The Army and the National Guard are falling short of their recruiting goals.
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
CHICAGO -- Cortnee Smith, a lanky high school honors student, had her mind set last year 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, Michael Smith, himself a former National Guard recruiter, quashed those plans.
"He was like, 'No, no, don't go,' " said Cortnee Smith, 17, now a senior in high school. "'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 March 30 that the active-duty Army achieved only about two-thirds of its recruiting goal for March, and the Army Reserve reached slightly more than half 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 1,600 goal. 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 said 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 joining the military themselves, 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 special operations troops who re-enlist.
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.
So the military is exhausting every imaginable idea, effort and inducement to keep manpower up and attract qualified new 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.
Others doing OK
The Navy, Air Force and Marines have exceeded their recruitment goals. The Army and its reserve components are experiencing the biggest challenge, since their soldiers are more engaged in combat than the Navy or Air Force, without 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 new 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, 2001, 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.