Army recruiter on Shore proud of his successes

The Baltimore Sun

He's in the Army now. But he doesn't act it. Not with that slouchy posture and white hoodie, that scraggly beard. Not with that mumble, swallowed up by the breeze whipping down Laurel Street in Pocomoke City.

Soon enough, 20-year-old Xavier Arnold will be Private Arnold. Soon enough, he'll have to look and sound a lot more like Sgt. 1st Class James Gill, the clean-shaven, clear-voiced, uniformed soldier who stood beside him the other day in tan combat boots.

Next month Arnold will leave this Lower Eastern Shore town, his family, his girlfriend and their baby and report to basic training. Gill made it happen. He's the affable U.S. Army recruiter who met Arnold last year at Pocomoke High and stuck close until he enlisted two weeks ago.

Gill knows Arnold could wind up in a war zone and get hurt, or worse. After something bad happened to an early recruit, the guilt ate at Gill. But he says the odds and the opportunities favor Arnold. So he's pleased for the young man, and for himself.

Arnold was Gill's third enlistee of the month, helping the recruiting station based in Salisbury to double its quota of six. That in turn contributed to a solid month for the larger Delmarva Company and its parent Baltimore Recruiting Battalion at Fort Meade.

The military is in the midst of a recruiting boom thanks to a host of factors: fewer jobs in the civilian world, less violence in Iraq, fat signing bonuses. In the past year the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force have all met or beat their recruiting goals.

"It definitely helps that the news out of Iraq is not quite as negative," said Capt. Christian Miller, head of Delmarva Company. "You combine that with the downturn in the economy - layoffs, plant closings - and the military is a very good option these days."

Enlistment bonuses as high as $40,000 are a big draw. That is how much Arnold will receive during his four-year hitch. Unlike a fast-food joint or a chicken plant, the Army will teach him radio repair, a skill that should lead to a decent career.

Of course, the Army could also put him in mortal danger in Iraq or Afghanistan. With a nonchalant air, Arnold declares he'd like to go to war: "Fun, excitement, bullets flying around."

For Gill and fellow recruiters, life has gotten easier as it's gotten harder for many Americans. In late 2005, when he started recruiting, the economy was humming and Iraq was sliding deeper into chaos.

"A lot of the high school seniors and the grads felt as if they had more options and they didn't really look at the Army as one of the major choices," Gill said last week at the Salisbury station, a strip-mall storefront wedged between an Outback steakhouse and a beauty supply shop.

"They're really looking at the Army more," he said, though it's too early to tell what effect the dicey situation in Afghanistan might have.

Gill, 30 enlisted in 1996 out of high school in State College, Pa. He had the usual reasons: to see the world and earn money for school. Later, he tried college for two years but missed the Army life and camaraderie. His postings have taken him from South Korea to Fort Irwin, Calif. He took part in the 2003 invasion of Iraq with the 82nd Airborne Division and then spent nine months at a base near Fallujah.

When his recruiting orders came, he wasn't thrilled. Recruiters to him were "second-tier soldiers, not even real Army, paper pushers." Worse, he initially struggled at his first post near Pittsburgh. He didn't reel in a single recruit for four months.

One recruit he did eventually land ended up haunting him. He was an 18-year-old named Jimmy Hawkins. In Baghdad, he got shot in the leg, shattering his femur. Hawkins didn't die or even lose the leg, but he'll always limp. The news hit Gill hard.

"It was like being punched in the stomach; everything just dropped out of you," he said "That guilt made it hard to recruit. You develop relationships with these guys."

In September 2007, Gill transferred to Salisbury, home to six active-duty recruiters and two civilians. The Army shares quarters with the three other branches, and there's a friendly rivalry. Gill has recruited 45 soldiers all told, eight of them women.

The job is punishing. Gill works 12-hour days Monday to Friday and 9 to 5 on Saturday. Some Sundays he drives recruits to Fort Meade so they can enlist the next day. He has little personal life. He rarely sees his three kids, who live with his former wife in North Carolina.

But Gill says he enjoys putting promise-filled but directionless persons on a path that may be good for them and the Army. He makes sure prospects realize that the chances of going to a war zone are 50-50 and that there are no guarantees.

In Salisbury, Gill was assigned three high schools, including Pocomoke. One day last year, Arnold stopped at his display table near the cafeteria for the free Army pens. The two got to talking, and Gill made plans to visit with him and his mother.

That encounter led to the moment last week when Gill pulled up on Laurel Street in his government Chevy. He had to drop off some paperwork for Arnold, whom he calls "a good kid" lucky to escape bleak job prospects on the Lower Shore.

After a minute, Arnold stepped out of the home of his 18-year-old girlfriend, Quadera Mills. They had been spending time with their infant son, Xavier Jr. "You show your mom the contract?" Gill asked him. He had, and she had no questions, just enthusiasm.

"She's blasting stuff around," Arnold said, "calling everybody she knows."

"For real?" Gill asked.

For real. Arnold reports for basic training in five weeks. Gill reports even sooner to his new post at Fort Lewis, Wash. He requested Fort Bragg to be near his kids. But the Army said he was needed in Washington state as a platoon sergeant. That, as Arnold will learn, is an order.

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