- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 15, 2003

“Do you want to be a Marine?” . Gunnery Sgt. Shawn Gray isn’t just asking a question. He’s issuing a challenge. He’s in your face. The Marine Corps recruiter is looking for a few good men.

Part salesman, part mentor, part gofer, the Landover-based recruiter visits high schools, helps potential recruits with physical training and mental preparation needed to join the corps, and performs such mundane tasks as visiting homes to collect a urine sample for a drug test.

Working 12-to-15-hour days, six days a week, Gunnery Sgt. Gray is always looking for someone to join up.

Driving in Prince George’s Country one day this week, the 36-year-old Marine and his colleague, Sgt. Terreance Love see a young man walking along the street, wearing baggy pants and a loose sweatshirt. They pull over in their Dodge minivan and roll down the window.

A little small talk — “How’s it going, dog?” — and then, “Do you want to be a Marine?”

Antione Johnson says maybe.

“I gotta do something with my life,” says Mr. Johnson, a 1998 graduate of Forrestville High School, walking home from his girlfriend’s apartment.

He asks for a ride down the road and while in the van fills out a card with his name and phone number. The young man seems genuinely interested in signing up as he gets out after a short ride.

Is he a good prospect?

“We’ll find out. Sometimes they just need some type of guidance,” Gunnery Sgt. Gray says.

That’s part of the job, talking to random people.

“We do a lot of this. We see someone on the side of the road and we talk to him,” the Marine says.

The Manhattan, N.Y., native signed up for the Corps in 1985 at the military’s Times Square recruiting center. Now he is trying to persuade the next generation to join what is considered the toughest of the military’s four branches.

As one of about 3,300 Marine Corps recruiters nationwide, Gunnery Sgt. Gray was responsible for helping to send 38,641 men and women to recruit training in San Diego, Calif., and Parris Island, S.C., last year, according to the Marine Corps.

The recruitment process and extensive testing that is required prior to heading off to boot camp is designed to weed out the weak.

Still, 11 percent of all recruits drop out, the Corps says.

In Landover, Gunnery Sgt. Gray oversees a staff of six other recruiters covering all of Prince George’s County and occasionally reaching into neighboring areas.

As of this week, they have 53 recruits in a delayed-entry program — young men and women waiting to get into boot camp.

Each one started as a contact, met on the street, in a mall or at a high school. The recruiters estimate they talk to about 150 contacts per week, most about 17 years old, and formally pitch life as a Marine to 15 interviewees.

“The hardest part is getting them to come in and sit down,” Gunnery Sgt. Gray says.

Once they do, maybe two per week sign up.

The recent Iraq conflict had little impact on recruiting — some shied away from potential fighting, others were inspired with patriotism, Gunnery Sgt. Gray says.

High schools are especially fertile grounds. And graduation time offers an opportunity as some graduating seniors realize college is not an immediate option.

“A majority of kids believe that the only way to be successful is to go to college. We try to show them that there are other tools they can use [to be successful],” he says.

At Largo High School this week, Gunnery Sgt. Gray and a group of Marines show up in full cool mode, with a custom-painted Humvee blasting an “MTV Party to Go” CD.

They set up a huge balloon shaped like a jut-jawed Marine, and offer prizes for students who can complete a certain number of pull-ups on a specially set up bar.

Students swarm around, checking out the vehicle and competing for key chains, CD cases and T-shirts — worth 10, 15 and 20 pull-ups.

To compete on the pull-up bar, the students fill out a combination waiver and information card that is used to follow up with the potential recruits.

“It’s impressive,” says Everett Whitley Jr., a junior. He would consider joining the military but is still undecided.

“I want to join the Marines because I like the physical challenge,” said Cora White, part of the class of 2003.

“I prefer the Army,” said Ashley Gore, also a senior. “They have better opportunities for women.”

The Marines’ conservative, tailored uniforms are a sharp contrast to the loose clothes on most of the boys, or the tight clothes on many of the girls.

But Gunnery Sgt.. Gray says that making a human connection, despite differences in age and appearance, is crucial to the job. Gestures such as a stiff, formal handshake are a no-no.

“You have to show you understand where they’re coming from,” Gunnery Sgt. Gray says. “And you have to listen.”

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