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.

Jaron Nunnemaker: The new face of Army recruiting.
Paolo Vescia
Jaron Nunnemaker: The new face of Army recruiting.
Nunnemaker prepares in the chute.
Paolo Vescia
Nunnemaker prepares in the chute.
Nunnemaker atop Iceman at Reno's "Bullnanza."
Paolo Vescia
Nunnemaker atop Iceman at Reno's "Bullnanza."
Nunnemaker congratulates another rider after a 
qualifying ride.
Paolo Vescia
Nunnemaker congratulates another rider after a qualifying ride.
Nunnemaker fixes his spur backstage at "Bullnanza."
Paolo Vescia
Nunnemaker fixes his spur backstage at "Bullnanza."

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."

Until 1973, the Army used print advertising -- the unyielding finger-point of Uncle Sam, the flexed biceps of Rosie the Riveter -- mostly as patriotic propaganda. But when President Nixon discontinued the draft after Vietnam, things changed: The Army could no longer count on acquiring soldiers through selective service, and recruiting became crucial to populating the military. The Army men called in the admen.

After almost a decade of stumbling through heavy-handed mottoes like "Today's Army Wants to Join You," "Join the People Who've Joined the Army," and "This Is the Army," the service hired the New York agency NW Ayer & Partners, where Earl Carter, a copywriter, coined "Be All You Can Be." The slogan debuted in a 1981 TV ad that presented a dashing Army Ranger dressing to a swell of electric guitars. The catch phrase not only outlasted the Cold War, but it was also named one of the most successful branding phrases of the century by leading trade publication Advertising Age.

But in the late '90s, studies showed that its effectiveness was starting to lag. When the Army fell 6,300 new recruits short of its target (roughly 100,000 a year) during the 1999 fiscal year, it was the first time in the history of the all-volunteer service that it had missed its goal. It was time for new lingo. Enter the "Army of One."

The service tapped Chicago's Leo Burnett Co., the most award-winning agency in advertising, whose portfolio includes Ronald McDonald, the Marlboro Man, and Tony the Tiger. After a yearlong effort, a shiny new slogan debuted in 2001 during a 60-second spot in the middle of a top-rated season of NBC's Friends.

The ad began with a lone soldier running through the desert. "I am an Army of one," said a voice-over as the soldier passed a formation of other troops without giving them a look. "Even though there are 1,045,690 soldiers like me, I am my own force. With technology, with training, with support, who I am has become better than who I was."

During a press conference at the time, an account executive at Leo Burnett explained that the campaign aimed to present an image that fostered individual growth. "Today's youths want to be part of a team, to be part of something larger than themselves," the executive said. "What they don't want to be are faceless robots, lost in a mass."

But the $150 million "Army of One" campaign had instant adversaries, who thought the phrase misrepresented the essential duties of military service, which values teamwork and following orders. Watching the group of new recruits at Reno's "Bullnanza" bark the enlistment oath, to "... obey the orders of the president of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me," it's easy to see why.

Regardless of what the skeptics said, it worked. According to the Army, the fresh ads sparked a 167 percent increase in visits to the branch's recruiting Web site and boosted the number of daily calls to its toll-free recruiting line by 42 percent.

But the freshly minted slogan was only a small part of the Army's new recruiting line of attack. Getting rid of the old look and the old jingle was Step 1; getting rid of the outdated marketing strategy -- which relied almost exclusively on television, radio, and print -- and into the sports arena, the racetrack, and the bullring was next.

Seated in the heart of Mendocino County, Willits mixes the rural character of Shasta Cascade ranching towns with the bohemian spirit of the North Coast. There are plenty of pickup trucks cruising Main Street, but many of their bumpers carry stickers with slogans like "Defend America, Defeat Bush." The town of 5,027 residents has the oldest continuous annual rodeo in the country, which takes place on a patch of dirt two blocks from the high school football field. One block away from that field is the War Veterans Memorial Building, where a poster in the window offers a modern rendering of Uncle Sam above the words "If You Can't Get Money for College From Your Parents, Get It From Your Uncle" and directions to the local military recruiting office.

Nunnemaker's real uncle, his mom's brother, gave him money for college so that he didn't have to enlist. He says, "If I had nine lives, [the service] would be one of them," but since he only has one, he went to school. He studied business and accounting at Humboldt State, and was just a semester short of a degree when he left to spend 300 days on the road during his rookie year on the bull-riding circuit.

Aside from the time at college, Nunnemaker has lived in Willits his whole life. He grew up here, played football and wrestled for the Willits Wolverines, and is well known and liked around town. The only tangle he's ever had with the local authorities is when he got in the way of a biker who was punching his girlfriend outside a bar on Main Street. After his stint in the PBR, he'll raise his family here, maybe run heavy equipment for his father-in-law and breed his own pen of bucking bulls.

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.

That same year, the Army began addressing kids' infatuation with extreme sports. Since the mid-'70s, the service had advertised during televised sporting events, but in 2000 the branch's brand started to become an integral part of the events themselves -- all of a sudden there were Army races, Army teams, and professional Army athletes. According to Tiernan, the first Army partnership, with the National Hot Rod Association, created 20,000 leads, and of that number, 2 percent, or 400 people, enlisted.

With this minor but telltale success, the Army began a full marketing assault on extreme sports. The next deal involved NASCAR driver Jerry Nadeau. For $16 million, the Army pasted its logo on the hood, doors, trunk, and driver of the 200mph billboard that was Car No. 1 (to echo "Army of One"), tapping into NASCAR's rapidly growing, rabidly loyal TV audience. Other businesses that were not strictly commercial enterprises followed suit, including the U.S. Postal Service's venture into professional cycling, but the Army's effort was different: It was the first time that sports sponsorships were used to encourage people to do something rather than buy something. Today that means they encourage people to sign up for the most lethal active duty since Vietnam.

The Army acquired properties in an assortment of other second-tier sports -- niche events with huge growth potential and low sponsorship costs. For the price of a single Super Bowl halftime commercial, it made deals with professional motocross and the Arena Football League; in April, for an undisclosed sum, it added the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and the Professional Bull Riders. For about $1 million, the Army also partnered with Nunnemaker and his fellow riders.

"Bull riders embody the tenets of the Warrior Ethos through their commitment to their mission, by never accepting defeat, never quitting and through the camaraderie among them," Army officials said in a press release that announced the PBR partnership.

"These guys have a lot of the same values of kids we'd like to see in the Army," explains Steve Johnson, an executive at Relay Sponsorship and Event Marketing, the agency that brokered the deal between the Army and Nunnemaker's agent. "And for Jaron, it's a way to differentiate himself from the other riders, save the three people on his team. In some ways the criteria we were looking at was obvious -- kids with a clean nose in the way they're living, their personal character, and their chances for success."

Nunnemaker's chances for taking the gold buckle at the PBR World Championship this season are slight: His rank hovers in the middle of the 75-man field. But he's right for the deal for other reasons.

"Jaron's perfect for the Army," says his longtime friend and fellow California rider Tony Mendez. "He just has that Army look."

That look is common to a lot of the fans and riders of the PBR. And despite the fact that audiences at Army-partnered sports are mostly white and rural, according to both Tiernan and Sealey it's just a matter of time before these promotional tools will have an effect on diverse urban areas like San Francisco.

"Remember, these rural sports have a great potential to cross over," reminds Sealey. "Good old boys bootlegging in the Southeastern United States -- which is the origin of NASCAR -- now have a major national sport. I would think that rural communities are probably disproportionate in the U.S. Army, in the same way that minorities are overrepresented in the Army. At first, you're not going to recruit a young man on Chestnut Street in San Francisco; you go to Alexandria, Louisiana, where there is a different kind of economic opportunity available to these people than there would be in San Francisco or San Diego. But eventually, that message will reach San Francisco."

Nunnemaker is thrilled to be able to spread the Army message. Now every time he dresses in his uniform he feels called to a patriotic duty. "I have the greatest, most powerful Army in the world on my sleeve. That is an awesome feeling," he says. "I didn't join the Army; it's kinda like the Army joined me," he adds, nearly echoing the branch's first ad campaign. The lucrative, exclusive deal also provided him some financial stability in a sport that otherwise has none. Before the Army gig, Nunnemaker's income depended entirely on the eight-second ride. If he was bucked off or disqualified, he would return home in debt from travel expenses. Given that the odds heavily favor the bulls, it's almost impossible to eke out a living by riding alone. With the Army contract, Nunnemaker gets paid per performance.

In return, the Army gains a face and brand recognition -- and, ideally, thousands of new soldiers. The branch's gold and white star has become an omnipresent symbol at PBR events, decorating riders and the arena. And Nunnemaker and his teammates will do more for their country than just ride bulls: Their contracts require that they begin their short fall off-season by going to boot camp (Nunnemaker delights at the prospect of jumping out of planes and practicing shooting), touring the country to address high schoolers, visiting wounded soldiers in Army hospitals, and possibly dropping in on troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. That's a lot more obligation than if you ride for Jack Daniel's.

When Nunnemaker speaks of his Army deal, he makes nebulous statements about patriotism, duty, and responsibility that almost always include the word "awesome." Even when he returned home from Washington, D.C.'s Walter Reed Army Medical Center (the facility that treated Jessica Lynch), where he recently visited soldiers who had lost limbs in Iraq, he said the trip was "awesome." But he wasn't prepared for the experience.

"There were some kids in there -- and they're all just kids, 18-, 19-year-old kids -- saying things like, 'I hope I can get a prosthesis and go back to my job, go back to active duty,'" Nunnemaker recalls. "They're just trying to do their job. One said, 'I just hope I don't have to sit behind a desk.' And I cried. That's heart. To sustain what they sustain and want to just do your job, it's courageous.

"One kid, his mother was there, and I seen a college course book with classes and whatnot," he continues. "And I asked him if he was enrolling in some classes, and he says, 'Yeah, I've been thinking about it.' And I said, 'Keep your mind busy. That's what you got now.' He was missing both legs. He'll have to make a living with his mind now. Enroll in classes -- I encouraged him to do that. 'Just get your hands on some books and read 'em. Read the Good Book, too.' Now his life is going to be different. He's going to make the best of it; he's a strong person."

The porch of Nunnemaker's new home still smells like cut cedar and varnish, and the view it offers in the early evening is dramatic, with the warm, sidelit hills of the Sierras forming the horizon line. I finally ask him the question I've wanted to ask all day: Would he want to be a soldier himself?

"Well, I love hunting and shooting," he answers quietly, not quite grasping the gravity of the question. "And, I mean, those skills would probably help me be a good soldier, and the military would probably fine-tune them and give me more skills to make me a better soldier. But I wouldn't be where I'm at right now." He gestures up to the house, where his son is asleep. "I wouldn't have that baby boy sitting up there right now. And I wouldn't trade that for anything. I'm pleased with the road I took, and I wouldn't change that. I'm thankful for where life has taken me."

Show Pages
My Voice Nation Help
Sort: Newest | Oldest
San Francisco Concert Tickets
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.