SSG Ken Lepore joined the Army National Guard post-high school to help pay for college and because he loves his country. Through his service in the Army National Guard, he has grown immensely as a professional and as a person. He credits his time on deployment and serving the U.S. in making him a more mature, educated and driven citizen. He now serves as a recruiter for the Army National Guard in Central Ohio and interacts with high schoolers looking for a challenge and the opportunity to serve. Lepore discusses his life experiences, insights and tips on joining the Army National Guard.
1. How long have you been in the Army and what have your experiences been?
I have been in about 15 years overall with about a 3.5-year break in service. My three tours were as a tank crewman and cavalry scout to Kosovo in 2004-2005, then Iraq 2006-2007, and again to Iraq in 2009-2010. I also deployed to support the relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina 2005.
2. When did you become an Army Recruiter?
I became a recruiter in 2015. Before that, I worked as a teacher, in college admissions and now work as an adjunct professor of history at Marion Technical College.
3. What are some of the obstacles that come up during the recruitment process?
The most notable obstacles for recruits to overcome are COVID, of course, their ASVAB score, physical things, legal issues and negative perceptions.
Overall, the answer to this really does depend on the areas where one recruits as well as knowing one’s recruiting area. But remember, it is always about being physically, intellectually and morally qualified. So, there is always the potential that the ASVAB can become an obstacle. For example, I rarely had issues with kids who could not pass the ASVAB, but I recruited out of suburban and exurban schools that have pretty highly ranked education programs.
Again, that does not mean that everyone I met and worked with passed the ASVAB, but it does mean that, based on how ASVAB scoring works, the vast majority of kids I worked with could read and do the math on at least an 11th-grade level. Again, a passing score is a 31 or above, and this is not a percentage, but a percentile.
The physical things are a different kind of obstacle, but even though we ask some questions with that APPLE-MDT process to try to discover any potential medical or physical issues early in the recruiting process, it is typically when conducting a thorough medical questionnaire that any physical/medical issues will become known. This does not necessarily mean that someone will be disqualified – we are recruiters, not doctors, so it is not our place to tell someone if they are disqualified, although we may have a pretty good idea.
But, it identifies the need for more documentation, typically medical docs, which are submitted to MEPS. For example, if someone tells me they had surgery on an ACL, I know that we are going to need documents, so we know they will be okay at training and doing their jobs without that ACL becoming an issue. Then, based on the questionnaire and any accompanying documentation, the doctors at MEPS can make a preliminary determination on if someone is physically qualified or not – if they say no, then we request a waiver.
So, let’s say that nothing is wrong or that there was something like the applicant had braces and the accompanying documents from the dentist show when the braces will be off, and we get preliminary approval, this means we can schedule them for a face-to-face physical at MEPS. This is not like a physical fitness test, but it is more like a sports physical at high school or college – makes sure everything bends the right way, height/weight standards, checks vision/hearing, urinalysis, etc. This is the point where the doctors at MEPS will officially stamp that paperwork as physically qualified, but if anything requires more documentation or is a disqualifier, they will let you know. If that happens, we either try to get the necessary documentation or request a waiver, if possible. There are some things, for example, that we cannot plan for or necessarily know beforehand too, like say astigmatism or a high cylinder in the eye or heart arrhythmia, but that is exactly why it is that two-part process.
Other obstacles are legal obstacles, and this does not just mean having felonies, but even having an unresolved parking ticket – those need to be paid. Again, this was not something I had much of an issue in my former recruiting area, but for others, like with the ASVAB, it can be a real problem, whether drug charges, or a DUI, theft, violent crimes, etc. We have regulations that will let us know what is okay and if a moral waiver and suitability review needs to be initiated.
But this is where that bit of common sense comes into play as well, because members of the military are expected to hold themselves to a high standard and because we need that trust with the public as well. Essentially, I was not afraid to tell someone to get out of my office because of their legal background. My old office partner was doing a sex offender check in the online registry (we do it for everyone), and the guy he was working with came up – process over, dude, we’re done here.
Another time, he and I were at the Franklin County Courthouse, getting court documents on someone as part of a background check, and a lawyer or a social worker came running up to us telling us that her client was perfect for the military and how the military could help him (it is illegal for recruiters to get involved to get charges dropped in order to allow someone to enlist); anyway, my old office partner calmly asked her if her client was someone she would want armed to the teeth, which made her pause. She replied that he was not. Bad choices will derail enlistment – this is not and cannot be the last resort, but rather a first choice.
So this is where the public perception can become a benefit or an obstacle to recruiting. I am someone who very much hates being lumped in as one of McNamara’s boys, and I do get annoyed with the aforementioned perspective that military service is for poor people and stupid people with no prospects in life. This obviously is not true at all – again, I have a graduate degree, and I chose to join twice, one of those times after I had my college paid for. But where this can become an obstacle is, for example, when some parents carry that military service is beneath their child, which I have experienced a couple of times, typically in some of the more affluent areas I recruited in.
I had a kid I was working with whose parents bought him a brand new Mercedes to stop talking to me. I said, “I don’t fault you, dude, that’s a $60,000 car, I don’t think you learned a positive life lesson, but I don’t fault you at all.” Another time, I was taking a young lady just to take her ASVAB, and only do that – nothing else. She just wanted to take it as a career exploration tool, and I told her I will be glad to help.
It was her grandparents who came on the attack, crying when they saw me in uniform, letting me know I was a monster, and they knew people who went to Vietnam and begging their granddaughter not to do this. Again, she was not going to enlist (ever), and I knew that – that’s why her guidance counselor contacted me out of all the recruiters. But I did take great offense to their behavior, and I tactfully reminded them that, among other things, I was/am better educated than both of them. Nonetheless, there does seem to quite often be an uncle or a family member or someone who had a bad experience with a recruiter or with the military, and that becomes a difficult obstacle -- overcoming perceptions -- particularly entrenched ones.
4. Are there any ways to combat these things, and if so, how?
So, combating the aforementioned obstacles really comes down to the obstacle itself. Something like a recruit being over height and weight standards is actually one of the easier things because I can supply them with a workout plan and make some dietary recommendations, but it is on them to follow it and make it happen. This is actually nice because it shows early on in the process how much someone wants to be in. I had a young man who lost 180 pounds to join, and that said everything I needed to know about his dedication, character, motivation, etc., and I knew that he’d do fine at training and in his unit.
Some of the other medical stuff does become more of a challenge, though, particularly because you don’t want someone to be a liability to themselves or others. But, as mentioned earlier, we can always try to request a waiver – it will get either approved or denied, but at the end of the process, you’ll know why. I worked with a young lady who had a penicillin allergy – we got all the medical documents, submitted them with the questionnaire to MEPS, and she was marked preliminarily as not qualified. So, we submitted a request for a waiver, which did get approved; then she took her physical, passed, and joined. The process took about a week and a half long, but that’s okay, as it shows that even with an allergy to a medicine, we took the right steps and she was taken care of.
Combating the legal obstacles is a little more cut-and-dry because in AR 601-210 and the National Guard’s accompanying documents, the Accessions Options Criteria and the Annex A as well as other regulatory guidance that comes out, it lets us know what we can work with, as far as having a legal background and what we cannot. However, I found that I never really had many problems with interested individuals having legal backgrounds beyond anything more than traffic violations, an occasional single DUI or drug charge – and yes, you can have a whole bunch of traffic tickets and still be able to enlist as an 88M Motor Transport Operator (truck driver), although I tended to steer bad drivers away from that MOS (no pun intended). But, I knew that pretty much anything beyond that, I probably was not going to work with that person anyway because I knew I would not want someone with multiple assaults, theft or domestic violence charges in my squad, so I wouldn’t bother. I cannot speak for other recruiters or other branches of the military, but as a student of history and of languages, I tend to pay attention to the patterns.
It is combating that obstacle of public perceptions that is the most difficult, but I found that I dealt with it two-fold – as a member of the military, and as a recruiter. This is one reason why we, as recruiters, need to be judicious about who we enlist and also not deceive or lie to people we work with. So, this essentially comes down to trust, as it ties into public perception. For starters, one of the best compliments I have ever received in my life was from an undergraduate philosophy professor at Ohio U, who told me that I dispelled every pre-conceived notion he had about people in the military. But because of my relative size (I’m 5’6” and 145 lbs), I do not exactly come off as that hard-charging, flag-waving recruiter, which is good, because that has never been my style.
Instead, I tried to make myself an example, to my soldiers, to my students and now to my recruits. When working with parents and teachers and guidance counselors, it is a similar thing. One soldier’s dad told me in an initial interview (he was prior service) that I was completely unlike any recruiter he had ever met. Several of my teacher and guidance counselor friends at my old schools have echoed similar things. They and my old boss told me that I recruit different kinds of people/soldiers than what they anticipate – actually, a lot of my old recruits have contacted me too and told me that they never could have seen themselves in the military or never even considered it until they met someone just like them – bookish, athletic-ish and trying to figure out how to pay for college.
And as I said, this was not really on my radar until my senior year of high school, so I get it. For me, it felt like I had the chance to show people that there should be zero stigmas from being an enlisted person in any branch of the military (but especially the Army National Guard) because before I turned 28, I had completed nine years in the Guard, three overseas tours, a graduate degree, no student loan debt, a myriad of languages and had a lived a fairly full life before I had attended my 10-year high school reunion. The little things that we can do to get rid of McNamara’s stigma and tip the hat to the importance of disciplined initiative drilled into my head at training. Besides, after you graduate from basic training and job training, you really do feel like you can accomplish anything – all obstacles become surmountable.
Full YouTube interview here on The Samurai Pulse: