Under the Gun

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

He says as much as we sit together in the home he recently built on a sprawling, hilly 100 acres outside of town. He lives with his wife, Jessica (a champion barrel rider in her own right), and their son, Charles Bradley, who was born in mid-August at a robust 10 pounds, 5 ounces. The television isn't hooked up yet, so tonight, Nunnemaker will miss George W. Bush accepting the presidential nomination at the Republican National Convention in a speech that obsesses over national security and the ongoing war in the Middle East. He doesn't seem to mind.

"I probably wouldn't make a good politician," he says. "I just can't lie well enough." His comments aren't usually so biting, but a few things do inspire his contempt. Iraq is one. "If you asked me, I'd turn the whole place into a parking lot," he says. "Just pave the whole thing. I mean the thought of those terrorists hiding up in a mosque and picking off our boys -- and we can't bomb it? I don't know about that. I'd pave the whole country. I guess I wouldn't make a good soldier." And San Francisco, which he flies out of almost every weekend: "It's just too much there," he says, pausing to choose his words carefully. "People there are just too ... well, they're a little bit different."

Mostly Nunnemaker tends toward simple declarations of affection for his family, his profession, and his country. He doesn't even cuss while the tape machine is running, eschewing off-color words for diluted substitutes like "heck," "BS," and "mothereffer." When we touch on anything philosophical, he offers broad statements about "the simple things in life" and "the little things that make me happy" that seem cribbed from the lyrics to a Mark Chesnutt song.

As we walk the dusty trails around the ranch, Nunnemaker relates a short history of his career as a bull rider -- a family tradition handed down from his stepfather, who quit riding bulls because of injuries.

"When you come out of the chute you can't be thinking about nothing except that animal," he explains. "You got a 2,000-pound bull dropping out of the air. It's like holding onto a Volkswagen Beetle dropping four feet."

When we get to the garage, he reaches into the bed of his 2-ton Dodge truck for a PBR duffel bag and explains each piece of gear within: the bull rope, to tether him to the animals; the vest, to deflect the impact of their horns; the hand-tooled black leather chaps, to "add a little flash" and protection in the chute. Everything bears the gold and white star of the "Army of One."

Pete Sealey, once the global marketing president for Coca-Cola and now a teacher of marketing strategy at UC Berkeley and Stanford, thinks the Army's sponsoring of sports organizations like the PBR and bull riders like Nunnemaker is "extremely enlightened." "This is, I think, an excellent approach," he says.

Still, he's cautious. "It is just one approach," he adds. "As just rodeo, it's not complete. But a series of these could be very effective for the Army to reach this target audience. Extreme sports -- skateboarding, motocross, wakeboarding, snowboarding -- the lesser sports that are populated by young men, which are not covered on Sunday afternoons on CBS like a golf tournament or an NFL game, are basically untapped and very attractive. In a sense, what the Army is doing is branding rodeo, and inserting itself into that experience in a way that you can't take a TiVo and fast-forward through the commercials."

Speaking via phone from his home in Los Altos Hills, Sealey explains the problems with addressing 18- to 24-year-olds. "There has been an enormous brouhaha in the advertising community over the Neilsen rating service [for television], which recently showed a precipitous drop-off in this demographic. I'm talking about this demographic because that is the demographic of the United States Army; that is what they're going after. There is great controversy as to whether or not we are reaching this group with traditional media. They are the hardest to reach. They are very much into video games, extreme sports, and the Internet. In fact, the thought today is that this group is probably spending more hours per week on video games and the Internet than watching television. Which is a profound change from even five years ago."

Thomas Tiernan, chief of the Outreach Division of the Army's Accessions Command Strategic Outreach Directorate (which manages the branch's ad campaigns and partnerships), couldn't agree more. "It is a very different set of challenges than the ones that faced us in 1973, at the beginning of the all-volunteer Army," he says from his headquarters in Fort Knox, Ky. "There were only three network television channels back then -- the 'big three.' But we can't afford to use traditional media like that to meet [new recruits] like we need to. We have to see where kids go, where they will be the most receptive to our message."

Starting in 2000, that's where the Army went. Since the kids were playing video games and surfing the Web, the branch had developers at the Monterey Naval Postgraduate School design America's Army, a free, downloadable combat simulator, and a sleek overhaul of its Web site (www.goarmy.com), where you can watch high-energy, episodic recruiting videos that look like reality TV, or blast dastardly terrorists with a few clicks of the mouse.

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