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1995 | 08 | 27 | Articles | The Washington Post | Features
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The Washington Post
August 27, 1995
Outlook, Page C6
Bombarded by the U.S. Navy
It's a Job and an Adventure To Keep Up With Their Junk Mail
By Stewart Ugelow

THE NAVY COMMANDERS sent the letter to my mother, but they had really been after me.

In the fall of my junior year in high school, I took the standardized Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT), which most colleges use to identify potential applicants. Check the box that authorizes the testing service to release your name and the colleges hit you with a flurry of brochures, videos, applications and scholarship offers.

What I didn’t know was that the Defense Department would seize upon the scores, too. Much like their academic counterparts, the armed services pore over those scores for potential recruits. And, for some reason, the Navy’s computer decided I was a potential recruit.

For the past four years, the Navy has spent considerable time, effort and taxpayer money courting me. Only I didn’t want to be courted.

The search-and-recruit mission began innocently enough, with brochures about various Navy programs. Did I know about ROTC? Had I considered the GI Bill? Were there any other acronyms they could explain for me?

The Army and Air Force each sent me mailings from time to time, but never with the same frequency or volume as the Navy. It was not unusual to receive several Navy mailings in the same week or even the same day. Sometimes it would be the same letter but on different colored paper.

Then the calls began.

I had come home from school one day when I received a recruiting call from a Marine sergeant. He had obviously misplaced his list of a few good men and was trying me instead.

"I’m calling to talk to you about joining the Marines," he began.

"Well, I’m really not interested, but thanks," I replied and started to hang up.

But my sergeant didn’t take rejection as well as the other salesmen who call our house.

"Why is that?" he wanted to know.

I tried to explain. I get seasick. I can’t swim very well. I’m a little uneasy about making a four-year commitment at this point in my life.

"Uh, that’s a six-year commitment, son," the sergeant interrupted.

Fine, six years. I told him how antsy I was about signing up for anything where they put you in jail if you leave without permission. One acronym the Navy didn’t need to explain to me was AWOL.

Then I casually mentioned I had other plans.

"What, you planning on going to college?" he demanded. From his change in tone, it was clearly what a wimp would do.

Well, yes, I was. And if I changed my mind, I was quite confident the Navy would still be there.

I listened to the sergeant’s pitch awhile longer. When he would not allow me to end the conversation gracefully, I hung up. At least he would take me off his list, I figured. But the calls, and the mailings, continued.

By June of my senior year, most colleges had stopped sending me materials. A few brochures and applications trickled in over the summer from recruiters hopeful that I would change my mind, but most colleges had already moved on to the new crop of high school seniors. Even the Army dropped its efforts a few months into my freshman year at college.

But not the Navy. Convinced I was playing hard-to-get, the mailings poured into my house. My parents would just stack them up on my bed when I came home for vacation. We would all have a good laugh, I would throw them out, and then I would go back to school.

When I came home for the summer, the mailings and the calls continued. After receiving three identical mailings on the same day last summer, I had enough. For the first time, I called the number on the brochure. I told the operator straight out: I wanted off.

It’s not a response they get very often at the Navy Recruiting Command’s Philadelphia district office.

"You want what?" the operator asked me. "Why would you ever want to do that?"

"I have no real plans to join the Navy any time soon," I explained. "And I know it takes a lot of resources to keep sending me this stuff. As a taxpayer, I just felt that maybe the resources could be put to better use."

She transferred me to someone. He transferred me to someone else. Finally, they promised they would remove me from their list and stop sending things to my house.

Happily, I hung up. No more calls. No more mailings. And I had saved the taxpayers money.

After all, multiply the postage the Navy spent on me by the roughly 2 million high school students who graduate each year. We’re not talking small change here. Cut back on these mailings and the Navy would be a lot closer to that new Seawolf submarine it’s been clamoring for.

When I returned to school in the fall, despite the district office’s promises, the recruiting efforts continued.

Last spring, I received a call from a Marine sergeant. My mother told him what she had told all the others: I was away at school and still had no plans to sign up. She later brought in some of the mail to show to someone at her office who happens to be married to a rear admiral. The co-worker passed it on to her husband, who passed it to one of his deputies.

In June, my mother received a three-paragraph notice from the deputy commander of the Navy Recruiting Command. The commander wrote that he had verified that my name had been removed from all mailing lists of "Department of Defense advertising organizations." He then apologized to her for "any inconvenience this matter may have caused you."

Although the letter was a single sheet of paper, he sent it in an 8 1/2 by 11 envelope. The cost to the taxpayers? Forty-three cents.

It’s curious that the letter should be sent to her and not to me. It’s even more curious that it’s her inconvenience that the Navy regrets. Either way, I just hope the deputy commander really was sincere. Because he’ll soon have a chance to prove he’s a man of his word.

My younger brother, whose grades are far better than mine, takes the PSAT this fall.


Stewart Ugelow, a Washington native, has two years remaining on his four-year commitment to Yale University.