National Security

Recruiting gets tougher for Army during wartime

Cynthia Pool Johnson Scottie of Fort Worth, Texas is among a small group of recruits whom Army Secretary Pete Geren swears in at the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Cynthia Pool Johnson Scottie of Fort Worth, Texas is among a small group of recruits whom Army Secretary Pete Geren swears in at the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. Chuck Kennedy / MCT

WASHINGTON — Wearing dark T-shirts with Army logos, selected representatives of the Army's latest class of recruits stood proudly on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial on Thursday morning, with their own stories about what drew them into the military in a time of war.

Cynthia Pearl Johnson-Scottie, a 31-year-old mother of four from Fort Worth, Texas, said she was enlisting in the Army Reserve to advance her education. Yanitza Lopez-Guerrero of Kissimmee, Fla., whose husband is already in the service, wants to be part of the Army "team." Logan Bilyeu, a shaggy-haired snowboard enthusiast from Oregon, is pursuing a family military tradition dating to World War I.

From the Army's perspective, the outdoor ceremony Thursday constituted a good-news story, marking the service's attainment of its active-duty and reserve recruiting goals for the 2007 fiscal year, which ended Sunday. But Army leaders acknowledged the obstacles that lie ahead as they struggle to maintain an all-volunteer fighting force during an increasingly costly and unpopular war.

"We've been able to meet our goal, but it's a challenge,"' Army Secretary Pete Geren said in an interview after the ceremony.

The war itself, he said, "cuts both ways" in its impact on recruiting. "You have men and women that are attracted by the opportunity to serve their nation in time of war. There are a lot of people who would have never considered joining if they didn't see the country as needing them to step forward."

At the same, the Army faces what Geren describes as "competition" in trying to attract qualified young men and women to the service. Among the pressures:

— A robust economy with abundant jobs that tend to siphon off would-be soldiers.

— More and more adult role models such as parents and coaches — the Army calls them "influencers" — who are warning young people against the dangers of joining a wartime military.

— A diminishing pool of qualified candidates as a result of such factors as teenage obesity, the high-school dropout rate, criminal records, low scores on qualifying tests and other factors. The Army estimates that, for a variety of reasons, only 3 in 10 candidates are "fully qualified" to enlist, forcing the service to issue waivers to offset a particular deficiency, depending on the circumstance.

— An image problem due to past reports of misconduct or questionable ethical practices by Army recruiters, ranging from misleading statements to sexual harassment and drug dealing.

Geren said the service was conducting extensive education programs and ethics training in a "very aggressive" effort to ensure the highest conduct among its 83,000 recruiters.

"Recruiters are the face of the Army for millions of young Americans, and they have an especially high standard they must adhere to," Geren said.

The Army surpassed its active-duty goal of 80,000 recruits for the just-ended fiscal year in part because of hefty recruiting and re-enlistment bonuses, education benefits and an aggressive $200 million-a-year ad campaign revolving around the slogan "Army Strong."

The Army has offered up to $40,000 in enlistment bonuses for active-duty personnel with high-demand job qualifications, and education benefits totaling $73,000. The service repays up to $65,000 in student loans for recruits who've already attended college.

In an inducement aimed at civilian soldiers, the Army National Guard on Thursday announced a $40,000 bonus for recruits with no prior military service who enlist in the Guard, serve a period on active duty, then return to the Guard.

Geren cited the rising obesity rate as one of the most serious emerging challenges facing the recruiting effort. Obesity among adolescents ages 12 to 19 has increased from 11 percent to 17 percent over the past two decades, according to a federal survey, diminishing the availability of physically fit recruits.

Another worrisome trend, Geren said, centers on those who are in a position to influence potential recruits.

"We actually poll and keep track of what we call influencers," he said. "And we've seen the influencers' support for joining the Army decline."

Parents in a Long Island school district forced school officials to restrict Army recruiters' visits to school campuses. The war's growing unpopularity also has spawned a "counter-recruiting" movement by antiwar activists.

The men and women arrayed in front of the Jefferson Memorial on Thursday embodied a polar-opposite view as they answered the Army's call. Active-duty soldiers seated among the spectators responded with a chorus of "hoo-ah" when Bilyeu stepped to the podium to say he's "following in the footsteps" of his father, grandfather and great-grandfather by serving his country in the military.

"I hope I can do everything for them that they have done for me," said Bilyeu, who'll serve in the airborne infantry.

Johnson-Scottie, who has three boys and a girl ranging from 2 years old to 10, said she joined to serve as a support systems specialist in the reserve. In exchange, she gets a $20,000 bonus and an Army-financed college education that will enable her to reach a long-sought goal of getting a bachelor's degree.

"I'm not getting younger," she explained in an interview as her husband, Lawrence Scottie, a 30-year-old Target employee, stood beside her.

"She's brave, braver than me," he said. If her unit is activated and she leaves for Iraq, he said, "I'll be there for her."