In Howard, an Army of occupations

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Velma J. Blunt walks into the busy cafeteria at Atholton High School, where the high schoolers relax and eat cold cuts and chips. The lady in green offers them something more substantial -- a job, a future and a chance to serve their country.

"We go to them," says the 38-year-old Army recruiter, one of that service's two female recruiters in Howard County. "To me, we do offer a service just like Giant, Johns Hopkins and IBM. My job is to find jobs for people."

Stationed at the Army Recruiting Office in the Clark Building in Columbia's Town Center, Sgt. 1st Class Blunt and her four colleagues recruit people ages 17 to 33 into the Army from one of the country's most affluent counties.

Though the sons and daughters of well-to-do parents may not automatically consider the military a career option, Howard's well-educated population makes it an attractive recruiting location for an increasingly selective military.

To help make those selections, Sergeant Blunt works the phones and goes door-to-door, often leaving her white business card and an Army pamphlet if no one is home. She also visits Howard Community College, shopping centers and malls and Atholton, Hammond, Howard and Wilde Lake high schools.

And while their gender makes Sergeant Blunt and Staff Sgt. Karenmary Melendez a minority among the 100 or so Army recruiters in Maryland -- where only about 15 percent to 20 percent are female, according to Army officials -- it hasn't made their work more difficult, says Sergeant Blunt.

"There are more male recruiters, that's just the way it is," says the 15-year veteran who has been a recruiter for four years in Howard County. "[Recruiters are] the backbone. If we don't supply the force, sooner or later, the force closes down."

In the past three years, the Army -- the nation's largest military service -- has scaled back from 795,000 soldiers to 500,000, according to Lt. Col. Willie Harrison, commander of the Baltimore recruiting battalion. The reduction is a result of government cutbacks and a drop in interest from youth in the post-Cold War era.

Getting a spot in the new, trimmer Army is becoming increasingly competitive.

"It's just like applying for a job," says Sergeant Blunt. She notes that many Howard County high school students are the type of high-quality candidates that the Army is trying to attract. "You can't come in here with a D" average, she says.

The county's only Army recruiting station has contributed to filling the Army's demand for high-quality recruits. (There also is a Navy and Marine recruiting station in the county.)

During fiscal 1994, which ended in September, 633 recruits enlisted in the regular Army and 283 in the Reserve from the entire Columbia area, which includes offices in Columbia, Gaithersburg and Rockville, an Army spokeswoman said.

That's compared with the 686 who enlisted in the regular Army and 293 in the Reserve in the Baltimore region, which includes Baltimore City and county.

Sergeant Blunt's team alone recruited 54 people into the regular Army and 33 into the Army Reserve last fiscal year.

Locally, most of the recruits are men who enlist right after high school, Sergeant Blunt says. That follows the national pattern in the first quarter of fiscal 1995, when 29,800 males enlisted in all U.S. military branches, compared with 6,800 females, says Susan Hansen, a Defense Department spokeswoman.

But Sergeant Blunt says recruiting remains the same process, whether for males or females, in the city or an affluent county like Howard, where 81 percent of the high school graduates continue their education.

"To me, it doesn't matter how much money the parents make . . . if you can give that kid what he wants," says Sergeant Blunt, who lives at Fort Meade with her husband, Jeffrey, a retired soldier, and 6-year-old son Blake.

"We've put kids in from The Preserves," an upper-class community in Ellicott City, she says.

To stress her point, she notes that many Howard County residents have done military service or are in the military themselves. "Some of these people who live in million-dollar homes are prior service," she says.

Colonel Harrison agrees with her focus on the individual.

"The key is understanding the product that you're selling," he says. "It's not like buying a Buick. You have to have a commitment from the individual."

He says the Army offers a lot: up to $30,000 in college tuition, great benefits, pay and training in 250 different skills.

Making that pitch is challenging for Sergeant Blunt, an energetic extrovert who does whatever it takes to connect with her prospective recruits. She makes small talk with them, listens and says "a name like Blunt" can be an icebreaker.

Her workday usually begins at 8 a.m. and lasts until about 6:30 p.m. or 7 p.m., a schedule that includes conducting interviews, setting up physicals and Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery tests and taking enlistees to the processing center in Elkridge.

On one recent day, the sergeant, wearing her dress green uniform, made "cold calls," going door-to-door in a Kings Contrivance complex. Responses were few or uninterested.

At about 10:30 a.m., she got an unexpected reaction when she rang the doorbell at a home in Fulton. "Do you have a solicitation license?" a woman asked, peering through the glass door and never opening it.

The sergeant shook it off and kept going.

Thirty minutes later, Sergeant Blunt went to Atholton High, where she talked to students about a career in the Army.

"Are you going into the Junior ROTC next year?" she asked a group of students eating in the cafeteria.

"I was thinking about it," Jay Tierney, 14, answered, prompting the sergeant to give him a business card he could use to call her when he's ready to enlist in the Army.

Another ninth-grader, Jamaal Haughton, 15, told her that he's already in Army JROTC and plans to join the Army. "I've just been fascinated [by the Army] since I was a kid," he said.

Later, she approached Tekisha Barker, who sat with two friends. Sergeant Blunt told the junior, who is interested in Spanish and psychology, to think about becoming an Army linguist.

Taking her cue from Tekisha's two interests, the sergeant quipped: "You can deal with minds in Spanish." Before leaving, she added, "I'll see you next year."

Sgt. Maj. Jerry McFadden, the Army instructor of Atholton's Junior ROTC program, says Sergeant Blunt, "has done an outstanding job with the students. . . . She has a real good relationship with the cadets and they really respect and trust her."

She says she tries to be as honest as possible with the young men and women about what they can expect once they enlist. And the relationship that results lasts long after many have reported to basic training.

"I'm glad I took her advice," says Pfc. Jeffrey Morton, 22, whom Sergeant Blunt recruited. He enlisted for six years in the regular Army in September 1993. "I needed something. I needed a career. I was about to have a son born."

Though the Howard High School graduate is stationed at Fort Myers, Va., he keeps in touch with his recruiter.

Private Morton recalls that he enlisted against the advice of his friends.

"They said, 'No way.' They were telling me it's a bad move for me. They figured it wasn't for me. . . . They thought I wouldn't be able to take orders well."

Now, he says, some of those same friend have dropped out of college and wish they had enlisted, too.

Says Sergeant Blunt: "We provide a service that can't be beat."

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