Friday, April 18, 2014
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Army recruiters face tough sell
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Army recruiter Sgt. Nathan Temple talkes with prospect Tiesha Roloff. Roloff wants to become an Army nurse but is told she will have to earn the equivalent of a high school diploma before she can enlist. (MPR Photo/ Mark Zdechlik)
You've probably heard news stories about military recruiters who've been disciplined breaking rules in their efforts to sign-up new soldiers. There's no disputing the U.S. Army is under great pressure to bring in more troops. Observers say fears about being killed in places like Iraq, coupled with the improving economy are likely to blame for recruiting shortfalls. Military officials acknowledge, parents' concerns about the safety of their kids have made enlisting young people harder than it used to be. Nevertheless Department of Defense officials predict they'll be able to turn it around Army enlistments as early as next month.

St. Paul, Minn. — At lunchtime during a job fair at the Minneapolis Convention Center, a trio of Army recruiters, keeps busy fielding inquiries about military life.

A 31-year-old man wants to know if he's too old to enlist in the Army and whether this flat feet make him ineligible. A teenage girl asks whether she would have to endure bootcamp if she enlisted to become an Army nurse.

The three Army men, clad in impeccable dress uniforms with sparkling medals, are hardly overwhelmed with potential applicants. There are no long lines like those that occasionally form in front of the cable company's kiosk. Still several people, mostly young people, approach the recruiters.

Tiesha Roloff, 17, the one who asks about becoming an Army nurse, tells the recruiters she's been thinking about enlisting since the 9th grade.

Unlike many young people who choose the military for the reward of thousands of dollars of college money, it appears as though pure patriotism is driving Roloff's interest in the Army.

"I want to serve our country," Roloff says. "I want to serve the men of the war and help them. Heal them."

Sgt. Nathan Temple tells Roloff she can't enlist until she earns the equivalent of a high school diploma. Still, he spends a considerable amount of time promoting the Army to her.

Temple says he's been a recruiter for just a couple of months. He says he's anxious to get back to ferreting out insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, places he says he's already served. But for now, his job is to bring more people into the Army.

"My main objective is to just pass on information about what happens in the actual Army through my own experience," Temple says. "I just try to tell them... I would say, my own Army story."

Although recruiters are far removed from combat, many in the armed forces view their job as one of the military's most stressful. The pressure is building as the armed forces seek to expand amid growing concerns about the dangers of being a soldier in the war on terrorism.

Captain Valent Bernat, who commands the Army's recruiting operations throughout Minneapolis and several southern and western suburbs, says the Department of Defense determined the Twin Cities should be producing more soldiers. Bernat was ordered to beef up the number of local recruiters by nearly one third. He says the Army is looking for results.

"Last year they were looking for around 30 to 35 new recruits a month," Bernat explains. "Now what they're asking for is about 54. So it's gone up quite a bit."

The push to bolster recruiting in Minnesota is emblematic of efforts throughout the nation according to Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Military Personnel Policy Bill Carr, who says the Army has increased its recruiting force by about 25 percent.

The Army fell short of its April active-duty recruiting goal by more than 40 percent. So far for the year the Army, which is by far the largest military branch, is running more than 15 percent behind. Guard and Reserve recruiting is more than 20 percent below goals. Carr says spring is typically a slow time of the year and there will be a big push this summer to get back on track.

"We all knew that the spring was going to be a tough time for the Army in particular and that bore out," Carr says. "And the remainder of the year we should see things up ticking and the months very possibly becoming, in fact I would say at this point, probably becoming more successful and by the end of the year most if not all of the recruiting mission probably will be met by the Army."

Sgt. 1st Class Gary Flowers commands an Army recruiting station in south Minneapolis along Lake Street. He's been an Army recruiter for about four and a half years. He says high schools used to be fertile ground for recruiters, but not so much anymore.

"It's from the parents mostly," Flowers says. "The parents of the students... the negativity from the students isn't there. It's mainly when you try to talk to the students with their parents. Their parents don't want to be involved, don't want their children to be involved."

Recruiters still work hard to enlist high schoolers, but Captain Bernat says there's a newfound emphasis on bringing in 20-somethings. He says many of them work in high-turnover jobs and are beginning to understand the value of health insurance and a retirement plan.

"We analyze our area and there's certain jobs and certain job types that have a high turnover rates," Bernat says. "And mainly because people work at them for a while and they decide 'this is not for me.' It's a variety of things. It's ... sometimes your gas stations, your maintenance places, your restaurants. We're here to show that there are opportunities out there and, of course, we go to those places where we think we're going to find a concentration of those folks."

Bill Carr, from the Defense Department says the best way to attract quality recruits it to increase signing bonuses and college tuition programs. Bonuses are nearly twice what they were just five years ago. They're currently capped at about $20,000. But Carr says there are moves in Congress to as much as double that again.

Beth Asch, who tracks armed forces staffing at the non-partisan think tank, the Rand Corporation, says she expects with more recruiters, more advertising and more incentives, the Army will pull out of its recruiting slump and end up meeting its goals for the year.

Asch thinks the more pressing challenge lies in keeping up Guard and Reserve strength. Now that Guard and Reserve troops are regularly sent on lengthy deployments, Asch says she sees little practical difference between them and the regular Army, apart from compensation.

"I'm worried about whether the Reserve recruiting and retention problems can be solvable until we have defined, we being the defense community, have defined for the reservists, what Reserve service is going to constitute?" Asch asks. "What is the obligation going to be for them? And how is that going to be different from what an active obligation is? Because if you're going to join the reserves and be there for just two years full-time, what's the point of being in the reserves? You might as well be in the active component."

Defense department officials acknowledge they too are concerned about guard and reserve recruiting. They say they're working to bolster incentives for those branches.

As the Army strains to meet goals, it is also contending with pockets of opposition. Throughout the country there are reports of students, parents and activists shouting down recruiters in high schools, on college campuses and elsewhere.

In the Twin Cities a student organization called "Youth Against War and Racism" won the right from Bloomington-Kennedy High School administrators to offer students an alternative to recruiters' rhetoric.

Now when the Army comes to his school, senior Brandon Madsen and other members of his group have a spot close by where, Madsen says, they can tell students what recruiters won't.

"They give the impression that the Army is a jobs program, it's something you go into to get college money, it's something you go into to get job training," Madsen says. "Just kind of go over and do your duty and get your path in life. They don't talk about the downsides."

Carr foresees continued recruiting challenges and he says critics of the military are making the job even more difficult.

"It does no one any good and it certainly does a volunteer force no good," Carr insists.

Carr says he wishes people would be more supportive of the recruiters' efforts, or at least remain neutral which he says would give recruiters better odds of enlisting young people.

The school year is almost over, but Brandon Madsen says his anti-recruiting group plans to remain active over summer. He's pleased efforts like his are making it harder to enlist young people.

"I think it's absolutely incorrect that we should be neutral about it," says Madsen.

Carr says, despite recruiting challenges, there will not be a need for a return to compulsory service. There is, in his words, "zero possibility" of a draft.

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