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U.S. military faces recruiting and retention challenges
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Christopher Meinke, 19, enlisted in the Army last fall. He heads off to boot camp in August. (MPR Photo/ Mark Zdechlik)
The war in Iraq is forcing the armed services to call up reservists and National Guard soldiers in numbers not seen in years. This week nearly 100 Minnesotans who are in the military's "ready reserve" pool will get notices in the mail calling them back. Meanwhile, troop deployments are being extended. Some soldiers are being ordered to remain on the job well past the time they had expected to be released. Yet, despite the strain, the Department of Defense says it's not having problems attracting new soldiers. However, military officials say recruiting and retention challenges lie ahead.

St. Paul, Minn. — With his short blond hair and use of military lingo, Chris Meinke already looks and sounds like he's in the Army, even though he won't go to boot camp until August.

"I'm a 19-Delta cavalry scout," he explains. "It's pretty much like reconnaissance, so I'll be going behind enemy lines possibly and finding enemy positions."

Meinke enlisted last fall while still senior at Rosemount High School. Like many young people, he decided to enlist in the Army to earn money for college. He was also looking for discipline and adventure.

Thanks to recruits like Meinke, the Department of Defense says it's on target with its active force recruiting despite the daily news reports of deadly attacks against U.S. troops in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Beth Asch, who researches military staffing for the non-partisan think tank, the Rand Corporation, calls the success the military has had retaining troops and recruiting new members startling. But Asch says the success the military has enjoyed over the past few years is unlikely to sustain itself considering the wartime demands placed on today's soldiers.

"The rules of military service have changed. We're in a new kind of security environment," Asch says, "So, just because things are great with recruiting and retention now, we should be concerned, especially because people are being asked to do something they really haven't been asked to do before."

The Pentagon acknowledges it's beginning to face some recruiting challenges.

Bill Carr, the acting Deputy Undersecretary of the Department of Defense in charge of military personnel policy, projects fewer recruits than normal will sign up and head for boot camp this fall.

"We would like to go into any particular year, and our recruiting year starts in October, in the case of the Army for example, with at least one-third of that year's recruiting objective already signed up and simply waiting for school," Carr says. "It appears at the current rate that we'll be closer to one-fourth."

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Image Rand Corporation researcher Beth Asch

In other words, miliary planners project recruiting will be behind this fall in the Army -- by far the largest of the military branches -- by nearly 6,500 recruits.

Carr attributes the projected shortfall to a stronger economy and more job opportunities. He concedes, for some, the Army's is becoming a tougher sell in light of the current conflicts.

Still, Carr calls the projected shortfall "manageable." He says recruiters will redouble efforts to ensure they end up meeting next year's goal even if they go into fiscal '05 behind where they would normally be.

"We're adjusting resource plans, numbers of recruits to be ready when we see problems out ahead of us so that's characteristic of the military and it's certainly characteristic of military recruiting," Carr says.

Sgt. 1st Class Charles Peterson runs the Dakota County Army recruiting station from a Burnsville strip mall. It's where 19-year-old Christopher Meinke enlisted.

Peterson, a recruiter for six years, says not much has changed in recruiting since the war on terrorism. He acknowledges, prospective soldiers and their parents now have more questions about going to war.

"Anytime that a young man or woman makes a decision, you want to make sure that their influences are involved in that decision, more so now than before, because there are a lot of questions that parents may have about their son or daughter enlisting," Peterson says.

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Image Sgt. 1st Class Charles Peterson, U.S. Army

Peterson says his recruiters have been running nearly 10 percent ahead of projections in recent months.

The head of recruiting for the Minnesota National Guard, Lt. Col. Kevin Gerdes, says his recruiters are also doing well this year; better, in fact, than recruiters in any other state.

"There's a belief right now, because I've been approached by numerous folks in the media that have come to me and say, you're recruiting must be down because of what's going on in Iraq and what I wanted to highlight is yes, nationally it is down and in Minnesota it is not," Gerdes says. "The citizens of Minnesota -- the young people are still stepping forward."

The Department of Defense says throughout the country National Guard recruiting is down about four percent this year. But just as is the case with active duty recruiting, Department of Defense officials are projecting they'll meet Guard recruiting goals next year.

In addition to facing recruiting challenges, the military is concerned about soldier retention: will frequent deployments to war zones in Afghanistan and in Iraq drive GI's out of the military?

Bill Carr, the head of military personnel policy at the Department of Defense says there's reason for some concern.

We're adjusting resource plans, numbers of recruits to be ready when we see problems out ahead of us so that's characteristic of the military and it's certainly characteristic of military recruiting.
- Acting deputy undersecretary of defense for military personnel policy, Bill Carr.

"If one surveys for example family members or members (of the military), while the pattern is generally stable depending on the service, it is somewhat and in the case of the Army and the Air Force in the lower grades, there is some downturn in what troops report to us as their intention to remain," Carr says.

In hopes of retaining more National Guard and Reserve members, the House and Senate have approved extending health care benefits, currently available only to active-duty soldiers, to the members of the National Guard and Reserves. U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., a member of the Armed Services Committee, says top military officials tell him that they're more concerned about retaining highly trained soldiers than they are about recruiting.

Dayton says the best way to alleviate pressure on Guard and Reserve troops would be to revamp the military so that full-time soldiers bear the brunt of deployments and Guard and Reserve troops revert to their supporting roles.

"They're actually ironically being the ones who are being kept longer than even the active forces so we've got to configure that," Dayton says. "We've also got to look at the fact that we have troops...all over the world."

Dayton says in many cases troop deployment has little to do with current needs.

"A lot of that is historical based on World War II and the Korean war and the aftermath," he says. "We really need to consolidate our troops and put more of our active forces on the 'ready to go' where we need them currently in the world; not where we needed them 40 or 50 years ago."

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Image Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn.

As for what additional measures lawmakers could take to bolster interest in the armed forces, Bill Carr from the Defense Department says for the most part the military has gotten what it's sought from Congress. It's the general public, he says, that could be more helpful.

"For example not discouraging young people from considering military opportunities because there really is a lot the military has going for it. It would be terrific if military recruiters would be able to get as much access to young people as they could," Carr says. "Teachers and coaches may be somewhat reluctant and have other ideas for the young people and we just ask, let the young people decide."

For Chris Meinke there wasn't much debate about his decision to join the armed forces. Meinke comes from a military family. He's always planned on enlisting. He's excited he'll be off to boot camp next month. In as little as a year, Meinke thinks he could be deployed - probably to Iraq.

"It doesn't bother me one bit. It doesn't scare me. It's interesting to me," Meinke says.

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