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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Army recruiters threaten high school students

Watch video on KHUO-TV

HOUSTON -- With a war in Iraq and fighting on the rise in Afghanistan, the struggle to bring in new U.S. Army recruits is heating up again.

And Irving Gonzales, 18, got caught up in it all.

As his family’s oldest male, he feels he has to do whatever it takes to help out his single mom. For him, that means working long hours at his after-school job.

“My mom was left struggling. I would give her more than half my paycheck,” Gonzales said.

That’s why the Aldine High School senior started thinking about the Army – and the tens of thousands of dollars in bonuses that can come with enlistment.

“They were offering me school, they were offering me bonuses,” he said.

So Gonzales signed up – but only to “pre-enlist” in the Delayed Entry Program. DEP allows kids to try out the military without a binding commitment.

But the 11 News Defenders have found there is a problem: Army recruiters aren’t sticking to the program and are bullying and even lying to potential recruits and their families to keep them from dropping out.

After he had a change of heart, Gonzalez became one such victim.

“I’d rather just stay here, go to college,” he said he told his recruiter.

The reaction: Gonzalez said a recruiter told him if he did drop out, they would send him to jail.

Scared, Gonzales called Sgt. Glenn Marquette, a supervisor at the Greenspoint Recruiting Station.

Marquette told Gonzales there was no way out.

“You signed a binding contract,” he said.

But that wasn’t true.

Army recruiting regulations say delayed entry members can leave any time. They specifically mention “under no circumstances will any (recruiter) threaten, coerce, manipulate, or intimidate (future soldiers), nor may they obstruct separation requests.”

Further, they state: “At no time will any (recruiter) tell a (Delayed Entry Program) member he or she must go in the Army or he or she will go to jail.”

But when Gonzales asked Marquette what would happen if he just didn’t show up for service, a phone recording captured this reply:

“Then guess what?” said Marquette. “You’re AWOL. Absent without leave. You want to go to school? You will not get no loans, because all college loans are federal and government loans. So you’ll be black barred from that. As soon as you get pulled over for a speeding ticket, they’re gonna see you’re a deserter, they’re going to apprehend you, take you to jail.”

Marquette continued: “So guess what? All that lovey-dovey 'I wanna go to college' and all that? Guess what? You just threw it out the window, because you just screwed your life.”

Eric Martinez, 17, is another young recruit who changed his mind.

“They make it seem there’s no way out,” his mother said.

Martinez said the nearby National Cemetery constantly reminds him – and his mother – of the risks and horrors of war.

“She tells me about the stories that happen in Iraq. Some people kill themselves or get shot,” Martinez said.

But when Martinez told that to the recruiter the Army assigned to him, he said he too was threatened.

Then his mother decided to intervene. But when she spoke to the Greenspoint Recruiting Station, they told her, too, that Martinez would be AWOL and go to jail if he didn’t show up for service.

This isn’t the first time the 11 News Defenders have found these sorts of problems -- and at the VERY SAME recruiting station location.

Three years ago in May of 2005, we found that another recruiter from that station, a Sgt. Thomas Kelt, had left this phone message to a high school student. This time the issue was simply keeping an appointment to talk:

“By federal law you got an appointment with me at two this afternoon at Greenspoint Mall,” Kelt told him. “OK? You fail to appear and we’ll have a warrant, OK? So give me a call back.”

Our investigation into that call led to the Army announcing a national stand-down so all of its recruiters could re-examine their methods and regulations.

But just two months later, 11 News found that instead of punishing Sgt. Kelt, the Army had promoted him to the role of station commander at a neighboring recruiting station. That meant he would supervise and train other recruiters on how to do the job.

(And today? the Army confirms Sgt. Kelt still holds that supervisory position, but has since been transferred out of Texas.)

So we caught up with Sgt. Marquette to ask about these latest incidents.

11 News: “I just want to know why you’re telling young recruits they’ll go to jail if they want out of the Delayed Entry Program.”

Marquette: “What are you talking about?”

11 News: “We’d just like to know why you’re telling them that.”

Marquette: “I’m on vacation right now. I really don’t want to be bothered!”

Congressman Ted Poe believes there is an ongoing problem with recruiters.

“We don’t want the government, military, the Army, deceiving American citizens,” Poe said.

Poe speaks from the position of a veteran himself who recently visited Iraq with the Army.

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