Sign me up?

Contrary to popular (read: my) belief, it turns out that “joining the United States Army” does not immediately translate to “picking up a rifle, getting a crew cut, heading down to a state with a disturbingly low Starbucks-to-person ratio, and cracking push-ups with a tank top-clad Demi Moore on a cement floor as some kind of deranged sweaty guy grunts from above in an entirely undecipherable Southern accent.”

Just so we’re clear.

On the other hand, “joining the United States Army” does translate to a number of unexpected things, among them “making it through an SAT-like mess of roughly 40 verbal and math questions,” “working for Coca-Cola” and even “showing extraordinary talent on electric bass guitar.”

You may ask how I, as a random Yale student lacking an abiding sense of patriotism, basic knowledge of warfare or biceps, would know such things. Until recently, I didn’t. Then, I developed way too much free time (OK, a journalism assignment) and spent a good number of hours with New Haven’s friendly neighborhood military recruiters, who not only upped my Army brochure collection by 300 percent, but also cleared up a great many personal misconceptions about how, exactly, one becomes an Army/Navy/Air Force of one. In the interests of eliminating ignorance, then, I’m going to share it all with you.

First things first: As luck may have it, I’m not the only one with a pretty warped view of how most people trade in their T-shirts for Army camouflage. As Capt. Michael Minaudo, who oversees all military recruiting in the southern half of Connecticut from his Orange Street office, puts it, “I have no problem talking to people and showing them we’re not here to kidnap someone, throw him in the back of a car and say, ‘You’re in the Army.’”

A “gotta-grab-’em-and-run” recruiting myth is only the starting point when it comes to how wrong people are about joining the Army. For one thing, Minaudo will tell you, the military is far from desperate. Sure, it does a substantial amount of advertising, and once recruiters get you inside the office, it’s hard to get out, but the fact of the matter is, the Army does more rejecting than accepting. Any one of a long list of physical or medical problems automatically rules you out. Having a less-than-adequate grasp of reading and math does, too. Forget about enlisting if you’ve ever broken the law or fall into the nebulously-defined category of “moral incompetence.” Oh, and as long as we’re at it, being hooked on Zoloft is also a no-no: “If you’re on anti-depressants, obviously we’re not going to hand you a weapon with automatic ammunition,” Minaudo says. Oh well — there goes half of Yale.

Which brings us to Army misconception No. 2: “They think that everybody’s in infantry, that it’s all about killing people,” says Sgt. Michael Stacey, who works on New Haven-specific recruiting. To illustrate that this is not the case, Stacey will readily produce a very long list of the many Army jobs for which he enlists those who walk into the station. The majority of them, he quickly notes, are support jobs — like a vehicle mechanic post, or Stacey’s own former position as an air defense specialist. It turns out you can join the Army to be everything from a special forces linguist to a nurse to a broadcast journalist to an electric bass player (though Stacey does admit that the latter may be looked down upon by his fellow recruits). No matter what you end up doing, though, the point is both that — contrary to popular belief — it won’t automatically involve wielding an M-16 and, depending on your physical and moral prowess, you won’t necessarily be a shoo-in to do it.

That’s because one of the first tasks each potential enlistee must complete after wandering through the door, grabbing a couple brochures and getting some face time with one of the local military recruiters is to face a standardized pre-qualification test. “They have that stigma that the Army will take just anybody, but you have to be pretty smart,” Stacey says. Naturally, being the fearless, endlessly committed and eager-to-prove-I’m-smart journalist that I am, I decided to give it a go firsthand.

The series of verbal and math questions I ended up answering was not quite basic, not quite proofread and undeniably army-centric. The first section consisted of defining words — “TURMOIL most nearly means: 1. swelling, 2. commotion, 3. grease, 4. anger” — that include “obliterate,” “ravage,” “evasive” and “decimate.” Meanwhile, in the “mathmatical [sic] knowledge” section, I was told to figure out things like how to transport a certain number of senetors [sic] on a certain number of buses, as well as the amount of lumber needed to build some kind of shelter. OK, so I haven’t been to a Group IV class in two years, but honestly, some of these calculations weren’t easy, not to mention the fact that no calculators were allowed. As for my score, well, let’s just say I’m not going to be leading a batallion in Fallujah anytime soon.

If potential recruits get below a 50 on the test, have a criminal record or aren’t medically sound, they’re pretty much out. If not, though, a few obstacles still remain. The list goes something like this: submit a high school/college diploma, transcripts, social security card, application form and references; get tested (think the SAT to the pre-qualification test’s PSAT); go for a sports physical in Springfield, where you have to, among other things, duck-walk and submit a urine sample; receive a clean bill of health; get a police check and security clearance; and, finally, sign a contract — all of which generally happens within a month, though you won’t head to basic training for a while.

Only one person out of every 10 who walks into the New Haven station on a given day will be qualified; only two a month will end up in the Army. And yes, every year one or two people from Yale will join, too. The pay is good, those with college degrees can start out with officer status, and you can even get signing bonuses like a guaranteed post-army job in the private sector. As for the job itself, well, Minaudo, at least, has a firm opinion: “Every day that I get up, put on this uniform and continue to enjoy it, I’ll stay in the Army. And there hasn’t been a day yet when that hasn’t happened.” Which is why Minaudo is more than happy to continue talking to Connecticut’s eligible 17-to-34-year-olds in the hope that he can eventually send them an e-mail reading, “Congratulations on reserving a spot in the U.S. Army!”

An e-mail reservation?

OK, so maybe I should give the Army a little more credit. There’s no kidnapping, no throwing into cars, no rubber stamp. On the other hand, there is a disturbing lack of attention to grammar — and a disturbing lack of Demi Moore.

In which case, let’s hope they don’t reinstate the draft anytime soon.