In the last few months, news reportage on U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan has fallen into a dismal pattern: insurgent attacks, increasing U.S. casualties, a long road ahead. And with the grisly images being sent through televisions and computer screens across the country, more and more young people are drawing the conclusion that no bonus or incentive is worth the risk of signing up for service and getting killed.
Recruitment issues have plagued the military since the United States launched offensives in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2002, but they are getting worse. Recruiters are finding themselves with recruitment deficits not seen in decades.
Although the Army will not officially disclose its final figures for the year until next week, officials have confirmed that the department fell short of its 80,000 annual enlistment goal for 2005 by nearly 7,000 recruits. It is the largest shortfall since 1979.
U.S. Army spokesperson Douglas Smith said that there are two main obstacles that the military has had to combat in the last year. One is an improving economy and a declining unemployment rate, which hinders recruiting efforts because of the competition for capable young men and women. The other problem, Smith says, is more glaringly obvious.
"The Army didn't make our goal this year and we think the fear of potential risk or death is certainly a major part of that," he stated. "And understandably, parents get anxious about their son or daughter enlisting when we're in an ongoing war on terrorism."
"People are certainly less enthusiastic about enlisting and more parents are questioning whether or not they want their son or daughter to be risking their lives for such a questionable enterprise," said John Cullen, who founded Parents Against Military Recruiting on Our Campuses after his son was approached by a recruiter during a middle-school career day.
Cullen's organization is just one of the many counter-recruitment efforts springing up on high school and college campuses nationwide (see "U.S. Army Misses Enlistment Goal, Counter-Recruitment Efforts Rise"). Coupled with a growing sentiment from young people and their parents that the rewards are not worth the risks, it appears the U.S. Army has quite the uphill battle to climb.
Smith says recruiters are facing a much bigger challenge now — not only do they need to convince young men and women to enlist, but they also have to sway their hesitant parents. It is that hurdle that is causing some critics to accuse the military of using overly aggressive tactics to draw in recruits. In light of these concerns, the Army held a one-day "stand-down" in May to get its recruiters back on the right track (see "Army Has One-Day 'Stand-Down' To Focus On Recruiting Tactics").
While it has yet to be seen what effect it will have in the long run, it appears the move may have worked temporarily. The active Army was able to meet its quotas from June through September. It is those positive trends that have the military remaining cautiously optimistic, despite the year's shortfall.
"We're not in gloom mode," Smith said. "[The numbers we've been seeing] in the last four months give us some sense that maybe things are improving."
Officials are looking to sweeten the deal for new recruits by upping enlistment bonuses (Congress is currently in talks to double the deal to $40,000) and offering enticing educational opportunities like paying for training and testing for soldiers looking to get their GED.
The Army also announced Monday that it is lowering the bar on its acceptance standards to allow in a larger pool of applicants. Until now, it has been taking no more than 2 percent of its recruiting class from Category IV, the lowest acceptable test score on military aptitude tests. That number has now been raised to 4 percent.
"The Department of Defense is clearly getting desperate for new recruits," said Representative Anna G. Eshoo (D-Palo Alto) of California, who has co-sponsored a bill dubbed the Student Privacy Protection Act of 2005, which, if passed into law, would change a provision in the No Child Left Behind Act that allows military recruiters easy access to student information courtesy of their high schools.
Smith, however, disagrees. "We're just looking to open up opportunities to more people," he countered. "We want to open up the Army to as wide an audience as we can."