A San Francisco Bay Military Recruiter in 'Harms Way'

The other day I had lunch with a cheerful, optimistic 27 year old. He has a clean-shaven head, friendly eyes and a sweet smile. His name is Staff Sergeant Jason Eck, and he's an Army recruiter. In the service of his country, he patrols daily in one of the most hostile environments in which a military man can find himself: Marin County, California.

Marin County, located due north of San Francisco (on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge), is a beautiful coastal community that luxuriates in a perfectly temperate climate. Given how easy and beautiful the living is here, it's no surprise that the 2000 census ranked Marin as having the highest per capital income in the country (something that hasn't changed much if the latest tax records are anything to go by).

While Marin may be rich, its wealth isn't the old white-shoe, conservative type of money one still finds in select Northeastern or Southern enclaves. Instead, Marin is unusually liberal, even by San Francisco Bay Area standards. Lynn Woolsey is Marin's choice for the House of Representatives, and ultra-liberal California Senator Barbara Boxer hails from Marin. In the State Senate, Marin's representative is Carole Migden, who lives to oppose the War.

In the 2004 election, only San Francisco County and Alameda County (home to Berkeley), cast more Democratic votes than Marin did. This overwhelming Democratic tsunami wasn't surprising to veteran Marin watchers, given that a mere 21.3% of Marin's registered voters are listed as Republicans. Indeed, of all the towns in Marin, just one (Belvedere) has more Republicans than Democrats, and that by only an 8 person margin.

With this level of commitment to Democratic politics, it's not surprising that Marin County residents are hostile to the military and to the War in Iraq. While most of them are too laid back to do anything but vote for Babs Boxer and Lynn Woolsey (no crude Code Pink style protests here), there are individual residents and specific groups who will periodically go to the mat to challenge all things military. Peter Coyote and Sean Penn are among the well-known and vocal anti-War residents, but they get periodic help from naked Marin women, retirees, local representatives of the usual compliment of 1960s era political groups, and high school students. With regard to the high schools, only one Marin high school even has ROTC, something that once was a staple of high school life, and even this last program lives under constant threat of budgetary annihilation.

In other words, this is not friendly territory for the military. The Army chose wisely, however, when it selected Sergeant Eck as its representative here, since he is, by training and temperament, more than up for the job.

Eck's youth was spent in places as far away from Marin as is possible, both in terms of geography and culture. He was born in Yonkers, New York, and then spent his teen years in a small town in the Catskills. He describes this town as a place with limited economic opportunities. Still, when he was 13, he got a part-time job with a local contractor and, by the time he was 16, he was acting as a project foreman. At 17, though, Eck wanted more. Since he wasn't academically oriented at the time, he saw the Army as the perfect opportunity to learn practical skills, expand his horizons, and serve a country he loves deeply. Although his mother cried when she signed his enlistment papers (he was only 17), she was proud that he was going to serve his country.

For Eck, life in the military is defined by training, training and more training. His specialty is a piece of military equipment that goes by the ridiculous acronym of MLRS/HIMARS. This stands for Multiple Launch Rocket System/High Mobility Artillery Rocket System. Or, as Eck gleefully relates, he gets to drive around in a 27 ton vehicle that shoots off 12 rockets. Eck knows his job inside out, and he likes that.

Life isn't just about awesome (or do I mean awe-inspiring?) equipment. Although Eck went into the Army thinking he wasn't the academic type, as he matured a bit and learned how to handle responsibility, he ended up taking advantage of the many educational opportunities the Army offers. He has an Associates Degree in Computer Information Systems, which has become a hobby, rather than a career; he was trained by the IRS in preparing tax returns; and he anticipates getting a degree in Business Management to prepare for the day he eventually leaves the Army.

Eck's training got put to good use during two tours in Iraq. He was first deployed in December 2002, and was eventually part of the successful invasion and capture of Baghdad. He returned home in time for the birth of his first daughter, Samantha, and was then sent to Korea for a year. By April 2005, however, he was redeployed to his old unit, and found himself back in Iraq by June.

During this second tour, Eck commanded a unit that escorted convoys carrying all the goods necessary to make a country viable. You can get a sense of his job by watching a Frontline/PBS documentary called Bad Voodoo's War, which followed a platoon of battle-seasoned Army reservists who held the same job as convoy escorts. Eck said the show got it just right, showing how men trained for battle chafed at the bit as they spent day after day driving their humvees up and down the roads in Iraq.

Still, while the job wasn't perpetually exciting, that didn't mean it wasn't dangerous. During his year there, Eck's unit saw 29 IEDs explode near the convoys they were escorting. His vehicle alone was the target of 13 IEDs, although not all were direct hits. The worst injury he suffered was a shrapnel graze next to his left eye, which left a small - indeed, dashing - scar.

Eck is proud of the fact that he didn't lose a single man during this tour. Things went so well, in fact, that his unit never had to make use of the tourniquets that they routinely strapped to their door side leg at the beginning of each mission. (Eck tells how his wife first learned about the tourniquet when he was already safe back at home and watching Bad Voodoo's War with her. She became upset in retrospect at the risks that, unbeknown to her, he had been running.)

The most heartbreaking part of Eck's second tour of duty occurred when a little Iraqi girl recognized the friendly American soldiers in the convoy and raced up to say hello - only to be struck in the head by the moving Humvee's large side-view mirror. Although Eck and his men were able to get her and her mother to the hospital, she died from her head injuries. While Eck was not able to save this girl, he was able to save the life of another foreign national wounded by an IED, and for this he earned a Bronze Star.

Overall, despite the dangers and tragedies, Eck enjoyed his time in Iraq: "I would go back to Iraq a hundred times." Looking back, he misses the excitement, as well as the opportunities to put his nine years of training to use.

The post-Iraq Eck describes himself as a relaxed, calm guy. He says that before Iraq he was pretty high strung. Now, however, he's happy to be alive. "Once you've seen combat," he says (referring to his first tour of duty), "there's not much that can stress you out." The only legacy of his time in Iraq is that he tends to drive too fast -- although never when his two girls (daughter Emily joined the family in 2006) are in the car.

It's a good thing that Eck has attained this level of equanimity because, since May 2006, he's been the Army's recruiter in Marin. Marin, he says, is unlike any other place he's ever been in America. "In other places, wherever I go, people always come up to me and they smile and shake my hand. They thank me for my service. That doesn't happen as often here."

At high school and community college, he was initially viewed as something of a pariah. When he first started showing up at the schools, the adults employed at the schools would roll their eyes when they saw him, or simply shun him. One teacher actually confronted him, telling Eck he didn't belong on campus. When Eck responded by saying "I don't understand why you want me to get off campus," the teacher cryptically replied "I think you do" -- and walked away. Now that Eck's been around for a year, however, the adults are pretty nice, although never actively welcoming.

Given Marin's laid back reputation, head on confrontations from the anti-War crowd are actually pretty rare. For the most part, the Anti-War people tend to yell at him from a distance, usually something along the lines of "I don't think we should be in Iraq." Most other anti-War activists ignore him or sneer from afar. Those people who do actually get near him ask questions.

When questioned by those considering the Army as a career option, Eck avoids the hard sell. To him, "People are like snowflakes. Each one is unique. Some are interested in the money, some want the travel, and some want the adventure. I try to give them whatever information they want." He concedes, though, that being a recruiter in Marin isn't an easy job no matter how you look at it.

I asked Eck about the latest media horror story about Army recruiting - this one pointing to the fact that (gasp!) the Army accepts felons - and Eck couldn't see what the fuss was about. He pointed out that, of the more than 110,000 Americans who joined the armed forces in 2007, only about 800 were felons. And these 800 were almost certainly vetted before being admitted: "We don't actively approach these guys. But there are guys leaving jail who want to change their lives and think that they can do that by joining the Army. Most of them we turn away, but sometimes we take in a few if it seems appropriate."

Although Marin is a challenging venue, Eck doesn't have a problem with his job, because he is selling something in which he strongly believes. As he says with feeling, "I love the Army almost as much as I love my family." Pressed for details, he works his way from the pragmatic to the abstract. He loves the military benefits, especially the full medical and dental care. He gets 30 days vacation per year and, when he's not deployed, he can take them whenever he wants.

He finds the work easy, because he's extremely well trained - or, as he says, "you're an expert in your job." He jokes that it is this comforting sense of expertise (not to mention the good benefits) that has friends of his who left the military trying to get back in again.

Eck also likes the Army's hierarchical structure, since it provides incredible support. He notes that, "If you don't know what to do, someone above you is not doing their job." He also explains that, if a situation ever arose in which he found an order from a superior ethically unacceptable, he would feel comfortable going up the chain of command to question that order. This situation has never happened to him, and he doesn't envision it happening, but he obviously values the fact that he never needs to find himself in the position of a powerless grunt carrying out morally repulsive acts.

Moving away from these practical concerns, Eck highlights the camaraderie of military life. "It's a brotherhood. I watched Band of Brothers. I cried a lot during the movie. I guess I always underestimated the term. I grasped it my second tour in Iraq. It's long and boring driving along with the convoys. There's more desert there than there is anything else to look at at. You get on the radio. You talk sports, sing classic rock, and tell about the stupid things you do. You can tell these guys things you wouldn't even tell your wife." (He laughed when I suggested that his wife was probably grateful for that.)

Eck's love for the Army is also fueled by a deep patriotism. He enlisted because "I love this country" (something he says is a common attitude for most of his fellow enlistees). Only in Marin does he find a really different attitude. "It's a whole new world here. Some kids are interested, but then they say that ‘no one likes the Army.' I tell them ‘No, no one in Marin likes the Army.' It's so different here, with the eye rolling and rudeness."

When I ask Eck how he came to love his country, he's silent for a minute. Then, slowly, the words start to flow. "Everything goes back to the Constitution. This country is built on fighting to make it a country. There's so much pride here. Immediately after 9/11, everyone flew a flag. I bet they even flew flags in Marin." (This is true, if only for a week or two).

Eck is in full flow now: "America is wonderful because we can have extremely different views and cultures and all live together. People can say whatever they want. They can say it, and I can say what I think too. Sometimes, like in Marin, I don't agree with them, but I can speak up too."

In other words, Eck's is no blind patriotism. He recognizes America's unique virtues, and is delighted to have a job that keeps him happy on a day-to-day basis while allowing him to give back to the country he loves.

As for the future, he says "As long as my wife's happy, I'm happy." Did I mention what a nice guy Staff Sergeant Jason Eck is?

'Bookworm' is a writer living in Marin, California. Her personal blog is Bookworm Room