Against All Odds: Recruiting Sailors Who Never Give Up

Friday, September 1, 2017
Operations Specialist 2nd Class Joshua Mullen from Wartrace.
Navy Office of Community Outreach

The recruiter was worried when the young man walked into the Navy Recruiting Station in Columbia, Tenn. He had arrived two days early for his boot camp shipping date and Operations Specialist 2nd Class Joshua Mullen thought something might be wrong. Knowing that he didn’t have a car, Mullen asked him how he made it to the station.

“I walked,” said the future Sailor, according to Mullen.

Mullen was stunned when he remembered that it normally takes an hour by car to go to the county where he lived. It wasn’t the first time that this young man had stunned Mullen. Nor would it be the last.

Mullen had met him soon after he reported to Navy Recruiting District Nashville in July 2015. He was working a table at a college day fair, when a 17-year-old high school senior skipped past all the other tables and stopped in front of him. The young man confidently told him that he wanted to join the U.S. Navy.

Mullen learned more about him and followed up the next week. When he found out that he couldn’t make it to the station, Mullen made the trip to see him at his home. That was the first time Mullen was truly shocked.

“It was the roughest situation I’ve ever seen. It was bad,” Mullen said.

And Mullen knew what bad could look like. He grew up poor about 50 miles away in Wartrace, Tenn., with his mother and two siblings in public housing.

But when he saw this run-down trailer and the situation inside, he didn’t forget it.

After administering a practice test with the young man, he gave him two weeks to study for the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB). The young man studied and passed with a high enough score to join. However, he was 17 and still needed a parental signature.

Mullen prepared the paperwork but was quickly and forcefully rejected by the mother.

“She screamed and threatened me. Later the young man called me to apologize and said, ‘I guess we will have to wait until I turn 18,’” said Mullen.

Sure enough, soon after he turned 18, Mullen saw the same young man at his office. Nearly a year had passed, but it was the same person and, in a shock to Mullen, he was in the same clothes. But as Mullen recalls, he never complained. He was always waiting outside his trailer to be picked up for the monthly meeting and dedicated himself to learning everything he could about the Navy’s rules and regulations before he left for boot camp. Still Mullen was worried that something might stop him from making the final trip to Great Lakes, Ill.

One month before he was scheduled to leave, Mullen received a phone call at 10:30 p.m. A storm had blown through this young man’s town and taken the roof over his bedroom with it. All his possessions were ruined. He had no clothes to change into and didn’t know what to do. Mullen grabbed some of his extra clothes from his house and picked him up. He took him to stay with the young man’s father, who live nearby and was unaware of the situation. To this day, Mullen cannot forget the ordeal or the perseverance of the young man.

“He could have stopped so many times but he didn’t. And I think if he never gave up on us, why should we ever give up on him? If he needs me at 10:30 at night, I’ll go,” Mullen said.

Things settled down for a time until Mullen saw the tired young man, having walked for hours, standing at his office two days before boot camp. Mullen learned that his phone had been shut off and he was no longer able to stay at his father’s house. He had nowhere to go. Mullen immediately called another future Sailor who knew this young man and asked if he could help him for a few days. He agreed and that future Sailor’s family helped the young man get a haircut, a few meals and a place to stay.

“When he swore in that final time before he left, it was the parents of that other future Sailor who were standing there with him to see him ship off. I get chills just thinking about it,” Mullen said.

Mullen was still worried that maybe something would happen in boot camp and he might not make it through. He kept an eye on the calendar and wondered how he was holding up. Then he got a phone call.

“When I answered, all I heard was tears. It went on for a long time and I finally hung up because I couldn’t make out who it was. And then the person called me back and I recognized him. He told me he graduated early and said, ‘All I want to do is thank you for all you did for me and always being there. If at any point in your life I can repay you in some way, just let me know.”

Mullen was overwhelmed with excitement.

“I told him, ‘Just go enjoy yourself,’” said Mullen.

This experience and the 41 other stories of people that Mullen has helped put in the Navy are what keep him motivated even on difficult days.

“The reason I can like recruiting is because I love going to schools and talking to people. I love that more than anything else. In our area, it’s very common to come across someone who has parents that are not around, for one reason or another. And many of them feel their entire life that they will never amount to anything. But when they sit down and talk to us and realize that they have a chance to do something, seeing that excitement is the best part. I’ve been hugged and I’ve been cried on after someone just swore in and it’s because they never thought they could do this. That is the main thing that gets me going,” said Mullen.

“I can relate based on where I came from in Tennessee. I came from a small town with nothing to do. Then I turn around now to go home and my friends think I’m this war hero. I’m just a recruiter but I get more respect now than when I played basketball in high school,” said Mullen.

Mullen’s analogy to basketball is not without significant meaning. To some people basketball is a just a sport to watch at night, but growing up in a small town in Tennessee, it was more than that to him. It was his ticket and his passion. Both his siblings joined the Army, but he was set on college basketball. That was until his blew out his ankle while practicing for an important tryout. In an instant, his dreams were crushed. But he didn’t give up. He adapted and joined the Navy and overcame a great defeat.

Recently, he took over duties as the leading petty officer of NRS Columbia which was recognized in July as the Best Station in Nation and Small Station of the Month for NRD Nashville. Around the same time, he also was recognized as the Junior Sailor of the Quarter for the district.

When he’s not at work finding the next future Sailor, he is usually playing basketball. The ankle has healed and every morning and night he makes time to shoot. He remembers his love for the sport and never forgets the lives that he has had a chance to impact.

Reflecting on the young man who wanted to join the Navy against all odds, Mullen can’t contain his excitement for his success and his future.

“It’s been my one pride and joy. I hope he stays in the Navy for the rest of his life and I can’t wait to see him again one day,” Mullen said.

Navy Recruiting District Nashville is responsible for recruiting efforts throughout more than 100,000 square miles of the states of Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Kentucky and Virginia.