OCEAN CITY - At this weekend's OC Air Show, you'll hear jet engines scream, helicopters whirr, and the oohs and ahhs of thousands of visitors.
Beneath the din, along the Boardwalk, listen closely and you might also hear an enthusiastic young man or woman asking: "How do I get to fly one of those?"
On the surface, air shows are about tourism and the spectacle of military might. But such large-scale events also are a cornerstone of military recruiting. Representatives from several branches of the armed services will be here during the OC Air Show -- and they're pumped that it dovetails with Senior Week.
"When I found out that it was Senior Week, I was like, wow, what a perfect time for us to be down there," said Staff Sgt. Thomas Chiusano, an Air Force marketing representative whose recruiting squadron covers Delaware, New Jersey and eastern Philadelphia. "It's not only going to be a great event for them to see the air show but it's going to be a big opportunity for us to touch thousands of high school seniors who are getting ready to graduate, who may not know what their future's going to hold, whether it's going to be college or the military. Down on the Boardwalk is a prime location, because you're going to have so much traffic."
The military's marketing toolbox is has expanded beyond handing out ball-point pens or T-shirts. At the Inlet parking lot, the Army's "Virtual Army Experience" offers a life-sized video game where players take their seat in a real helicopter and Humvee to battle digital insurgents across an array of garage door-sized screens. Later, players get to watch footage of their game play -- or rather, the "mission" -- and are encouraged to "continue the mission" and "join the team."
At the Army exhibit, Sgt. Jason Mike said many youths have their own preconceived notions about the military. His job, he said, is to educate people about exactly what they do.
"They're starting to see that a lot of myths and misconceptions are being downplayed," he said. "They're actually seeing what it takes to be a U.S. Army soldier. We have a lot of things people can't offer in the civilian world. People are starting to see this no longer as a last-resort option -- that, hey, this is something I can put on a resume, this is something that can help me out in life, especially for young kids out of high school."
Mike said he stresses the benefits of the job, things that civilian life doesn't offer, to young people who might not have a set career path.
"I'm gonna preach Army, but you gotta see what's best suited for you," he said. "If you're serving, period, in a uniform, you've made one sacrifice a lot of people don't want to make."
Sacrifices that Mike himself made led to his being featured in another innovative Army marketing tool: Action figures.
He and seven other soldiers are featured as 4-inch plastic figurines, as part of the Army's "Real Heroes" program that uses actual events as the basis for toys. Mike's action figure puts him in a khaki uniform with black body armor, carrying a big gun in each hand. It's a testament to the Palm Sunday raid in Iraq, where he saved three soldiers' lives by firing two assault rifles at once to take out insurgents. For this, he was awarded the Silver Star.
When asked about his heroics, Mike is deferential: "Any American is capable of doing something extraordinary."
Also at the Inlet lot was Maj. Jeremy Bushyager, a professor of military science at Johns Hopkins University and an enrollment officer with their Army ROTC program. As the exhibit continues through June 21, he expects about 800 visitors daily.
Bushyager said they're not personally recruiting anyone -- they're "only here to preach" -- but they'll gladly point you in the direction of the adjacent recruiter's tent.
Chiusano, the Air Force recruiter, said the No. 1 question posed to him by young people is: "If I join, do I have to go to war?"
"And the easiest way to answer that question is: No matter what branch of service you do join, there is that opportunity that you would have to deploy to a war zone," he said. "You can't just tell somebody, 'No, you'll never see that happen,' because the times that we're living in now, they're different. But at the same time, there are a lot of good things that come, from the education to traveling to recreation stuff. A lot of folks tend to focus on the negative stuff."