Why Now? 

Putting politics aside, two Army recruits explain why they’re enlisting during time of war

Dressed in green U.S. Army fatigues, 1st Sgt. Troy Rodriguez hovers inconspicuously during the Independent’s interview with two of his new recruits, Danielle Miller, an 18-year-old senior at Big Sky High School, and Jeremy Gallagher, a 24-year-old journeyman carpenter and rugby player.

“It used to be cold in here, so we told ’em to turn the heat up and now we can’t get them to turn it back down,” Rodriguez jokes, calling attention to the less-than-ideal atmosphere.

Everyone sitting in the room feels slightly uncomfortable, whether it’s the heat, the awkwardness of being interviewed for the first time, or perhaps more philosophically, the pressure to explain why, in the midst of a discouraging and overwhelmingly unpopular war, military service seems preferable to a civilian career.

To get the interviews, the Army asked the Independent to submit a basic explanation of its intentions before granting access to the recruits.

The Army agreed to the idea, but with certain conditions. First: Rodriguez, commander of the Army Recruiting Station in Missoula, would be present for the initial meeting. Second: We could not discuss an individual’s history with the law.

“Some people may have had problems, but they are past that and they’ve passed our requirements,” Sgt. Rodriguez says.

The third and final rule says a lot about the military today. We could not discuss politics of any nature.

“I’m not supposed to be asking them that question, so I don’t think you should be either,” the sergeant says.

After consideration, the third rule made sense.

As the war on terror grinds on and the body count rises, the United States’ occupation of Iraq has become increasingly divisive. In recent months Helena, Great Falls, Bozeman, Butte and Missoula have written and passed resolutions voicing opposition to the war in Iraq. Every night the news out of Iraq and Afghanistan plays on like a broken record. “Several soldiers died in Iraq today…a helicopter carrying six Marines was shot down…A car bomb in Kabul today…” All told, the Department of Defense puts the death count for U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq at 4,386, with 24 from Montana alone.

But the personal beliefs of individual soldiers—and especially fresh recruits—have little influence on their commanders. Soldiers follow orders, and servicemen and women opposed to the war have the same obligation to fight as those who
support it.

Individual politics, in other words, are

Nevertheless, the motives of young people eager to enlist at this difficult time, when war clouds the foreseeable future and active troops may very well serve in combat, reveal profound truths about the fundamental nature of military service, the patriotic desire to serve, and perhaps above all, the overwhelmingly potent promise of money and a satisfying career.

With his shaved head and trim build Jeremy Gallagher could easily pass for a soldier if he traded out his white sweatshirt for a uniform.

“I plan on letting the hair grow out so the barbers don’t get mad at me,” he jokes.

He’s clearly at ease as he talks about his family’s history of honorable service in the military. His father went to Vietnam as a Marine. His grandfather, another Marine, fought in World War II, and a brother of his served in the Army during Desert Storm.

Now Gallagher, a 24-year-old rugby player and carpenter, will do his time for his country by joining the U.S. Army infantry.

Gallagher swells with pride when describing his grandfather, who he says raised him for most of his life. Every morning at 5 a.m., the former drill sergeant would wake the teenage Gallagher up by hollering at him, and on mornings when Gallagher didn’t do as ordered, his bed got flipped with him still in it.

“He didn’t to that too much, maybe twice. But yeah, he’d get me up every morning like that. The rest of the day he was pretty easy to deal with though,” Gallagher says. “I don’t worry about drill sergeants after that.”

His grandfather’s opinion of the service had a large influence on him growing up, and he knew from an early age that he’d eventually follow in the patriarch’s footsteps. Getting to finally tell his grandfather he’d be joining up was a proud moment. The drill sergeant told him, “It’s about time.”

Unlike many recruits, who commonly enlist after high school, Gallagher moved away from Missoula after graduation to train in Washington as a carpenter.

“I figured it was the right thing to do at the time,” he says.

In hindsight he cannot recall why he didn’t join the military then. He knew he wanted to. He knew he would do it at some point, but not right away. And then he found something in the real world he liked: money.

Wages were good for a carpenter in Seattle and Spokane, as much as $34 an hour, he says. With his money he bought a new truck, a house, and says he spent plenty of time going out and having fun.

A year ago, after spending nearly six years away from home, he decided to move back to Missoula. But jobs in Missoula weren’t as common, nor did they pay as much.

“Wages here suck,” he says. “I was making like $30 an hour over in Spokane and I come here and only make like $15.”

All of the toys he’d bought, the truck included, turned from good, fun items, into mounting debt.

“When you’re making $50,000 a year and you’re 20, 21, you just start buying stuff. The new truck, the new house,” he says, “When I got over [to Missoula] it was just bill work.

“Missoula is a fine place to live if you’re in school, or retired, but outside of that it’s just…” his voice trails off, and he never completes this thought.

As the bills piled up, Gallagher came to several critical realizations. After all of the training and days working on sites, carpentry and building no longer fulfilled him in any way. He was not having fun anymore. He lost all pride in construction.

“I’m tired of making things look nice…it’s not challenging anymore, you know? Once you do it you kind of know how,” he says.

The idea of the military resurfaced a few months ago, and Gallagher decided that would be a better path.

“I always wanted to join the Army, and I’m almost in my mid-twenties,” he says. “Just the family history, they really inspired me to finally do it.”

One recent afternoon he walked into the recruitment office in Paxon Plaza near Southgate Mall ready to join the Army, without a doubt or question in his mind. He says if he made a pro/con list of reasons to join the military, the con list would barely contain anything.

“I wanted to do something challenging and help people. And of course, college money too doesn’t hurt.” he says. “It’s down the road if I want it.”

But the money barely matters to him now. With his two pair of standard issue boots, and the only food and clothing he needs provided to him by the Army, cash won’t be a concern for him.

“Huge debt and low pay, that’s Missoula. I’m getting out of that life,” he says. Then he jokes about the Army as a place providing three squares a day and snappy outfits.

“I’m already looking at [the Army] for a career,” he says.

Gallagher also found the complete healthcare coverage provided to military members very appealing. Recently, he spent time hospitalized for pancreatitis, and unfortunately, he doesn’t have insurance. He recovered from the illness after a few days in the hospital, but says he’s faced with $32,000 in medical fees.

“That wouldn’t happen in the military, but out here [in civilian life] I’d be working for two years to pay some stupid doctor’s bill,” he says.

If there’s a downside for Gallagher, it will be missing Maggot Fest in May, a weekend long rugby competition and party involving rugby teams from all over the country.

“I almost stayed longer just so I wouldn’t miss the rugby season, but now I’m just excited. After I went down to MEPS [Military Entrance Processing Station] and got cleared and found out that I could get my job I just got so excited. I would go right now if I could just get on the plane. If Sgt. Rod called that up for me,” he says with a smile.

If everything goes as planned, Gallagher will train for the Army infantry, receive an airborne qualification, and later train to be part of the Army Rangers.

Does he fear combat? Hell no.

“I’m kind of hoping for it,” he says. “I just
want to go out there and make a difference…help people.”

He’s also looking forward to digging in and watching out for fellow soldiers, something he says he’s well prepared to do, if only because he had 12 siblings. “I’m Catholic,” he explains.

“You learn how to watch another person’s back when you’ve got that,” he says. “Kind of a hardcore babysitter.”

Gallagher ships out on March 5 to begin his training. He faces 26 weeks of pushups, three-mile runs, and enough green clothing to conduct an endless St. Patrick’s Day parade. He’s already training for the big day, running every morning, and working out at the gym. He says he won’t miss Missoula that much except for his rugby teammates and Thursday Blue Moon nights at Bodega––the team’s “home base.” But that’s not enough to keep him away from duty. With a family history of fighting and ultimately surviving war, Gallagher shows no hesitation.

“It’s just something I have to do,” he says.

Danielle Miller speaks with the nervousness characteristic of a teenage girl, crossing her arms and fiddling with her hair while thinking of what to say. The whole process of being interviewed makes her slightly uncomfortable, but she goes along with it.

Currently a senior at Big Sky High School, Miller works at the Uptown Diner, where for the last four years she’s been making shakes, showing people to tables, waitressing, and sacrificing a lot of her weekends to do it. She says she likes waiting tables because the tips are good, and she enjoys interacting with the people, something she seeks in a career. She wants to be a pediatric nurse.

“I thought for a while of becoming a pediatrician, but when I talked to people about it I found out that you don’t really spend a lot of time with patients when you’re a doctor, and that’s what I want to do,” she says.

In the fall she runs cross-country (3.1 mile races over varying terrain) and in the spring she runs track, competing in the 800, 1,600, and 3,200-meter races for Big Sky.

When she’s not working or running, Miller says she likes to spend time with her friends, catching movies and “hanging out.”

Despite her athleticism, Miller doesn’t fit the mold of a gung-ho soldier. She says she doesn’t like arguing or yelling. Confrontation rarely occurs in her daily life. She doesn’t gravitate toward hunting, fishing, or experiences that otherwise involve stalking, killing and primal aggression.

Miller’s not looking for combat. She’s drawn by the promise of college money. Nothing more.

“I don’t really like fighting or any of that. I don’t really want to go to war. At all,” she says. “But I’m going to work in a hospital or a medical facility and I won’t be around the fighting,” she adds, casting a look at Sgt. Rodriguez that seems to beg for reassurance.

He offers none.

“Well I tell these kids when they ask me if they could go to combat, I don’t lie to them, I tell them it’s a possibility. I mean, they’re joining the Army,” Sgt. Rodriguez says.

Originally Miller planned to sign up for what’s called a “3 and 3.” That’s three years in the actual Army and three years in the Army Reserve, but a recruiter at MEPS talked her out of it.

“He told me if I did that that I’d have to leave college if my reserve unit got called up, and then I’d have to start all over again so I didn’t want to do that,” she says.

Instead, Miller will commit to three years in the Army, training as a health specialist—in civilian speak, a licensed practicing nurse.

Only one of Miller’s family members has ever joined up, as far as she knows. She had a cousin who did a two-year stint in the Reserves and didn’t like it very much at all. Undeterred, Miller enlisted, much to the chagrin of her parents.

“My dad listened to more about it and then he got a little more excited. My mom—she’s still not too excited. She’s being a mom. She’ll miss me,” Miller says.

Her boyfriend and some of her other friends were not too keen on the idea of her enlistment, either, she says.

“[My boyfriend] is kind of anti-Army, [and] one of my friends was like, ‘No! [Joining the Army] was a drastic decision, you shouldn’t do that.’ Because she thought all recruiters were like, manipulative. She just didn’t really know,” Miller says. “And then another friend of mine didn’t want me to join because she’s going into the Air National Guard and wanted me to check that out with her before I signed up for [the Army]. But this was for me,” she says.

Recounting these conversations for a reporter, Miller’s mood changes and she sulks slightly before Sgt. Rodriguez reminds her that she’ll see her parents again, and that the Army isn’t all time away from home.

“You get two-point-five days a month, and that adds up to 30 days a year. Okay? And you get leave around Christmas for two weeks just like college. That’s when you come back here and work for me so you don’t have to use your own leave time,” he tells her.

“But I’ll miss them,” she replies.

As much as she’ll long for her family, Miller will also pine after one of Missoula’s unique treats: Big Dipper Ice Cream.

“It’s so good,” she says. “The best is the tangerine sorbet. I’ll miss that a lot.”

Again, Sgt. Rodriguez assures her that the Army life isn’t all pushups and three-mile runs. There’s more to it.

“You’re allowed to have cable, internet, a cell phone. You have a kitchenette and a bathroom that you share. They both take turns cleaning it,” he explains. “[The Army] is basically a regular job. It’s like your job, except that during the day you’ve got to wear this uniform,” he says pointing to his green fatigues.

However, Miller is not a fan of standard Army issue fashion.

“I’ll miss clothes,” she says. “I don’t really want to wear that.”

“You can go out and wear whatever you want after work is over,” Rodriguez counters.

“Yeah, but that’s the waste of the outfit if you only get to wear it for a little bit,” she says.

Even though her wardrobe will shrink, she’ll keep her hair. The only rule governing hairstyles for females is that they cannot touch the collar of the uniform, which works out well for Miller since she wears her hair up while working at the Uptown Diner anyway.

“If I’d have to shave my head I wouldn’t have joined,” she says.

Pushing beyond her concerns about missing home and choosing her own clothes, Miller focuses on the opportunity to earn money for college. Four years of nursing school costs plenty, and the debt she’d incur doesn’t exactly appeal to her.

“I get $53,000 that I can use up in 10 years, and I need that,” she says. “I didn’t want to go through the whole process of looking for and applying for scholarships.”

She’ll also finish training after 30 weeks fully qualified to test in the civilian world as a licensed practical nurse, putting her ahead of the professional curve.

Still, she’s not rushing for the plane just yet. Graduation approaches, and there will be track meets coming up as well. Plus, a friend recruited her for an intramural soccer team, even though she’s never played soccer.

“You run and kick a ball,” Rodriguez explains.

Miller expects to graduate from Big Sky High on June 2 as part of the class of 2008. By then she says she’ll probably quit her gig at the Uptown Diner so she can enjoy her last month as a civilian. She’ll ship out on July 2.

Despite her obvious anxiety, Miller says she’s confident in her choice to enlist. Whatever nervousness she betrays is countered by the reassuring promise of college money at the end of her service, and she’s resolved in her decision.

“I know this is a good choice for me. I’m sure of that,” she says.

As commander of the Missoula Army Recruitment Station, Sgt. Rodriguez oversees the operation of a varying number of recruiters who work tables at high schools, career fairs, and other events throughout the year. To the kids stepping through the door at his Paxon Plaza office, his word is gold.

Rodriguez says plenty of people show interest, but 90 percent of them will never qualify for the armed services.

“People will come in and they’ll have asthma, or they’ll have something wrong with their knee, or—every now and then—someone will have legal problems, problems with the law, that exclude them from serving,” he says.

Rodriguez says that roughly two recruits per week coming through his office pass all of the qualifications for the Army, including an aptitude test.

“That’s what makes this job hard is telling someone, ‘Sorry, your vision is too bad,’ or ‘Sorry but you’ve got this felony so you’re out,’” he says.

The sergeant knows the Army, and he knows his recruits, too. Rodriguez was born into the military. His dad served. When he turned 18, he joined. The Army got him through college. The Army got him his house. Everything he has comes from wearing the uniform, which is why, he says, he can comprehend a recruit’s motivation.

“The biggest thing that you’ve got to understand is that every person coming through that door has their own reason for joining. [Miller] wanted college money. [Gallagher] wanted to serve his country,” he says. “You could talk to each one and they all have a different reason.”

And Rodriguez says he doesn’t lie. The country is at war, and the recruits he encourages to enlist today may some day die in some town they’ve never heard of half way around the world. It’s the risk all servicemen and women take.

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