Tim Casper, a crew cut-sporting 15-year-old from Victorville, peered into the computer monitor and hunched slightly as he maneuvered the video game's soldier into a flanking position.
Using a keyboard, Casper ordered the soldier to lob a grenade, then slap a new magazine into his assault rifle. Creeping past the burned-out shell of a Humvee, the soldier fired a quick burst into the back of what looked like the enemy.
"That's me, dude," said Jeremy Donnelly, 15, looking up from a video screen across from Casper.
The classmates, both Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps cadets at Victor Valley High School, were playing "America's Army," a realistic, multiplayer combat video game designed by the Army as a recruiting tool.
They were among about 2,000 teenage cadets from 40 local and national high schools who gathered in El Segundo on Saturday to show off their skills in the seventh annual West Coast National JROTC Drill Competition.
Students in crisp dress uniforms performed their drills with straight backs and steeled looks of determination, the heels of their polished shoes clicking on concrete.
Others practiced their flying skills in a Navy flight simulator or peered through infrared sights mounted on military assault rifles.
Across the country, about 3,000 JROTC units such as these teach self-discipline and leadership skills. They are not geared explicitly to recruiting students into the military, officials said. But amid recent military recruiting shortfalls, finding new ways to attract teenagers has become a priority, and recruiters from all branches of the military were out in force.
"It's a lot more difficult to find the best candidates because you're recruiting at a time of war," said Maj. Martin Casado. He is commanding officer of the Los Angeles Marine Corps recruiting station, which reaches from San Luis Obispo to Redondo Beach.
Events like this one, held by Raytheon, one of the nation's largest defense contractors, help the effort, recruiters say.
On display for the hundreds of teenagers, parents, children and veterans who turned out were the tools of war. "Can I pull the plug," a small boy asked his father, clutching a "baseball" grenade from the Vietnam era.
Across the lot, a teenager peered into the steel belly of an M1A1 Abrams tank and said to his friends: "That thing makes me want to join the Army."
"I want my son to go into the military," said Marie Calleja, watching closely as her 9-year-old, Charles, struggled to bring the telescopic sight of an AR-15 assault rifle to his eye. "We don't want him to go over there and get killed, but the percentages are pretty small."
Calleja's husband, Charlie, a Vietnam veteran, agreed. "JROTC programs would be really beneficial for the whole country," he said. "The program will teach them respect and self-discipline. These kids are running wild these days."
Others are concerned about the message the program sends to children with few other opportunities.
"These events are often done in areas where students feel like they have no other options," said Andy Griggs, a member of the Coalition Against Militarism In Our Schools, a Los Angeles group opposed to the recruitment efforts. Griggs said in a phone interview that military recruiters often outnumber college recruiters at poorer schools in Los Angeles.
"It costs the military $18,000 per year to recruit one high school student," he added. "In California, we spend $6,000 a year to educate these students."
For Tim Casper and Jeremy Donnelly, the Army's video simulation of combat is as close as they can get to the real thing, for the moment.
"I want to join either the Marines or the Air Force," Casper said. "I kind of wish I was old enough to be over there now. It's a good cause. The Iraqis are trying to threaten us."
Donnelly, still enthralled by the video game, disagreed without looking up. "I don't think the main threat is Iraqis. I think it's anyone who threatens our freedom."
Turning to Casper, he barked: "Secure that area for me."
Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times