First of two parts
As a senior at Red Bank High School in 2002, Drew Gelbaugh didn't have a career in mind, but his baseball coach and economics teacher, Bumper Reese, had one for him: the U.S. Marine Corps.
Having attended the Marine Corps' Educators' Workshop - a four-day program that gives teachers and counselors a firsthand look at boot camp in Parris Island, S.C. - the coach was sure Mr. Gelbaugh was a perfect fit.
"He had great leadership qualities, but he wasn't sure what he wanted to do," Mr. Reese recalled. "He didn't want to be a burden on anyone, and he didn't really know what he wanted to do in college."
All Mr. Reese had to do was make the introductions, recalled Mr. Gelbaugh, now a sergeant in the Corps.
"A Marine recruiter came in, and before you know it I was signed up," he said.
Monday: A look at how Educators' Workshops are helping the Marine Corps improve its image.
Wednesday: Marines get creative with MREs, in Food.
Since then, Sgt. Gelbaugh has served in Iraq, Afghanistan and Japan and already re-enlisted. He loves his job as an ordnance technician at Beaufort Air Station just outside Parris Island and says he has Mr. Reese - and the Educators' Workshop - to thank for it.
"I think it's a great idea," he said of the workshop. "This way, other teachers can go back and talk to their students about the Marines like mine did with me ... Otherwise, I wouldn't have even thought twice about the Marine Corps."
Critics argue the workshop, at a taxpayer cost of more than $120,000, is a marketing ploy that convinces well-meaning educators to help recruiters reach vulnerable student populations.
"The schools are considered zones of influence, and they go after those folks particularly," said Mike Ferner, president of the nonprofit anti-war organization Veterans for Peace, based in St. Louis, Mo., who called the program "a dog-and-pony show."
Sgt. Gelbaugh recently had a chance to share his enthusiasm with a new group of teachers, including two from his alma mater, when an Educators' Workshop was held at Parris Island and Beaufort last month. The Marines also invited journalists to tag along, including a reporter and photographer from the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
Sgt. Gelbaugh was among Marines chosen to participate in a panel discussion outlining the opportunities the Corps afforded them. He spoke to an audience of high school counselors, teachers and administrators who soaked up the sense of pride he described.
"That feeling is obvious when you're down here," Travis Freeman, an administrator with Anderson County, Tenn., schools, said later.
A few in the group were more skeptical, however.
"It's kind of like, 'What are they selling?' " remarked Wilder Lee, a history teacher from Hamilton High School in Memphis.
"It's a sell"
The Educators' Workshop runs weekly from January through May, rotating through groups from a different geographical region each week. Educators from states east of the Mississippi River attend the program at Parris Island, while those to the west travel to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, Calif.
When the program began in the 1970s, educators paid their own way, but in recent years, the Marine Corps has taken on the expense. The Tennessee/Alabama workshop's budget was $123,000 for the four days, officials said. Each trip includes hotel, meals and activities that allow educators to experience M-16 rifles, the obstacle course and even sparring sessions with martial arts instructors.
Allison Glass, education coordinator for the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center in Memphis, said she is frustrated by the amount of money put into the program. The center promotes peace, social justice and human rights and runs an Alternatives to the Military Project to inform high school students about nonservice-related scholarship and apprenticeship programs.
"I do not think (the program) should be funded by taxpayer dollars," she said.
Maj. David Banning, commanding officer of the Nashville Recruiting Station, said recruiters invite teachers who have little military experience or a negative view of the military.
"It's not to sway you one way or the other," Maj. Banning told a busload of educators on their way to the base on Jan. 13. "But you are a trusted sounding board, and we just want you to be able to give (your students) some answers from firsthand experience."
Arlene Inouye, a speech therapist in Los Angeles who attended the workshop in California in 2005, said the program wins support from teachers by appealing to their desire to discipline troublemakers.
"They make you feel important, they make you feel good and they show you all the kids who have been helped," Ms. Inouye said. "It's a sell."
The majority of educators from Tennessee and Alabama on the visit last month seemed supportive.
Educators pumped their fists as they hit targets on the firing range, stared with mouths agape at huge jets, snapped photographs of recruits marching about the base and whooped as their colleagues completed obstacles on the confidence course.
When the group stopped at the base's commissary, participants loaded shopping baskets with souvenir T-shirts, which some wore the next day at the recruit graduation ceremony they were invited to watch.
With his cadence calls, drill Instructor Staff Sgt. Carlos Enriquez became such a subject of fascination and admiration that participants recorded his marching orders on their cell phones so they could use them as ringtones.
A blogger from the Tennessee Independent Media Center, who raised his hand several times to ask questions related to the war on terror and the use of advanced weapons technology, was outnumbered. Each time he spoke, some teachers shot each other looks as if to say, 'Here we go again.' Ultimately, some Marines pulled the man aside to tell him such questions were inappropriate for the setting because such decisions were made by others well above those Marines' pay grades.
Mr. Freeman, the Anderson County administrator, said at the end of the trip he was so impressed by the Marine Corps' discipline and esprit de corps that he wanted to look into becoming a reservist himself.
"The more that I saw the drill marching and the (physical training) stuff, I loved it," he said.
A group of educators from Etowah County, Ala., said they've had little contact with recruiters at their school, but after the workshop at Parris Island, they planned to approach their board of education in hopes that military recruiting efforts could be expanded.
"I never realized how good for a kid this could be," said Page Wright, a softball coach at Sardis High School in Boaz, Ala.
Recruiters welcome this kind of outcome from the trip, said Sgt. Andrew Hurt, a public affairs officer for the Nashville Recruiting Battalion.
"This program can make a huge regional impact, because (through the educators) we are reaching a large audience in a small amount of time," Sgt. Hurt said.
Mr. Reese, the Red Bank High coach, said the program gives students information about options so they can make a career choice that's right for them.
"Some people may not understand it because they haven't seen it, and they're ignorant of what actually happens," he said. "I don't think (the Marine Corps) is a great option for everyone, and I don't think anyone would ever tell you that. At the same time, I'm a teacher, and I don't think college is a great option for everyone."