"Never met a wilderness she did like."
June 2007 Issue
SPRING BREAK, PANAMA CITY BEACH, and the Army is there to entice half-naked eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds to look up from their beer guzzling, beanbag tossing, and football throwing for a moment and contemplate a thrilling tour of duty or two in a military uniform.
The multimillion-dollar mission, designed with the help of McCann Erickson, the New York City-based advertising agency, employs aerial performances, obstacle courses, life-size virtual reality combat, state-of-the-art graphics, and free T-shirts and towels. With approximately 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, many on their second and third tours since the war began, and the Bush Administration deploying tens of thousands of additional soldiers to try to stabilize the civil war, the Pentagon needs more than a few good young men and women to help relieve war-weary, shell-shocked veterans who deserve a nice long break of their own.
“You want a hat?” a short, blond young woman shouts to me from behind one of the Army National Guard tables. There is a stack of straw ranger-style hats with bands that say “National Guard” on the table in front of her. I shake my head and find a spot on the sand to sit down and assess the situation. It’s about 1 p.m., and a rock band reminiscent of the Red Hot Chili Peppers has just started to crank on the National Guard stage.
“You a recruiter?” a big, beefy, sunburned male wearing large square faux diamond earrings yells to me. It’s Kenny, a nineteen-year-old freshman at the University of Louisville. In between cans of beer, he’s been thinking about enlisting in the Guard.
“They got a $20,000 signing bonus,” Kenny says. “Coming up where I live, we don’t really have too much money. Then they have, like, an $849 check that comes in every month. They pay for your college tuition. But the thing you have to sacrifice is you have to work one weekend out of the month.”
He has doubts, though. “My dad was in the Marines when he was younger,” he explains. “He said it’s my choice, but right now he would wait. He told me the National Guard was meant for when the rest of the military is deployed overseas and the National Guard will step in and help police the streets and everything like that. But now, he says, they’re using the National Guard to go overseas to fight in the war.”
Kenny keeps thinking about the money, though. “A lot of people don’t support the war. I don’t really support the war. But the way I see it, the war’s almost over,” he says. In the meantime he’d be safe in college, with the 20-large, plus almost another grand per month.
“Nobody really wants to go to college. It’s just the quickest way to make money,” he confesses. “And this seems like a quicker way to make money.”
Kenny offers me a can of Natural beer, and waves over his friend Jack, a short, eighteen-year-old freshman at West Point, who was stretched out on a beach towel. “It’s all about loving your country and shit like that,” Jack says of his potential deployment to Iraq. “I want to fly helicopters, and I just want to try to, you know, do my part and stop the terrorism that’s going on. Because I mean, you know, look at what’s going on right now. I mean, if all the terrorists were over here we wouldn’t be on the beach right now.”
A while later, I approach the Holiday Inn SunSpree Resort and notice the large banners with official U.S. Army logo—white five-point star with black and gold trim on a black background above the words “ARMY STRONG”—plastered around pillars in the cul-de-sac and on exterior walls beside the main entrance. Other pillars are wrapped with the smooth female legs of the Gillette Venus Breeze women’s razors purple-hued print campaign. Inside, the reception desks display “GOARMY.COM” banners. Activity here centers around the Surf Shack Internet lounge, a small roofless tiki hut where several spring breakers access eight computer terminals, courtesy of Gillette Venus Breeze.
On the beach stands the ARMY STRONG climbing tower, consisting of a fifty-foot-tall teepee-like formation of thirty logs cut in various lengths. It’s closed for the day. A gold and black U.S. Army promotional air balloon adjacent to the tower lies deflated. Next to the tower perimeter, on the sand in front of the Holiday Inn SunSpree, a black vinyl canopy shelters several long rectangular folding tables manned by plainclothes men and women in black T-shirts and ranger-style hats featuring the words “U.S. Army.” They are packing up clipboards and brochures and advising spring breakers that the day’s supply of U.S. Army Spring Break 2007 T-shirts and towels is depleted. Nearby, breakers are dancing to loud pop music emanating from the U.S. Army Spring Break stage, adjacent to which a group of young males is battling intensively on an ARMY STRONG basketball court erected on the sand.
I return to the climbing tower area and encounter two males in white T-shirts and swimming trunks transporting a cooler across the sand away from shore. They put it down. They identify themselves as lifelong buddies: Matt Swanson, a twenty-two-year-old computer engineering major at Iowa State University, and Seth Crouch, a twenty-three-year-old health care systems major at the University of Iowa. “Dude, we are so wasted,” Swanson advises. He opens the cooler, revealing an empty bottle of Captain Morgan’s rum.
I inform them that a guy named Kenny is thinking of joining the National Guard to get the $20,000 signing bonus.
Swanson: “God bless him.”
Crouch [to Swanson]: “Then you get fucked over, dude! The National Guard. Like Johnny Clayburg, man. Kid from my hometown, dude. Gets fucked over. Like, it’s never as much as you think you’re getting, you know?”
Crouch and Swanson report no intention of joining the Army, National Guard, or any military service. Swanson believes he can better serve his country by starting his own Silicon Valley company, but wants it known he totally supports the military.
Swanson: “If I had a shit-ton of money I would donate it all to the soldiers. But right now my ass is broke.”
Crouch: “Dude, I can hook you up with soldiers, man. Are you writing a book? I have a friend who got a chick knocked up in Iraq.”
After dialoguing for several more minutes, Swanson offers: “Even though we have disagreeing opinions, isn’t it beautiful that we live in a country where we can have a civilized conversation like we just did? You know what I mean? I love this country. Can you put my final words as, ‘I love this fucking’—er, minus the—‘I love this country’? And we have to get something to eat.”
Crouch: “I love buffets.”
The Panama City area is home to the St. Andrews Bay Skirmish historic site, in which Confederate rebels shot and killed six Union soldiers attempting a beach landing by small watercraft in March of 1863. Nowadays, the panhandle region is a bastion of flag-waving patriotism and devotion to federal military power. Jet thunder from aircraft stationed at nearby Tyndall AFB and Eglin AFB is more common than natural thunder; a fighter jet on a pedestal graces the entrance of Gulf Coast Community College. But today, even some ultraconservatives in this corner of the South are fed up with the war in Iraq. I meet a forty-five-year-old school-teacher and self-described “rightwing Republican,” who moonlights as an oyster shucker three nights a week to help pay for his son’s new motorbike. “I mean, I love President Bush,” he says. “I was gung-ho about the war at first. But now I think it’s time to bring the troops home.”
It is difficult to find such clarity amid the spring breakers on Panama City Beach, or even paranoia about a future military draft, even though these energetic, athletic men and women are of prime combat age. Suggestions that U.S. troops in Iraq have had extreme difficulty distinguishing between insurgents and civilians, and that the United States might be unable to stabilize Iraq without committing slaughter, are met with sheepish shrugs and blank looks.
Kyle Herman, a twenty-one-year-old mechanical engineering student at the University of Minnesota, possesses an ARMY STRONG beach chair, which he received after scaling the climbing tower. But he’s not thinking of enlisting. “I don’t know if I’m ready to commit that much time,” he says.
Not far away, I encounter two nineteen-year-olds, Ellen Martinez of Houston and Justine Watson of Charlotte, North Carolina, sitting on towels and reading celebrity magazines. They are freshmen television and film majors at New York University. Each is definitely not considering military service, though their sense of whether the U.S. should withdraw from Iraq is less certain. “It doesn’t seem like it’s going very well at all,” says Martinez, who has resided in Dubai and Damascus because her father is in the oil business. “I guess if we left right now everything would have been for nothing, I don’t know.”
Watson adds, “I don’t see, like, a clear end. What would be the definition of us winning this war? Like, who do we have to capture? Like, what is the ultimate goal? So it’s hard to say when it could end.”
Nearby, I query Craig Luzik, a twenty-year-old from Pittsburgh who is majoring in electrical engineering at Purdue University. He has ruled out enlistment. “I basically have the next three years of my life mapped out. I guess it wasn’t for me,” he says. After graduating, he plans to get an MBA and try to start his own company. Asked whether the troops should come home, he says, “I’m not the biggest fan of Bush, but I think that right now we should probably just leave them there, because what they’re doing is good.”
The next day, at the Army’s Holiday Inn beachfront site, demand for U.S. Army Spring Break 2007 T-shirts, tank tops, and towels remains strong but not necessarily enthusiasm for enlistment.
Tony Cummings is a twenty-year-old sophomore and pre-physical therapy major at Western Kentucky University. He says he opposes the war, but that hasn’t stopped him from loading up on free Army gear. “This is my second T-shirt of the day,” he says. “I think I have five towels up in the room. I have a chair. And I haven’t signed up with a real name once. Everybody uses a fake name and a fake phone number just so they can get a free towel. They’ll walk around with a huge T-shirt that says ‘I’m a Idiot’ if you give it to ’em.”
I identify a bona fide female U.S. Army recruiter named Linda (who declined to reveal her last name). “Make me an offer,” I say.
“Whoa,” she replies. She wants to know if I have a college degree, then informs me about signing bonuses. “They range from $2,000 to $40,000, depending on the job,” she says. Initial contract periods range from fifteen months to six years.
Linda is unaware whether enlistment by college kids has declined as a result of Iraq War complications. “You have people who will join. And that’s basically all you can say,” she hedges.
Linda, who has avoided deployment overseas during her seventeen-year career in the Army, says she tells potential recruits they would have a “50-50 chance” of going to Iraq. “We don’t know if they’re going. If you sign up, I can’t tell you you’re really going. See what I’m saying? I don’t know. That’s just like me saying, ‘OK, you walk outside this door, you’re going to get hit by a car.’ So I’m predicting something. I can’t do that. And I would never do that to anybody. So I let them know, you have a 50-50 chance. You either go or you don’t go. One way or the other. Me, I’ve been blessed.”
Ten men in identical black shorts and shirts are enjoying a photo-op with sexy female spring breakers in bikinis. They are the Golden Knights, an army parachute unit, and have literally just dropped in.
Sergeant First Class Paul Sachs, a lanky thirty-five-year-old New Jersey native with a rapid-fire, monotone delivery, reports that the recruitment effort this year, as compared to last year, is going well. “We just started our season, but from the people we’re talking to, the patriotism out there is awesome,” he says. “They support the military in every single way. And it’s pretty awesome.”
I ask him whether the deteriorating war situation in Iraq has affected enthusiasm at recruiting events.
“A lot of kids are still excited when we jump in. This is just one part of what we do. And we take pride in ourselves and our country. This just shows people that, you know, this is still a great Army, no matter what. We tell ’em about the different jobs in the Army and their enthusiasm towards the Army is always high, it’s always great. People just see the bad things, but right now we’re just showing people we’re walking strong and despite what is happening we continue our mission. And if people want to know about it we tell them our story.”
I ask him what it’s like to parachute into Iraq.
“We’re a nondeployable unit,” he replies. “We jump at events like spring break, football games, or high schools to recruit for the Army as well as to talk to the people out there and let ’em know that, you know, we’re ARMY STRONG.”
The Virtual Army Experience structure is a gray, pressure-inflated dome resembling an airplane hangar with a convex roof. It rises in a corner of a vast expanse of asphalt that provides several thousand parking spaces for Club La Vela and Spinnaker, two sprawling, rustic beachside drinking and dancing establishments that spring breakers pack into by night. The Pentagon has sunk $10 million into the high-tech project, which the Army also deploys at NASCAR races, air shows, and festivals across the country.
A group of about ten, mostly male, spring breakers fresh from beach partying have clanged up a set of metal stairs and into a cargo container secured along the southern wall of the dome structure. Inside they find a reception counter with several computer terminals. They give their names, addresses, and dates of birth to individuals behind the computers. Each answers a question regarding his personal interests, such as athletics and adventure, then poses for a head shot, which is quickly printed onto a Virtual Army Experience ID card, to be hung from their necks.
They pass through a blue curtain into a dark narrow room with about five video screens spaced evenly on one wall just above eye level. The room is filled with chatter and the smell of beer breath. They fall silent as two U.S. Army soldiers in fatigues inform them that three Humvees fitted with M-249 semiautomatic weapons like the ones used in Iraq await them in the darkness of the dome.
The group watches a video featuring animated maps and diagrams that detail their mission: pulling security for a Special Forces operation to seize a key Al Qaeda lieutenant who is the mastermind of embassy and civilian bombings in several countries. Just before a soldier leads the spring breaker squad to a door in the dome, a petite young woman in shorts and tank top leans against her tall male companion and asks, “Are we going to get shot? Because I’m kind of tipsy.”
Kirk Nielsen is a writer based in Miami Beach.