Moving east along the I-440 beltline that circles Raleigh, a forest green Toyota 4-Runner breaks rank from heavy traffic and aims at an exit sign labeled Henderson. Its destination: 3136 Calvary Drive. The stripmall that harbors these coordinates, camouflaged by a convoy of food restaurants–a Hardees, a Wendy’s and a McDonald’s that feature the standardized menus that make every town seem the same–would be indistinguishable from every other pump-and-run stop, except that it’s home to an Army recruiter’s office. In strip-mall America, the Army casts itself as the antidote to corporate monotony–adventure, meet career.

And if only for flair, the storefront–filled with posters of picturesque training grounds and life-sized cutouts of rifle toting frogmen pointing toward YOU–does make quite an impression on the big, rugged character who just parked his 4-Runner and is now entering the recruiter’s place of business for his appointment at 1500 hours.

Through his windshield-thick aviator glasses, Nick Maroules stares down an “Army of One” placard in the lobby. Because he applied to West Point out of high school three years ago and has already met with an Army recruiter in Greenville, he filters it all. “See, that’s the first thing they throw at you. It’s like, ‘Do you want to do something with your life?’”

Yes-sir, that’s the plan–the cream of the cream, as Nick is fond of saying. But West Point didn’t work out at the last minute, and when he went to ECU and left after one semester, the Army began looking better and better. And that was before the bottom fell out of the economy and his future plans, Nick says. Twenty-one years old and nervous while waiting for the recruiter, Nick remarks that he is intrigued by the Army’s promise: a healthy signing bonus, college, training in far-off places, medical coverage for the family, and retirement with benefits.

There’s only one problem: There’s a war on, and many soldiers tell a far different story of Army life than the one touted by recruiters.

At work, a fellow employee returned from four years of service with the story of promises unfulfilled. “He basically told me that his options became limited very quickly right after he signed up,” Nick says. “The Army tells it like, ‘There’s 212 jobs in the Army; you choose.’ That’s a lie right there, according to him. When it came time to pick his path, his recruiter told him that if he could either travel and be placed into a job, or he would have to go to one place and stay and train for the job that he picked.”

All signs in the office point to Nick’s belief in military salvation. But could the Army work for him where it failed his fellow employee? Nick, unsure about his decision to join, would listen to the recruiter’s pitch one more time, then decide.

The remarkable truth isn’t that the war in Iraq has made recruiting more difficult–that’s no surprise; it’s a sluggish, booby-trapped war–but rather that recruiting is holding up as well as it is. But to get the same numbers as before the war, recruiters say it takes more reassuring–more convincing recruits of pay and career opportunities.

Neither 9/11 nor the current war effort have affected recruiting numbers, according to Douglas Smith, an Army public affairs officer. But Iraq and, more to the point, the veterans returning, have tarnished the recruiting pitch. The Raleigh recruiter’s office has been 11 percent below its monthly goals recently, and in June and July enlistments fell to 78 percent and 77 percent of goal, respectively.

Potential recruits like Nick hear the rumblings from soldiers returning home who don’t want to reenlist. Even though the Army now boasts that it has surpassed its goals for mid-career reenlistments, Fort Bragg and other bases around the country have skirted the 65 percent mark for this crucial segment of the army at different times since the war began.

But soldiers lucky enough to return from the war unscathed just don’t come back the same. In his article “The Price of Valor” (The New Yorker, July 12) Dan Baum revealed a lack of support by the Army for its veterans returning home from Iraq. The suicide rate for soldiers is nearly a third higher than the Army’s historical average, and Baum describes the psychological baggage that comes with training soldiers to kill efficiently, to “eliminate targets” in training by clustering fire in the general area of an enemy.

The word “kill” goes unspoken outside the smoke and rubble of urban Iraq. Recruiters like Sgt. Bryon Vickers, who is scheduled to meet with Nick at 1500, refer to today’s military force as an “intellectual army” equipped with “the most advanced technology out there.” And they don’t lie, especially compared to what Iraqi and Afghan defenses offer. The training and technology can blur the fact, however, that the essential business of the military is war and training soldiers to kill and not think about it.

“We need to free the rifleman’s mind with respect to the nature of targets,” said S.L.A. Marshall, a lieutenant colonel during World War II, who made his reputation as an expert commentator on the soldier’s view of warfare. His assertion that only 15 percent of U.S. riflemen were firing at the enemy in combat during that war surprised the military world, according to Baum. And although his method of collecting data has since proven questionable, his conclusions about the ratio of fire in World War II were accepted by the Army and led to a “Revised Program of Instruction” for training. By teaching soldiers to disconnect the act of pulling the trigger from the humanity of “targets,” the Army estimates that it had almost 90 percent of soldiers shooting at the enemy in Vietnam.

With the war in Iraq still developing, there are few statistics yet available to accurately describe today’s soldier’s experience. But it is clearly different from any video or story told in the recruiter’s office. As of Aug. 26, 970 U.S. soldiers had been killed in Iraq, compared to 293 deaths during the Gulf War. There is no “body count,” as Gen. Tommy Franks put it, available for Iraqi deaths. The consensus, though, is that most U.S. infantry soldiers engaged in urban settings have aimed and fired at the “enemy,” including women and children at roadblocks. This inability to distinguish between civilians and opposing forces has the potential to change the war experience for current soldiers in the same way that Vietnam veterans were left to deal with their psychological issues on their own.

The reluctance of many soldiers to reenlist has the Pentagon reaching deep into its resources. As recruiters preach career and adventure to younger, inexperienced recruits like Nick, fear of long-term commitment abroad–underscored by the recent call-ups of more reserves–trouble many in the Army, the Reserves and the National Guard. The growing discontent of reserves may be exposing the vulnerabilities of an overstretched army. Now, even “inactive reserves,” who already fulfilled their commitment to the Army years ago, may be activated for service in certain circumstances.

“It’s definitely messed up [that soldiers are having to stay past their contracts], but they’re trying to keep the more inexperienced soldiers back home,” Vickers says of the 5,600 reserves called up beginning June 30. “They get caught in a Catch-22. They signed up for a year of duty, and they get another six months.” War is a commitment that you can’t run from, though. He adds, “You drive on and get your head together and set goals and priorities and move on.”

Nick badly wants to quit running from commitment, to get that “structure and purpose” back in his life. The Army is the closest thing on the radar to that promise, and he’s tuned in.

What Nick’s radar was picking up after he dropped out of college made the situation worse. It was the same scuttle that always circulates in a small town when a freshman, one of their own, has to come home from college. Nicholas Backachne Nagroolus. Drunk. Yayed-up. Deep-fried. Sack-o-potatoes. Boy needed to come home! This was to be expected, of course, but not what a mother wants to hear. Nick, a known beer-drinker, always enjoyed a long, cool one–but a total washout?

“You wanna jump out of a plane?” suggests Sgt. Vickers, engaging Nick in a roundabout negotiation. “You can be air assault.”

“Actually, I wanted to be a cook for the Rangers–an Army Ranger cook,” Nick says.

The preceding comment, and–really–his own laugh, which jumped reflexively as if he were in the mood for a practical joke, catches the Army recruiter offguard.

“You want to be a cook … for the Army Rangers?” Vickers wonders out loud. “You’re joking, right?”

He wasn’t.

Friends understood that Nick was serious about joining the Army, but they only heard it from him over the phone, like a voice-recording left over from when he had West Point on the brain. Trying to decide whether to go to the Military Academy, Nick had done his homework, researching military careers and talking to Army Rangers whenever he got the chance. Knowing someone at West Point who was in the thick of it was the most valuable thing, he says. At the time, he felt most comfortable talking to Neilson Wahab, a friend he had known since “back in the day” as a Boy Scout in Troop 41. “Neilson was just straight up with me,” remembers Nick. “I had all these people telling me all different sorts of things. Neilson didn’t say he regretted going there. He just said, of course, that he knew what he was missing out on, but that the experience was worth it.”

As part of his five-year commitment to the military out of college, Wahab is now stationed in Iraq as part of the daily rebuilding effort. Every two weeks he gets the opportunity to use his army-issue laptop to e-mail family and friends. In his latest message, Nick sees someone who found a way out.

“So far, so good, over here. I try to take things one day at a time. I joined the military in order to get out of Kinston, see the world and make something of myself. So far I’ve accomplished all three. All of the things I’ve seen here in Iraq during my tour have made me appreciate all that I had growing up back home. The military has been good to me. I encourage anyone to join, but remember the military will ask for a lot of sacrifices.”

“I understand where he is coming from,” says Nick. “When it’s time to play, it’s time to play. When it’s time to fight, it’s time to fight.” Where do I sign?

“My first recruiter, Sgt. Colley, kept talking about education and bonuses,” says Nick of his first shotgun recruiting experience, which included a 30-minute car ride in a custom-painted van–point and click–to his mother’s house. “He was pushing material things on me. I heard more about that laptop (which the Army gives to each new recruit) than anything else in my whole life.” Later Nick describes Colley’s pitch further. “He even talked about pussy and pot-smoking. It was along the lines of, ‘If you’re down with smoking pot, you’ll be fine.”

To mobilize an 18- to 24-year-old to go to war takes an incredible amount of persuasion, though. Most just don’t see a stake in the Army; Nick sees a sign on the wall advertising a “$20,000 Signing Bonus,” and has to ask.

“Let me explain, because it’s not like everyone gets that much,” says Vickers. “Only the recruits who ace all the tests qualify for the whole signing bonus.” Anticipating that the coming months will find it harder to sign recruits, the Army is now considering raising more of the bonuses given to recruits closer to the advertised $20,000.

Looking down, Vickers–in stars, bars, brass buckle and pleated pants–scans Nick: crisply folded T-shirt, high-and-tight cut, not too much college baby fat, boat shoes. He asks Nick what he made on the SAT in high school, and quickly adds, “Understand, a thousand or more on the SAT is high compared to most of the guys that come in here. I know you can score enough to qualify for these bonuses.” Not to rule any position out–just in case Nick doesn’t have the test scores–Vickers says, “The myth is that they throw the [less intelligent recruits] in with the grunts, but in the infantry, 50 to 60 percent of those guys have college degrees. Those guys just want to try something different. The biggest guys will give up. The ones I’ve seen that make it are smaller and smarter and want it more.”

For the average Army recruit–single, male, 21 years old with a 12th grade education–a starting salary of $30,000 is comparable to the average job out of college. In a struggling job market, $30,000 also happens to be better than nothing, and as Vickers points out, the salary “isn’t just a figure, because there are a lot of incentives–room, board, utilities and insurance.”

Vickers may not have heard the razzing Nick took in Kinston–Ugly, Yella, not to mention no-good and all the other things a mother would never want to hear–but he realizes that if a military draft were ever re-instituted, it would likely find Nick first.

“So why join Army?” asks Vickers, who by now expects to hear the honest truth. As quickly as the question is asked, a rush of reasons spill from Nick’s mouth: “Dropping out of school … living the unhealthy life … I got some weird strain of mono … and then I had to move back home to Kinston … and then my parents got divorced.

“Separated from my friends, not knowing how to get out of all this trouble. I might as well go way far away and do something again.” And this from a man who takes pride in making his bed top-bunk-tight every morning: “There was no direction in my life. I need to have that order. Basically, I was in a pit going downtown.” These answers come quickly and are so aboveboard that Sergeant Vickers no longer has a reason to press for information. To see where he stands, he need only ask two more questions.

The first: “So why didn’t you join the first time?”

Nick answers unequivocally: “The biggest thing that made me not join was my mother’s face. I think my mom would die if I died in combat. She’s that kind of woman. All she ever cared about was me and my brothers. So she called up, crying, just balling. She was just saying, ‘Nick, are you really listening to the words coming out of the recruiter’s mouth?’”

Then Vickers’ second question: “Can I get the rest of your information and signature here?”

Nick doesn’t have to think hard. His mind races with what he’d learned about the Army’s loose commitment to soldiers, the obstacles they face back at home, his crying mother. All the reasons for joining seemed as far away as, well, Iraq.

“I really don’t want to sign anything today,” he says. But Nick knew it was more than that. He wasn’t coming back.