Tag Archives: Army recruiter

Army’s top recruiter draws inspiration from troubled past

Army News Service

For Staff Sgt. Ernie Nieves, the Army’s top recruiter for fiscal year 2016, being a recruiter is the perfect opportunity to give back to the community.

“I treat every applicant like they are family, like my own children,” he said. “My job gives me a platform to mentor, teach and motivate them to do better for themselves and those around them.”

In fiscal year 2016 his recruiting efforts resulted in 50 enlistments. But in his free time, Nieves also mentors high-risk kids from the urban streets of Chicago. Nieves estimates he has mentored about 24 kids since 1992, but he’s not keeping score.

On weekdays, weekends and evenings, he mentors kids in schools, in their home, and in parks — anywhere and everywhere he can. All kids need some form of mentoring, he believes.

With each new generation, kids seem to him further detached from core values, self worth and overall motivation. Nieves tells his kids not to accept or engage in the violence they are exposed to on the streets. He tells them that there is a better life.

“I never give up on people,” Nieves said. “Gang and gun violence is not normal. [Violence] is not and should not be accepted. A true hero inspires change, one life at a time.”

He believes that many kids who join gangs do so because they lack role models, financial resources, or stable families. For many of them, the gang lifestyle is all they know.

Reaching out

Nieves still remembers when the ice cream trucks would come around the neighborhoods; the gang leaders would buy ice cream for all the kids in hopes of recruiting them. They made the kids feel protected, like they belonged to something much greater than themselves.

Before mentoring directly to the youths, Nieves said, he would meet with gang leaders to request that they release the youths. The meetings actually surprised some leaders, who responded positively. But as the years have passed, Nieves has found this approach is becoming more difficult.

“Most of the leaders do not have any sense of tradition, respect or value for anything or anyone,” Nieves said.

On the other side, Nieves said, he has mentored kids whose parents are barely involved in their kids’ lives.

The last protégé he mentored was homeless only six months ago. Now that recruit is in Army basic training.

Drawing on a troubled past

Nieves believes his blended family and his own experiences as a gang-involved youth allow him to relate to the youths he helps. The Puerto Rico-born NCO moved to Chicago at age 5. Several years later, his parents divorced and his father left.

“This left a huge void in my life, and I was left to fill that void with the only example of family and fatherhood I knew, the local gang members,” Nieves said.

At 9, Nieves joined a gang. Two years later, he said, gang members betrayed him and stabbed him with an ice pick in his knee. So he joined an opposing gang to which several of his family members already belonged. He claims that he became gang president at age 13.

During his years in a gang, Nieves said, he was shot on three separate occasions. The first time, he was shot in the leg during a gunfight with an older man from an opposing gang. The second occurred after an ambush, when he was shot in the arm as he tried to run into a house.

“The entire house was shot up. Bullet holes through the door and windows,” Nieves recalled.

On the third occasion, he was hit in the foot by a ricocheting round.

At age 16, Nieves had a son, and he began having dreams of being shot while in a vehicle. In his dreams, the rounds would go through him and hit his son in the back seat. He decided it was time to leave the gang life behind.

“It was then that I decided that this was no life for my son,” he recalled. “I had to give him more.”

Nieves graduated from Chicago’s Wells Community Academy high school in 1990. After years of self-employment in real estate, he enlisted in the Army at age 31 in 2004. He joined the Army Reserve so he could stay close to his children.


Today, Nieves considers integrity the most important Army value.

“You must be able to do what you ask others to do and, finally, you have to care about those you lead,” he said. “I admire people that inspire without seeking personal attention — everyone that makes a difference in the lives of those around them.”

Nieves loves the city of Chicago and said his “heart hurts with the lack of life-changing programs.”

“People here are very unique,” he said. “Unfortunately, Chicago still remains somewhat segregated racially.”

He heads a blended family household with eight children. He and his wife, a retired Chicago police officer, have two sons in the active Army. One is stationed at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, and the other is a Ranger stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia. Both are serving in military intelligence.

Nieves plans to retire in about 10 years. After retirement, he said, he plans to mentor full-time. Currently, he is researching ways to create an interactive mentorship program that can serve as a template for anyone who wants to become a mentor.

“I want to have a mentorship program in every major inner city throughout the country,” he said. “I want to light a fire in as many people as possible to inspire change, one person at a time.”

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley pins the Army Commendation Medal on Staff Sgt. Ernie Nieves while meeting Soldiers serving in the Chicago Recruiting Battalion on Nov. 12, 2016. (Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Chuck Burden)
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley pins the Army Commendation Medal on Staff Sgt. Ernie Nieves while meeting Soldiers serving in the Chicago Recruiting Battalion on Nov. 12, 2016. (Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Chuck Burden)

From the Field: An NCO’s journey to recruiting

Sarasota, Fl., Recruiting Company

It was Christmas Eve 2007 in Fallujah, Iraq, and we were making our second move to Baghdad. Before moving out, we left our outpost and made a trip to Camp Fallujah to call home. While waiting for my Soldiers to finish their calls, I checked my email and found a message announcing that I had been selected for recruiting duty. I wasn’t happy about the news. I went to my squadron headquarters and begged and pleaded my command sergeant major to get me out of this assignment. His response was, “It will be good for your career.” This was not what I wanted to hear. I forced the news to the back of my mind. After all, I had bigger things to worry about in Iraq.

Fast forward seven months, and as I arrived at the Army Recruiting Course (ARC), I was still unhappy about what the Army had asked me to do. But I was also determined to make the best of it. Overwhelmed with all the classes and regulations that were covered, I was definitely outside of my comfort zone. I reflected back on my early years as a Soldier — scared, nervous and unsure; the ARC made me feel like a private again.

I requested to be assigned to the New England Recruiting Battalion in hopes that I would get to go back home for three years. I was shocked when I was granted my first choice. I later found out that recruiting in this area was more difficult than other areas in the command, and most Soldiers would never ask for this location. Looking back, I made the correct choice. Recruiting in a tough market forced me to develop the strong work ethic necessary to be successful in the U.S. Army Recruting Command and has continued to help me to this day.

I learned as much as I could at the ARC, but the most important lesson came when the instructors reminded us that we were only learning the basics at the schoolhouse. They said that we would hone our skills when we reported to our recruiting centers. I remember hoping that was true, because I had no clue what I was supposed to do.

By the time I arrived at the recruiting center in December 2008, less than a year after I was notified of my recruiting assignment, my outlook had improved only slightly. But I have always been successful in my career, regardless of whether I liked the job. So, I set out to make myself successful and accomplish my assigned mission. I stuck to the basics I learned at the ARC, speaking to anyone who looked qualified.

Recruiters from the Virginia National Guard man a display outside the Virginia War Memorial in Richmond, Virginia, during a 236th Army Birthday celebration in June 2011. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Andrew H. Owen)
Recruiters from the Virginia National Guard meet with the public in June 2011 outside the Virginia War Memorial in Richmond, Virginia, during a 236th Army Birthday celebration. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Andrew H. Owen)

On Christmas Eve, I enlisted my first two applicants — one as a 37F (psychological operations) and one as a 92G (food service specialist). I still keep in touch with them and have followed their careers. The 37F is now a staff sergeant at Fort Bragg, N.C., and the 92G is studying pre-med at the University of Massachusetts. You remember your first enlistment like you remember your drill sergeant; these are significant moments in your life. You feel proud that you made a difference in someone’s life, especially when he or she goes on to be successful.

I got into the groove fast, and I became successful much more quickly than I anticipated. As a result of great leadership and hard work, I was selected as the top new recruiter two years in a row. I had the opportunity to give young men and women a purpose and to be part of something bigger than themselves. I enjoyed shaking the hands of my new enlistees and always loved seeing the Soldiers when they came back from basic training. The kids who didn’t fear me as their recruiter came back standing at parade rest saying “sergeant” after every sentence. I also enjoyed seeing my enlistees’ physical and mental changes — each of the new Soldiers thinking they could take over the world. This will always be why I do this job: being able to help people while providing strength for the Army.

As I approached the two-year mark of a three-year tour in recruiting, I was being counseled by my first sergeant about converting. I told him that I enjoyed what I do, but that I missed having a job that was relevant. I missed kicking in doors in Iraq. I missed the firefights. And I missed making a difference. He had a perplexed look on his face and asked me, “How many people have you put in the Army?” I said, “About 60.” He looked at me and said, “What’s more relevant, 60 doors being kicked in or one door being kicked in, 60 M4s being fired or one?”

I understood the point he was making and understood that I was doing more as a recruiter than I did as a cavalry scout. For me, the greatest honor will always be that I made the Army better because of the Soldiers I recruited.

Sgt. 1st Class Stephan Behan is serving as the Sarasota Recruiting Center Leader in Sarasota, Fl.