travel agent and part taxi driver.

"Yeah, but I'm all Air Force," he said.

And Sergeant McMahon is not the exception, but the norm. He's only one of less than 1,300 recruiters scattered across the country. Many work extensive hours and drive long distances, all while competing with recruiters from the Army, Navy and Marines. In fact, for every Air Force recruiter there are about nine Army, five Navy and three Marine Corps recruiters.

"Yet, we keep making our goals," Colonel Chase said. "And we're recruiting the best and brightest."

The numbers back this statement up. Among Air Force recruits, 79 percent score within the top three categories on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, 99 percent have a high school diploma or equivalent and only 9 percent need a waiver for drug or other criminal issues. All of these numbers are significantly better than those of the other services.

"We're not only finding quality recruits, but we're doing it cheaper," Colonel Chase said.

On average, it costs the Air Force approximately $7,900 to send a person through the enlistment process. The next closest service is the Marines, who spend a little more than $13,000 per recruit. The Army, meanwhile, is triple the Air Force at $26,000.

Needle in a haystack
Finding recruits is difficult. According to a recent Department of Defense market survey, about 73 percent of American youth are not qualified to join the military. Weight, medical or conduct reasons disqualify more than half of them.

"When almost three quarters of your audience is already disqualified, it makes the job that much harder," Sergeant McMahon said.

Adding to this challenge is the population, or lack of, that Sergeant McMahon is in charge of scouring.

"There are actually more cows in the state of Montana than there are people," he said.

Within Sergeant McMahon's area there are also some 40 schools the Air Force classifies as priority three -- schools too small or too remote to require regular visits. Sergeant McMahon is only required to visit these schools once a year.

"Some of these schools have four or five seniors in the entire class," Sergeant McMahon said. "And many of them work on farms with the rest of their families and expect to do this when they graduate."

Team this with the fact that many of these students aren't familiar with the Air Force and there are a lot of hurdles to overcome.

"Sure, the job has its challenges," he said. "But the rewards outweigh them by a long shot."

Namely, finding and recruiting the Air Force of tomorrow.

But, the Air Force of tomorrow isn't simply going to walk into his office and ask where to sign. And out there, somewhere, is a person looking for adventure, a way out of an uncertain life or who can't afford college on his or her own. Or who just wants to serve. 

So, Sergeant McMahon and his blue Ford Explorer keep on driving.

And recruiting.