Sgt. Cory Elder smiled as he surveyed the field of battle. There were soldiers everywhere—300 camouflaged combatants gripping machine guns and barking into walkie-talkies. There were smoke grenades. There were Humvees. There was even an airplane. But despite all the accoutrements, this was hardly Fallujah, and these troops—in Coram, N.Y., last Sunday to play a paintball game called Behind Enemy Lines—were only weekend warriors. For now, that is. Hoping to convert today's wanna-bes into tomorrow's cadets, Elder, an Army recruiter, had stocked an "Army of One" tent with key chains, coffee mugs, footballs, baseball caps, T shirts and customized dog tags. Soon, a bunch of teenage boys were grasping for the prizes—and giving recruiters their names, numbers and e-mails in return. "This is our target audience," says Elder. "It's a perfect match."
Though paintball won't replace bonuses or benefits as a top recruiting tool anytime soon, the fast-growing sport has emerged in recent months as a promising source of fresh fighters at a time when the armed forces are stretched thin. Keenly aware that paintball's 10.4 million participants make it more popular among Americans than baseball, surfing or snowboarding, Elder, a player himself, began trolling Long Island events for prospects late last year. After five "low-key" trips, his unit has signed up two new troops and identified another 50 who "seem interested." Recruiters in Minnesota, Pennsylvania, California, Chicago and North Dakota have also scoped out paintball events. Encouraged by such progress, the Army last month inked a $100,000 ad deal with Paintball Sports magazine, offering up tanks, choppers and—naturally—a huge Army recruiting booth for the 2,000-player Long Island Big Game in May. "We're watching Long Island as a pilot program to see whether there's enough interest to take this across the country," says Col. Donald Bartholomew of U.S. Army Recruiting Command at Fort Knox, Ky.
While extreme sports are familiar fodder for recruiters—finding soldiers for a draft-free war means meeting prospects "where they already are," like NASCAR races, says Bartholomew—paintball may offer a more direct path to potential troops. The combat vibe is key. In a typical match, devotees shoot each other with spherical gelatin capsules traveling at 200mph. Some paintballers join teams with names like Commando Elite and crisscross the country to participate in colossal, strategic re-enactments of, say, the Battle of Stalingrad. In Coram, stonemason Seth Weiland (code name: "Tackleberry") arrived with an arsenal of paintball-enabled rocket launchers, claymores and explosive mines. Such enthusiasm is half the battle. "Where else can you find young men who have a better-than-average idea of how to conduct themselves in a firefight?" says Jason Elliott, a paintballer from Melbourne, Fla.
Still, the military's interest has some enthusiasts worried. Although paintball started (and thrives) in the woods, a newer form of play has recently given the game a gloss that's more "American Gladiators" than American grunts. Called "speedball," it boasts vivid jerseys, high-tech "markers" that can cost $1,500 and indoor fields arrayed with colorful inflatable bunkers. Speedball's athletic image has proven palatable to parents, principals and programmers at ESPN2, which airs the National Professional Paintball League championship series. When word of the Army's interest hit the Web, speedballers fretted that any hint of warmongering might stall the mainstream acceptance they crave. "The general public assumes paintballers are playing 'war games'," wrote one poster on PBNation.com, the Web's largest paintball forum. "Being associated with the military is just one more small piece of negative reinforcement."
Paul Pertessis, for one, isn't perturbed. An 18-year-old employee of the Coram facility, High Velocity Paintball, he plans to visit a few colleges after graduating from high school in June. But that's just to please mom. Pertessis has his heart set on the military—thanks in part to Elder, who would often ask Pertessis about tweaks to his paintball gun. "Every time, he'd tell me to take the military entrance exam," says Pertessis. "So one day I thought, What's the harm?" Pertessis scored well enough to qualify for an intelligence post. But lately he's been dreaming of another gig: gunner on a Black Hawk helicopter. "That'd be badass," he says. Mission accomplished.