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Army Still Misses Recruiting Targets
Chicago Tribune
April 1, 2005

Cortnee Smith, a high school honors student, last year had her mind set on joining the National Guard. Her parents supported her. Friends in the Army told her what to expect. Smith took a military aptitude test and told school counselors and a recruiter she planned to join after graduation.

But last fall, her father quashed those plans. Michael Smith, himself a former National Guard recruiter, was called to duty last July and shipped to Iraq. What he saw there evidently persuaded him he didn't want his daughter going.

"He was like, 'No, no, don't go,'" said Smith, 17, now a senior at Shepard High School in southwest suburban Palos Heights. "'Tell [the recruiter] to stop contacting you.'"

Cortnee Smith is the face of an alarming problem for the military, as a sharp decline in recruitment has raised fears that the Pentagon could soon confront its biggest manpower crisis in two decades.

The Pentagon announced Wednesday that the active-duty Army achieved only about two-thirds of its recruiting goal for March, and the Army Reserve reached slightly more than halfway to its target. March figures for the National Guard were not yet available.

The active Army was 2,150 recruits short of meeting its March goal of 6,800 new troops, and the Army Reserve fell 739 short of its goal of 1,600. These shortfalls were worse than those in February, when the Army and its reserve components failed to meet recruiting goals for the first time since May 2000.

Army Secretary Francis Harvey has conceded he expects recruiting to fall short in April as well.

Analysts have been predicting military recruiting problems since the start of the Iraq war. Defense experts say the conflicts there and in Afghanistan, along with other military commitments around the world, have stretched American forces to a dangerous level, while simultaneously dissuading recruits from joining up.

Just as the armed forces are facing their most pressing needs since the end of the Vietnam War, many Americans do not see enough of a national cause to warrant their sons, daughters or themselves joining the military, let alone instituting a draft. That has prompted extraordinary Pentagon outreach efforts, from recruiting campaigns at rock concerts to bonuses up to $150,000 for highly trained, veteran special operations troops who re-enlist.

"The need to sound the alarm this year may be greater than any year in recent memory," said Rep. John McHugh (R-N.Y.), who heads a House Armed Services subcommittee responsible for personnel. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said, combined with an improving private job market, could mean a recruiting outlook "that will be the least favorable of the past 20 years."
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Such global concerns may be far from the mind of Cortnee Smith, whose father never told her what it was in Iraq that persuaded him to keep her out of the military. But she does know this: Rather than ship out to Iraq to fight insurgents, she now plans to spend the next few years studying criminology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The military's problem, perhaps, is that there are thousands of Cortnee Smiths. Sgt. Justin Ramsey recently tried to persuade John Gentry, a freshman at a community college outside Portland, Ore., to join the Marines. Gentry seemed interested in the money he might earn, but not if it meant going away for six months to train and eating "that food in little packets."

Out of recruiters' earshot, Gentry, wearing a rumpled T-shirt and flip-flops, conceded that Iraq also worried him. "I wouldn't sign up if I had to go to Iraq," he said. "Why am I going to go risk my life for political [nonsense]?"

Sgt. Armin Englerth, an Army recruiter, said he hears that quite a bit. "I get a lot of the 'we're at war' response," Englerth said. "There's no really great way to address it. It's like, 'OK, we're at war.' I'm not going to tell them they won't go. It's the luck of the draw."

Recruiters say it's the parents of potential recruits, such as Cortnee Smith's father, who often are the biggest impediments. Where young people may view themselves as invincible, parents are painfully aware of their children's mortality.

On a recent Friday, Sgt. Nathan Decavelle, a Marine recruiter, met a high school senior in West Lynn, near Portland, who seemed interested enough in joining the Marines to give the recruiter his name and home address. But when the Marine showed up at the teenager's home on Monday morning, he encountered the boy's irate father instead.

"The dad freaked out on me," Decavelle said. "He was waiting in the front yard when I got there and he went all crazy. He said, 'You just want my son so you can send him to Iraq and send him back home in a body bag.'"

So the military is exhausting every imaginable idea, effort and inducement to keep manpower up and attract qualified troops. Recruiters are hitting NASCAR events, rock concerts, rodeos and rib festivals, using custom-painted Humvees and other gimmicks to attract the masses like old-fashioned traveling salesmen.

Other efforts include a proposal to extend enlistment tours from six years to eight, and offers of financial bonuses. While some special operations forces can receive re-enlistment bonuses of up to $150,000, new recruits to the Army now can earn up to $20,000 in bonuses. For regular Army recruits, the minimum tour of duty is three years.

Some branches meet quotas

The Navy, Air Force and Marines have exceeded their recruitment goals. The Army and its reserve components are experiencing the biggest challenge, because their soldiers are more engaged in combat than the Navy or Air Force, and do not have the elite status of the Marines. The Army needs 80,000 new troops to meet its active-duty requirements for the year, while the Marine Corps needs 38,000.

Within the Army, the biggest fall-off in recruiting is in the Army Reserve and National Guard, ostensibly citizen-soldiers who are being made to serve full time because of the war in Iraq.

The Pentagon announced recently that it was raising the maximum age for Army National Guard recruits from 34 to 39, as well as offering generous new health benefits for Guard and reserve members activated after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Meanwhile, the Army has increased its recruiters in the field from 5,000 to 6,000. It is also making widespread use of its recruiting Web sites, including chat rooms.

The Illinois National Guard, for instance, has divided the state into two regions. Region One, commanded by Maj. Steven Rouse, now has about 60 recruiters, including 15 in the Chicago area, an increase of roughly 30 percent over 2001. And Rouse said he is expecting to get more recruiters.

"We're just not taking advantage of some of the market share," Rouse said. "Chicago has millions of people and we had 10 recruiters. There was one recruiter in all of Rockford; we put in another one and we're looking for a third. We're making a point to spend a little more time in the universities and junior colleges."

Rouse offers a program that rewards recruits when they supply names of prospects who later join up, and another program that lets recruits invite friends to visit the National Guard base in Marseilles, Ill. And recruits can earn a "Quick Ship Bonus" of $2,000 for agreeing to begin basic training within 45 days of enlistment.

The Pentagon is also trying to ease the crunch by maximizing the number of jobs performed by civilians. Some 250,000 or more jobs once held by military personnel are now filled by civilians, including kitchen work, truck driving and security.

"Even the guards at West Point are civilian contractors," said Northwestern University sociology professor Charles Moskos, a defense manpower expert.

Pentagon officials say they are working hard to alleviate long, frequent deployments to war zones. But recruiting efforts are also plagued by factors over which the Pentagon has little control.

"One has only to look at the performance of the economy to understand how it shapes the perspective of America's youth about military service," McHugh said, noting that the number of private-sector jobs has increased by almost 3 million in two years.

Meanwhile, the military is shrinking--down to 1.4 million from 2.1 million during the 1991 Persian Gulf war. While that might seem to make recruiting numbers easier to hit, the added stress on service men and women is clearly dissuading would-be warriors. A growing number of troops have been deployed to Iraq two or even three times.

The highest death rate in Iraq is now being sustained by Army National Guardsmen--35 percent higher than for the entire active-duty Army. That is one reason the Army is no longer getting double use from its soldiers: Those coming off active duty are reluctant to immediately join the National Guard or Reserve, as many have done in the past.

"They don't want to join because they know they'll go right back to Iraq," said Lawrence Korb, who was an assistant defense secretary in the Reagan administration. "That means the Guard and reserve have to go out into the marketplace and compete for new people. . . . The market is drying up."

With a return to the draft considered a political impossibility, many in the defense community fear that the recruiting shortfall could eventually mean lowering standards, diminishing quality to the abysmal levels of the "hollow army" of the late 1970s. In those days, operating and repair manuals were printed in comic book form because of the low reading skills of many enlistees.

The Army is still meeting its threshold requirement that at least 90 percent of its recruits must have high school diplomas, and no more than 2 percent can come from the substandard Category 4 group of recruits who score 30 points or lower out of 99 on the Army aptitude test.

But the number of high school dropouts being accepted has nearly doubled, to 9 percent of total recruits, and the number of Category 4 scorers has gone from 0.6 percent of the total to 1.8 percent.

The recruiting crunch has also prompted calls for the military to change longstanding traditions. Korb, Moskos and other analysts have called for the military to drop its ban on homosexuals, for example.

Others have urged the Pentagon to open all military job classifications to women, who are banned from infantry and special operations units.

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Copyright 2005 Chicago Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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