The fallout from an Arvada teenager’s investigative piece for his school newspaper is one reason Army recruiters nationwide will “stand down” today for a refresher class in ethics.
David McSwane never thought his story would get so big when he gave his 15-year-old friend a camcorder, his 11-year-old sister a still camera, and enlisted his mother to keep him out of legal hot water.
When McSwane was finished, Army recruiters in Golden had been caught encouraging him to manufacture a fake high school diploma and accompanying him to a head shop to buy him a drug detox kit.
U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., called on the Army secretary to launch an investigation. The Army subsequently suspended McSwane’s recruiters and began a probe, which is still ongoing.
Douglas Smith, a spokesman for the Army recruiting command in Fort Knox, Ky., said that although the one-day recruitment freeze at 1,700 offices is partly routine, it is largely the result of recent allegations of impropriety.
“We’re going to reassess how Army values play into our jobs. We’re going to address the kind of improprieties that we’ve seen. There’s no avoiding the issue,” he said.
Among the Army’s concerns are those uncovered by the 17-year-old Arvada West High School honors student with a full class schedule and after-school job.
McSwane’s story nearly died before it ever got off the ground.
“I told him not to do it,” said his mother, Shelly Hansen. “I thought he might get arrested.”
Her son, who had read about military enlistment challenges and had seen recruiters working the grounds of Arvada West, wanted to know “just how far will Army recruiters go to get one more.”
McSwane had been inspired by the 1961 book Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin, who darkened his skin and documented what it was like to live as a black man in the segregated South.
But McSwane had another motivation when he began his investigation in January.
“I wanted to do something cool, go undercover and do something unusual,” he said this week.
The premise was simple: McSwane would try to join the Army as a high school dropout with an insatiable fondness for marijuana and psychedelic mushrooms. No matter how stoned and stupid McSwane acted, a pair of recruiters wouldn’t wouldn’t let him go.
McSwane insisted to the recruiters that he couldn’t lick his drug habit, but one recruiter told him to take some “stuff” that would “clean you out.” It turned out to be a detoxification kit the recruiter said had worked with other applicants. McSwane said the recruiter even offered to pay half the cost of the kit.
McSwane’s claim of being a dropout didn’t discourage his recruiters either. He was encouraged to take a high school equivalency diploma exam, which McSwane deliberately failed. That’s when he said one recruiter introduced him to the “home-school option.”
McSwane was told to order a phony diploma and transcripts from an online diploma mill.
“It can be like Faith Hill Baptist School or something – whatever you choose,” one of the recruiters can be heard saying in a taped phone call.
Several days and $200 later, McSwane became a proud graduate of Faith Hill Baptist High School in Longmont.
“I ordered my four years of high school sweat with a few clicks,” he later wrote.
But McSwane knew that if his story was going to hold up, he would need proof. So he enlisted his sister, Victoria, to pretend that she was keeping a photo album of her big brother’s military accomplishments. She took pictures of McSwane shaking hands with his recruiters.
McSwane convinced a high school friend to operate a video camera across the street from a head shop while one of the recruiters drove him to the store to buy a drug detox kit. He even got his mother to covertly slip him some cash during the episode after the head shop refused to accept her credit card.
Since McSwane didn’t wear a wire on most of his visits to the recruiting office, he parlayed his natural forgetfulness as a supposed druggie into an opportunity to tape his recruiters’ during phone calls.
“I’m a drug addict, so I acted confused and asked him to explain things over again,” he said.
McSwane stopped reporting the story in March when one of the recruiters asked him to strip down for a weigh-in and sign several legally binding documents.
McSwane’s article ran in the March 17 issue of The Westwind.
McSwane’s next move was to make certain his story didn’t languish on an inside page of his school paper. He shopped it out to local and national media outlets. Only CBS 4 News called back.
The station broadcast its report, “How Far Will the Army Go?,” on April 28 and played parts of McSwane’s audio and videotapes.
The high school senior was soon up to his ears in media requests.
Ultimately, McSwane wants more than just media attention. He thinks recruiters, including the two he exposed, are overwhelmed by pressure to make monthly quotas.
“I feel bad they’re taking the fall. It’s their bosses who are telling them to do this. The job is impossible when you have a war going on,” he said.
McSwane graduates Thursday and will attend Colorado State University in Fort Collins this fall. His planned major: journalism.
For now, though, McSwane has things other than exposes on his mind.
“I’m still in high school. I want to still have some fun,” he said.