High School Journalist Undercover

David McSwane wanted to do something unusual, “something cool.”

What he did was a story for his high school newspaper that made the U.S. Army pay attention and shut down their recruiting efforts for a day while all Army recruiters attended ethics classes.

McSwane is a senior at Arvada West High School in Colorado. He had heard that the Army was having trouble recruiting because of the increasing unpopularity of the war in Iraq, and he had seen recruiters at his high school. It occurred to him to test out how far the recruiters would go to get somebody to sign up.

“I wanted to do something cool, go undercover and do something unusual,” he told the Rocky Mountain News.

McSwane showed up at the Army recruiting office in Golden, Colo., posing as a high school dropout and describing himself as addicted to marijuana and “psychedelic muchrooms.” He acted spaced out, stoned and stupid.

None of that seemed to matter to the recruiters, he said. They told him that his addiction could be licked, and when he said he couldn’t do it, they told him that he could buy a detox kit that would “clean you out.” One recruiter even offered to pay for half of the cost of the kit. The recruiters drove him to a local head shop so he could buy the kit.

The lack of a high school diploma didn’t bother the recruiters either. They encouraged him to take a high school equivalency diploma exam. McSwane took the test but deliberately failed it. (In real life, McSwane is an honors student at Arvada West.) Again, none of this seems to be a problem for the recruiters.

McSwane was told that he could exercise the “home-school option.” They pointed him to a web site where he could get a diploma, complete with transcripts. It took McSwane a few days and $200, but he became a proud graduate of Faith High Baptist School.

McSwane did not wear a recording device when he visited the recruiting station, but he did record some of the phone call from the recruiters. He also got his sister to take a picture of him with the recruiters, and a high school friend with a video camera was across the street from the head shop when he show up to buy the detox kit.

McSwane’s article for his high school paper, The Westwind, (for which McSwane is editor) ran on March 17, 2005.

But rather than just leave it at that, McSwane called several news organizations. CBS4 News in Denver called him back. The TV station’s report prompted the Army to pay attention to recruiting practices across the country. On May 20, 2005, the Army closed all of its recruiting stations so that recruiters could undergo a day of ethics training. It also began an investigation of specific complaints about recruiting practices.

The “something cool” that David McSwane want to do turned out to have important national implications.


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