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War Tests Recruiters' Pitch

Ohanian Comment: The U. S. government faces a crunch in supplying military to Afghanistan and Iraq, so the Army is adding 1,000 recruiters, and the National Guard 700. Where's the call from education groups to protect our vulnerable young adults? How many poor youth will be able to refuse the promise of a $15,000 signing bonus?

We don't have the political will for a draft but apparently no hesitancy in sending poor youth off to war.

This article makes it all sound so benign, even patriotic, and certainly sympathetic to the recruiter.

FAIRFAX, Va. -- Staff Sgt. Patrick McClung reached for the phone in his impeccably squared-away office and heard an anxious father on the other end demanding to know why a Marine recruiter had cold-called his home, asking about his teenager.

To McClung it was clear the parent didn't appreciate the inquiry, insisting his child wasn't interested. So the sergeant tried appeasement: "Would you mind if I get their name and their number so we can go ahead and scrub them off our list so we don't have to contact them again, sir? All right, sir."

After the call, McClung, a 27-year-old redhead who stands 6-foot-5 and is a top Marine recruiter, shrugged.

"This morning I had a mom laugh at me and hang up the phone," he said.

For Marine recruiters and to a greater extent their Army and Army National Guard counterparts, these are challenging times, the first test of the all-volunteer military since the draft ended in 1973.

With U.S. casualties rising in Iraq and the ongoing commitment of troops to Afghanistan, many young people and parents who once might have been willing to hear a recruiter's pitch are now much less inclined, recruiters say.

Determined to find enlistees as the problem gets worse, the Army is adding nearly 1,000 recruiters in an effort to reach more young people, while the Guard intends to add about 700 recruiters.

The Army and the Guard also are increasing the financial rewards for enlisting. The Army is offering enlistees new $15,000 signing bonuses and the Guard, $10,000 for recruits with no prior service. The Army also has increased its maximum college scholarship to $70,000 from $50,000. Meanwhile, the Guard has doubled, to $20,000, the amount it will provide to repay a recruit's student loans.

The Navy and Air Force, which are larger than the size Congress has authorized for them, are downsizing and do not have a recruiting problem.

But the war in Iraq and the continuing troop presence there are the most sustained hostilities the U.S. military has seen since the Vietnam War. And that has fueled worries that the strains on the recruiting system could lead to having too few personnel to fight the nation's engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Question of a draft

Few experts, however, believe the result will be a return to a draft. There just isn't the political will for that.

Although the armed services mostly met their recruiting goals for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, it wasn't easy.

The Army, which has the greatest number of ground forces in Iraq, has encountered significant head winds in recruiting.

It slightly exceeded its goal of 77,000 for the 2004 fiscal year. But the Army entered the new fiscal year Oct. 1 with far fewer recruits in its delayed-entry pool of enlistees. Those are recruits who join the service but defer the date they ship out to boot camp.

The Army, which tries to start each fiscal year with enough delayed-entry enlistees to add up to 35 percent of its annual recruitment goal, said it began fiscal 2005 with just more than half that percentage.

Meanwhile, the Army National Guard, which missed its fiscal 2004 recruiting target of 56,000 by more than 5,000 recruits, continues to struggle. It has fallen short of its goal for the first two months of the new fiscal year by about 30 percent.

"Things are tougher," said S. Douglas Smith, a spokesman for the Army Recruiting Command based at Ft. Knox, Ky., which recruits for the active Army and the reserves. "We can't quite quantify the amount of impact [of Iraq], but we know it's there.

"One of the things we don't know for sure is how many people don't start contact with a recruiter who might have otherwise," Smith continued.

`A lot more . . . hand-holding'

"We do know anecdotally that our recruiters are spending more time talking to parents and influencers such as educators about the implications of someone's enlisting in the Army at this time.

"It's a lot more discussion and hand-holding, a lot more of allaying doubts and reservations," he said.

Marine officials and recruiters concur.

"Not so much since 9/11 but more in the last year," said Maj. David Griesmer, a Marine Corps spokesman. "There's a little more resistance. It's natural for a parent during a time of war to put on the brakes because nobody wants their son or daughter . . . " he said, letting his thought trail off. "They're reluctant because it can be a dangerous occupation."

The Marines recruited 36,794 in fiscal 2004, 21 more than their goal. The Navy and the Air Force exceeded their goals by a few hundred recruits each.

But the military hasn't limited its efforts to offering financial incentives and to hand-holding. The Army and the Guard are pressing other initiatives. During the summer the Army launched a "Blue to Green" campaign to get former Air Force and Navy service members to join the Army. The program has met with limited success so far, those familiar with it say.

The Army also is having young soldiers who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan return to their hometowns for two-week stints to talk with people about their combat experiences and, most important, generate leads for local recruiters.

As it tries to cast a wider net, the Army said it would take in more recruits lacking high school diplomas this fiscal year than it did in the last, lowering its target from 92 percent with diplomas to 90 percent.

The Guard, which traditionally has recruited members of the services as they departed active duty but is meeting heavier resistance there, has shifted to recruit people who never have served.

While the Marines are feeling some pressure too, they have not resorted to new financial incentives to make their numbers.

Experts believe the military's recruiting problems would be far greater if the Army had not resorted to its stop-loss program, which keeps soldiers in the service past the end of their enlistment terms.

"The fewer people you retain, the higher your recruiting numbers have to be,' said Charles Pena, director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. "They are interrelated . . . One of the reasons they're making their recruiting numbers is because they're not having to backfill for people who are being held in stop-loss."

Charles Moskos, Northwestern University professor emeritus and a leading military sociologist, said that besides enlisting more high school dropouts, the Army likely would rely more on private contractors to do jobs for which there aren't enough soldiers, such as transportation.

Also, "we're going to recruit more foreigners," Moskos said, adding that he understood that 3 percent of the American troops in Iraq are not U.S. citizens. He expects that percentage to rise.

Dedicated to mission

For McClung, who exudes the trademark Marine gung-ho spirit, the challenge in this climate is just another obstacle to be surmounted so he can achieve his mission. In his nearly three years on the job, he has signed up 83 recruits, 60 or so of whom have become Marines.

Not that there haven't been bad days. During a recruiting trip to one of his assigned high schools, a teacher screamed at him after seeing him in his Marine dress blues in a corridor, shouting that it was people like him who caused her son's death. She was the mother of an Army lieutenant killed in Iraq.

And he recalls going to the Purple Heart award ceremony at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland for one of his recruits who was grievously wounded in Iraq. He tries not to dwell on such moments.

"I don't want to think of one of my people being hurt or killed," he says.

Despite the snubs from parents and young people who want no part of the military at present, McClung takes heart from idealistic teenagers such as Sameer Khan, 17, a high school senior who he signed up.

Though Khan does not believe the U.S. should be in Iraq, describes his family as "well-off" and has been successful enough in school that he could attend college next year, he wants to be a Marine.

"It's my duty and privilege to defend this country. . . . The youth today don't realize how much they have" materially and in citizens' rights, he said.

Half-Indian, Kahn said his travels to the Asian subcontinent and Europe heightened his belief that America was worth defending.

McClung, a good-natured Texan who has been in the Marines seven years but never in combat, finishes his tour as a recruiter in less than three months. Then he will move to Camp Pendleton near San Diego with his wife and two young children, both of whom have epilepsy. There he will prepare for a tour of duty as a platoon sergeant in Afghanistan, a decision his wife was not thrilled about and that especially upset his mother.

"When my wife and I were talking about whether I was going to re-enlist," he recalled, "that was a big part of the decision. `Hey, I can't allow these kids to go out there and do this and me not do it myself.' So that's one reason I re-enlisted."

— Frank James
Chicago Tribune





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