Under the Gun

Why the Army thinks a 30-year-old college-educated California bull rider will help it recruit soldiers during wartime

Jaron Nunnemaker looks ready to die for his country. He's dressed entirely in black -- black cowboy hat, shirt, vest, jeans, and chaps. The only other colors he wears are a touch of gold and white (in the "Army of One" logo) and the red, white, and blue of a small American flag on his chest. In one motion he hops from the catwalk into the fray, landing on the chocolate-brown back of a 2,000-pound Oklahoma monster called Iceman, whose cool name belies his fiery disposition. In the 10-by-4-foot chute, the 30-year-old Northern California rider tightens the rope around the underside of the massive Brangus (half Brahma, half Angus) bull, making a snug noose around his black riding glove with quick, expert motions. Below him, Iceman -- irritated by the blaring guitars on the arena's sound system and coked up on a 40cc shot of vitamin B complexes -- shudders and quakes, slamming his horns into the welded bars of the gate.

When Nunnemaker gives the signal with a sudden nod of his head, the gate will swing open and his mind will go blank. Iceman will barrel out into the intense white light of the arena, kicking and hammering, twisting like a tornado of rage, in front of the crowd of 5,000 that has gathered at the University of Nevada, Reno's Lawlor Events Center. As many as 20 million more will be watching "Bullnanza" on television sets tuned to the Outdoor Life Network and ESPN2. If Nunnemaker holds on for a qualifying eight-second ride, he will take home a piece of the $100,000 purse, but even if he doesn't, he'll have achieved something: He is a key player in the most innovative recruiting strategy in the history of the all-volunteer U.S. Army.

In April 2004, when the Army's Strategic Outreach Commission decided to throw its proverbial cowboy hat (and a few million tax dollars) into the ring of professional bull riding, Nunnemaker joined a small group of athletes to represent a new era in military recruitment. Along with the likes of U.S. Smokeless Tobacco, Wrangler jeans, and Jack Daniel's, the U.S. Army became an official corporate sponsor of the Professional Bull Riders association and signed a team of three men, including Nunnemaker, to ride in its emblematic black, gold, and white. In choosing the Northern Californian, the Army is going after its cherished demographic, 18- to 24-year-olds, who are increasingly unaffected by traditional marketing strategies. Nunnemaker -- a top-flight competitor in what the PBR calls "the original extreme sport," a family man, and an apple-pie patriot -- seems, in some ways, perfect for the mission.

Two hours before Nunnemaker begins the second day of "Bullnanza," under a JumboTron full of digitally waving American flags, he strides stiffly to the recruiting table set up in front of the arena, with his head down and no cowboy hat covering his close-cropped dark blond hair. The unusual effort of his gait is thanks in part to Iceman, who threw him like a crash test dummy after a disappointing 6.5 seconds, and thanks in part to the predictably hell-raising afterparty that followed a posse of beer-pounding cowboys through the gaudy maze of Reno casinos. It's already been a long day by the time he approaches the black canopy.

That morning's sermon at the two-hour Cowboy Church Service hollered for bull riders, fans of the PBR, and the young people "doing the Lord's work" in Iraq. Nunnemaker appears to embody all three. The particularly poignant message seems to weigh on his mind, especially given today's date: Sept. 11.

But when Nunnemaker parks his brawny frame at the table for the gathering swarm of kids, he's typically congenial, flashing a square-jawed smile and scribbling his name on T-shirts and ticket stubs. Next to him, a cluster of recruiting officers hands out literature and collects signatures. Behind them, in the back of parked semi, rodeo fans get a chance to meet 20-year-old Pvt. Ty Cooper of the Army's elite shooting team, who demonstrates how to handle and fire simulated weapons, aiming at a screen of little balloons that burst up from craters in a desert landscape. The shooting game is especially popular with a group of 22 pimply high schoolers, who loiter around the tent in "Army of One" black T-shirts. Before tonight's performance, they will file into the university's dirt-covered basketball arena, hold up their right hands, and take the oath of service to the U.S. Army before God, country, and 5,000 screaming fans of the PBR. Doubtless some will be shipped to Iraq, where the body count of American soldiers has just topped 1,000.


Long before Army marketing mascots were being thrown from Brangus bulls, the primary image of recruiting was the white-haired statesman in the star-spangled stovepipe, Uncle Sam. Most historians trace the elderly chap to a Troy, N.Y., meatpacker named Sam Wilson, who shipped barrels of beef to troops during the War of 1812 and had a reputation for fairness to his employees and loyalty to his country. He was rendered by cartoonists and propagandists starting in the mid-1800s, and immortalized in 1916 by James Montgomery Flagg, who posed for a portrait encouraging volunteerism during the First World War, above the caption "I Want You for U.S. Army."

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