Utah Army recruiter caught between pride, anguish
Military » He tries to come to grips with the death of a soldier that he helped lead to war.
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Back from a tour of duty in Iraq during which his company was always short-handed, Chris Johnson stepped into his new role as a recruiter. The Army needed new soldiers -- and fast -- and the young staff sergeant was determined to do his part.

Johnson told potential enlistees he could help them better their lives. But he could not have conceived of the effect one recruit's death would have on the way he did his job.

Since the onset of combat operations in 2001, nearly 5,000 military members have been killed in the nation's ongoing wars. They came from every state and territory in the union. They represented every branch of the armed services. They were of many races, of many religions, of many backgrounds.

But in the post-draft era of American military service, they did have one thing in common: All were volunteers, led into service by an army of professional recruiters like Johnson.

Johnson insists he never lied in order to enlist a new recruit. In fact, he says, he went out of his way to explain the experiences he'd had in Iraq.

But he had known only one soldier, Utahn Steve Kowalczyk, who had died in combat. And their paths had crossed only briefly in Iraq before Johnson rotated back stateside. So even though he had been to war, Johnson was unable to speak with deep familiarity of its greatest potential toll.

All that changed last February.

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'I put him in the Army' » It was a Tuesday evening when the news came. Johnson was watching television. His new wife was surfing the Internet.

"Did you know someone named Micheal Alleman?" she asked from across the room.

"Sure," Johnson replied, "I put him in the Army."

She slammed the laptop shut.

"I had to wrestle the computer away from her," Johnson recalled. "When I finally saw the story, I just couldn't believe it. I figured there had to be some mistake."

Alleman was one of Johnson's earliest recruits. Possibly his easiest. And assuredly his favorite.

Even at a time when an increasingly woeful economy was pushing more wary job seekers through the doors of the Army recruiting center in Logan, Alleman stood out for his eagerness to sign up.

He wasn't looking for an education -- he had already graduated from Utah State University. He wasn't looking for a job -- he already had one at a local elementary school. And he didn't need recruiters like Johnson to persuade him to join -- just to help find the best arrangement for him and his family.

He wanted to be an Army scout. But Johnson found a bigger signing bonus for him in the infantry.

Alleman was happy to accept the extra cash, but he told the recruiter that he simply wanted to show his two young sons that America was worth fighting for.

"Mike was the ideal soldier," said Johnson, a native of Magna who has recruited in northern Utah for the past two years. "He joined the Army for all the right reasons."

Most recruits seem to forget their recruiters at some point early into boot camp -- and maybe for good reason, Johnson laughed. But when Alleman returned to Utah after training, he made it a point to come and see the man who had arranged his enlistment.

"He was more than just someone I'd put into the Army," Johnson said. "I really got to know him. I got to know his wife and his family. I considered him a very good friend."

The news of Alleman's death changed the way Johnson looked at his job.

"He was there in Iraq, in part, because I happened to be his recruiter," Johnson said. "That hit me pretty hard."

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'The cost of our achievements' » Each fall, hundreds of soldiers in the Army's Salt Lake Recruiting Battalion, which includes every recruiting station in Utah and several nearby states, gather to discuss strategies for the coming year.

They talk about goals, incentives and salesmanship. They brag over successes and lament like fishermen over the ones that got away. And at a banquet filled with soldiers in dress uniforms, they hand out awards to the most prolific recruiters and the most successful stations.

But the first order of business at the banquet is always the same. One by one, the battalion's senior recruiters place a rose on an empty table in honor of the soldiers they recruited who have fallen in combat.

"We're there to recognize our own achievements," said Col. David Clonts, who leads the battalion, "but we can't lose sight of what we're really doing. Part of the cost of our achievements is a list of names."

When that list is read this year, Alleman's name will be on it.

The 31-year-old soldier's patrol was on a mission to capture a group of suspected insurgents on Feb. 23 near Balad, in northern Iraq, when it was ambushed. Alleman died in a hail of gunfire alongside two fellow soldiers from the Alaska-based 1st Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division.

His family in Utah received the news that same day.

A few days later, the soldier's widow called on the recruiter who had helped him into the service.

"I wasn't expecting hatred and I didn't even expect her to be angry," Johnson said, "but I didn't know what to expect -- and I definitely didn't expect to hear her say what she said."

Amy Alleman was succinct.

"Thank you," she said, "for introducing our family to the Army."

"It was so genuine," Johnson recalled. "I couldn't have been more touched."

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'What I say and how I say it' » Johnson spent the days after Alleman's death sitting at his desk, staring at his computer.

"I was pretty useless," he said.

After Amy Alleman's phone call, he got back to work.

"But what happened to Mike changed everything for me," he said. "Right there, I stopped asking people to join the Army. The risks were forefront in my mind. And so it completely changed what I say and how I say it."

Johnson said he was never a particularly prolific recruiter. And as he donned a silver bracelet bearing Alleman's name and began to speak openly to potential recruits about his fallen friend, he expected he might fall short of his monthly quotas.

But the change in how he handled his duties in the wake of Alleman's death had an unexpected effect.

"I actually put in more people," he said. "And I put in more quality people. I spent less time trying to convince people that the Army was right for them and more time focusing on the people who really wanted it. I want them to go because it was their own decision, not because of anything I say to push them one way or the other."

Today, Johnson said, he's more of a facilitator than a recruiter. More of a friend than a salesman.

With ongoing wars on two fronts and many challenges on the horizon, Johnson will return to his combat role as an Army scout later this year -- a transfer that likely will mean a return to war for the 29-year-old soldier.

He will go confident that the soldiers he's processing for enlistment right now -- potential comrades in arms a few months down the road -- understand all the potential consequences of their service.

And should they fall in combat, he will know that they died as his friend did -- as soldiers who went to war with their eyes wide open and their hearts prepared.

mlaplante@sltrib.com