By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Recently, Leal has talked with parents who are angry about measures passed in Farmers Branch that target illegal immigrants. "They say, 'Farmers Branch wants to kick us out—why would we want our kids to work for the government?' And we have to explain that that's not us," he says. But most reluctant parents just don't want their kids to move away and be in danger. Leal's own mother felt the same way when he joined.
Leal is quiet and boyishly handsome, with clear brown eyes and a smile full of crowded teeth. Recently married and a new father, he was raised between Oak Cliff and Wilmer; his mother is from Mexico and his father from a large Hispanic family with roots in Dallas. His grandfather started the Dallas Tortillas restaurants in the 1950s, and his uncles run them today. Leal was working at one as a cashier and server when he decided to join the Army.
"It just hit me," he says. "I was 19, going to Eastfield Community College, making $500 every two weeks, and I thought, 'I don't want to depend on this, I want to do something on my own.' I was tired of going to school, going to work and coming home smelling like food." He walked into the DeSoto recruiting station and, a week later, he'd enlisted.
His mother wept when he told her. "She was like, 'Oh my God, you're going into the military, you're going to die!'" he says. "At first I felt kind of shitty about it, but then I got over it. I explained the benefits, and by the time I left for boot camp she was OK."
Leal opted to be a tank driver, since "driving around in a big piece of armor shooting rounds downrange sounded like fun," and a year later he found himself driving into Baghdad during the invasion. The worst moment during his year there was hearing that a friend, a father of two, had been shot in the back of the head at close range while guarding a hospital. The best was the time one of the guys accidentally shot himself in the leg on New Year's and they had weeks' worth of jokes about ringing in the New Year with a bang.
When he talks about Iraq and the likelihood that he'll go back, Leal grows calm and speaks with an almost religious fatalism, a faith in his place in the world that keeps him firmly planted in his commitment.
"I'm a soldier. I'm going to do what I have to do, whether it's here recruiting or out there on the line. I tell people there's probably a good chance of going, but you have to meet your maker at some point. It could happen here in Dallas, with the crime rate we've got, or it could happen there. With every job there's a sacrifice; with some, the sacrifices are more extreme than others, like this one.
"My number might come up—I may have to go back. Is my wife gonna be crushed? Yes. Will my child miss me? Probably. But with all the Army has given me, it's the sacrifice I have to make. And it may be to give my life."
It's this commitment that propels him to walk the halls of schools and Wal-Marts looking for recruits, even though it's not a job he chose. To staff its recruiting stations across the country, the Army pulls soldiers with high test scores and good behavior and assigns them to two-year recruiting tours. On a recent day, Leal steps into the Wal-Mart on Midway Road and with a practiced motion, swiftly removes the black beret from his head. Not many men take off their hats when they enter a building anymore, but he hews closely to traditional etiquette.
"If I'm not at the schools, I go shopping. And when I meet the salespeople, that's when it happens," he says, sauntering past rows of detergent and hand soap. "I'll be looking for a faucet, so I'll go to a certain salesman who shows me a certain kind and say, 'Hey, do you like this job? What do you think about the military?' That could turn into a lead, a lead turns into a prospect and a prospect turns into an applicant. Four is a good time to come—the kids are out of school, the parents come shopping." Though he can contact up to 40 potential recruits per hour over the phone, he prefers walking around and talking to people in person.
After Wal-Mart, he heads to Hillcrest High School and pops into the attendance office, where the secretaries flash him wide smiles. Then he heads over to the JROTC class, which is held in one of the mobile classrooms. Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps, an elective whose mission statement is "To motivate young people to be better citizens," focuses on leadership, responsibility and teamwork by studying military ranks and formations and placing students in positions such as first sergeant and platoon leader. Most kids who choose the class are either interested in the military or looking for an easy elective. JROTC is technically separate from military recruiting efforts, but the classes are often the recruiters' way into the schools, which are required to provide access to military recruiters under a provision of the No Child Left Behind Act.