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Army re-enlistment figures up, but recruitment lags

WASHINGTON—Re-enlistments for the Army in fiscal 2005 were the highest they've been in five years, nearly enough to make up for a shortfall of about 7,000 new recruits last year, Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey said Wednesday.

More than 69,500 soldiers re-enlisted in the 12 months ending in September, Harvey said. But last year also was the Army's worst for recruiting since 1999, the last time it failed to meet its annual goal. A study produced for the service in 2004 indicated that a high chance of being sent to Iraq or Afghanistan was keeping many young people away who might have signed up.

Harvey said he believed new recruiting and referral bonuses and other perks will help. "We've now made our recruiting objectives for the last seven months, and the future looks promising," he said.

New measures signed into law earlier this month include a $40,000 enlistment bonus, a $1,000 referral fee for soldiers who encourage new recruits to join, and down payment assistance for soldiers who are first-time home buyers.

The Army has already recruited 25 percent more new troops this year than at the same point in fiscal 2005, Harvey said.

The recruiting shortfall in 2005 is one of several factors that have caused some analysts and retired military officials to worry that the Army may again be "broken," a reference to the late 1970s post-Vietnam era when the service experienced an exodus of seasoned enlisted men and officers and was chronically short of recruits and new equipment. The critics worry that the Army may be about to repeat that experience partly because of the strains produced by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Harvey said re-enlistment by troops in Iraq "was the best measure" of the Army's health. For example, he said, the 3rd Infantry Division, now in Iraq, recently exceeded its re-enlistment goal by 36 percent.

"Morale is high. The soldiers in theater know they're making a difference, and the soldiers in theater are proud to be part of this effort," he said.

David Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland, said many young soldiers joined the Army after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and many re-enlist because "they want to stay until the job is done."

Another reason to re-enlist, Segal said, is the bonus, which is tax-free for troops in the war zone.

New recruits also will be attracted by today's record enlistment bonuses and other perks, but at a cost, he said.

"In a sense, they're mortgaging the future," he said. "We now have the largest deficit we've had in our history. A lot of money like bonuses doesn't get paid out right away, and soldiers get it when they finish their term of enlistment. So, down the road, it's all going to come out of the federal treasury."

"We've gone back to the era when the choice was between guns and butter, and we're trying to have both," he said.

The Army needs to sign up about 80,000 new recruits each year to maintain its current strength of 492,000 active-duty personnel. Last year, the service fell short of that goal by roughly 6,600 new troops, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

To stay on track for this year, the Army needed to sign up 11,000 recruits by mid-January, but recruiters had already signed up 11,522 new troops by the end of December, said S. Douglas Smith, a spokesman for Army Recruiting Command.

Last year the Army doubled the number of its recruiters and began to offer $5,000 to everyone who joined. It also offered a new 15-month enlistment, compared to the standard three to four years.

In September, the Army announced it would allow more high school dropouts and those who scored badly on aptitude tests to join. In October, the Army revealed that 12 percent of the recruits signed up that month were Category 4, the group whose test scores are the lowest the Army will accept.

Smith said enlistment criteria call for at least 90 percent of all new recruits to be high school graduates, and no more than 4 percent of recruits in 2006 would be Category 4.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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