Knocking on Freedom’s Front Door
(TOP Story, Freedom's Front Door)Future military men and women take the oath of enlistment, the final step to becoming defenders of freedom (Photo by T. Anthony Bell).

They’ve been labeled Generation Y.

They’re typically associated with baggy pants, long hair, tattoos, fast food and video games.

They’re also the next generation of American fighting men and women, the ones whom Americans will entrust with their way of life.

The job of transforming the typical American teenager into defenders of American freedom starts at the 65 Military Entrance Processing Stations located throughout the county.

Sometimes called “Freedom’s Front Door,” MEPS are Department of Defense facilities that act as a clearinghouse to ensure recruits meet criteria necessary for service in the Armed Forces.

“Our mission is to put quality applicants into the armed services — Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard — in accordance with the established standards,” said Maj. James Galluzo III, MEPS commander at Fort Lee.

That mission of transformation starts with image. The two-year-old multi-million dollar facility sits on a well-manicured plot of land at the corner of Mahone and A avenues, and gives off a sharp, corporate appearance.

When entering the building for the first time, visitors step onto floors that look like glass and into a 30-foot foyer definitely designed to inspire.

Sonya Henderson, a human resources assistant who sits at a curved receptionists’ desk, is likely the first person visitors will meet.

“I see my job as someone who makes people feel good about what they’re doing,” she said. “These are someone’s children, and I treat them like my own.”

“We refer to our treatment of any applicant as the ‘red carpet treatment,’” said Galluzo. “It’s not to say that we’re bending over backwards, but it’s like any profession: If I’m going to be recruiting actively for a Fortune 500 company, I want them to know that they’re coming into a quality organization and if I’ve got people who are not professional, friendly and courteous, that’s going to convey an image.”

That image is conveyed 70-80 times daily by the 44 military members and civilian employees who work at the facility. That’s how many people that are typically processed through the facility daily, said Galluzo.

“We process approximately 15,000 people a year,” he said.

Potential recruits start their day of processing at the MEPS very early. They arrive by bus from contract hotels in surrounding communities and are busy the minute they enter the building. They will undergo a full day of aptitude testing, medical and background checks.

Galluzo said that before they start processing, potential recruits need to grasp why the processing is so extensive.

“I try to tell them that this is a professional job hire,” he said. “You’re going on the most comprehensive, professional job interview that you’ll ever go on. From start to finish, we’re going to first measure your aptitude to see how smart you are, measure your physical qualifications to see if you are physically qualified to do the job and we’re going to check your moral qualifications — that is to say that we’re going to check your background and ensure that you don’t have a criminal record and that you can be trusted with the secrets of the U.S. government.”

Jimi Phillips, an Army Reserve recruit, spent one day last week processing through the Fort Lee MEPS. The former Sailor and Marine arrived at 5 a.m. and said the process has improved but it’s still largely a ‘hurry-up-and-wait,’ military parlance for standing in line for long periods.

“It is a lot of waiting,” he said, “but that prepares you for life.”

But the waiting is necessary to adequately screen all applicants. Galluzo knows that only a fraction of the people he sees in the facility’s various waiting areas will fulfill all the qualifications criteria and actually get to wear the uniform.

“From what I’m told by the recruiting services, only 22 percent of our target population actually meets all of the standards for qualification,” said Galuzzo.

That means that of the 15,000 would-be recruits who are processed through MEPS, only about a third will ship off to basic training.

“It’s the elite one percent,” said Galluzo. “We take nothing but the ‘A’ team.”

Potential recruits who make it through all the waiting and all the tests get to raise their hand to an oath of enlistment.

“I felt relieved,” said Brendan Davenport, a Navy recruit who had been at the MEPS since six in the morning and who was sworn in last week. “Relieved that I finally got to the end of this and done with all the processing to get to this point.”

Davenport said he also felt a sense of achievement.

“I feel good, proud and accomplished… and ready to go home,” he said.

In a few months, Davenport will be transformed into a Sailor, sworn to protect the interests of the United States.