Army Still Misses Recruiting Targets
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
"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
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
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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
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
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
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
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
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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