Opinion

Army may fall short of goal despite lowered standards, increased bonuses

WASHINGTON—The U.S. Army probably will come up well short of the 80,000 new recruits it needs during fiscal 2005, despite adding a thousand more recruiters, boosting enlistment cash bonuses to a record $20,000, spending $200 million on upbeat television ads and beginning to lower its standards.

Easing the strict standards that made the all-volunteer force such a success—in effect, trading quality for quantity—could complicate the Pentagon's ambitious plans to transform the Army into an agile, high-tech force in which ordinary soldiers are better equipped to act fast without waiting for orders from above.

Creating that force "will require more ability and more competence, not less, for the soldier in tomorrow's Army," said retired Lt. Gen. Marc Cisneros of Corpus Christi, Texas.

`"More troubling to me is the fact that lowering standards impacts on a moral issue," Cisneros said. "If young people aren't enlisting, that tells me we are not doing the right thing over there (in Iraq). If our leaders can't see that, the damage will go deeper than it did in Vietnam."

Army recruiters have failed to meet their targets for four straight months, beginning in February, and have just four months before their fiscal year ends Sept. 30 to sign up almost half of their annual goal. Many recruiters privately question whether they can succeed.

The recruiting shortfalls for the Army Reserve and National Guard—which have been called to active duty at a pace unseen since World War II and now make up more than 40 percent of American forces in Iraq—are as bad as or worse than those for the active Army.

If the shortfalls continue, the government could be forced eventually to consider abandoning the nation's 32-year experiment with the all-volunteer military, which came into being as the United States withdrew from an unpopular war in Vietnam and ended an unpopular draft.

The shortfall in recruits also is making it harder for the Army to raise its total strength from 480,000 to 510,000 soldiers so it can man the new modular brigades that are at the heart of the plans for a lighter, more flexible force.

Some lawmakers have proposed increasing Army "end strength" by 50,000 or 100,000 or even 150,000, which appears to be ambitious at a time when the Army can't find enough recruits to maintain current troop levels.

Another increasingly unpopular war, in Iraq, is largely responsible for making it harder for Army recruiters to find 80,000 more young Americans who are willing to serve their country from a pool of some 60 million candidates ages 18 to 35.

"The biggest problem today is parents," said Staff Sgt. Kenneth Bishop, an Iraq war-veteran recruiter based in High Ridge, Mo. "A lot of young men and women want to enlist, but their parents are afraid for them."

Or as Sgt. 1st Class Timothy Waud, a career recruiter based in Simi Valley, Calif., put it: "(Parents) say they don't want to send their son or daughter off into danger. There's a lot of misconceptions about Iraq. Frankly, percentage-wise you face more of a risk driving on the freeways out here."

Although the summer months traditionally provide recruiters with a target-rich environment, they concede that this could be a different and difficult summer.

During May, even though the Army cut that month's goal from 8,050 to 6,700, recruiters shipped just 5,039 new recruits to basic training, 25 percent short of the more modest target. Without lowering the target, the shortfall would have been 37 percent.

One Army recruiting official, who asked that his name be withheld because he isn't authorized to talk to reporters, said the May recruiting numbers would have been even worse had the Army not offered to boost enlistment bonuses to the maximum of $20,000 for delayed-entry recruits who volunteered to report a month or two early for training, by a deadline of May 30. "That is just robbing Peter to pay Paul. There will be a hole somewhere down the line this summer," he said.

"The bottom line, in my view, is we are going to need some sort of national service, a draft, to get the people we need," the official said. "I don't see what else we can do."

The official also told Knight Ridder that the recruiting shortfalls are having an impact on basic training schools.

"Since March, they have canceled 15 basic training classes for the infantry at Fort Benning," the official said. "They did not have the soldiers, 220 to 230 of them, for each of those classes. Now they will begin processing smaller classes of 180 to 190."

He said basic training schools also were beginning to receive recruits who wouldn't have been allowed to enlist a year ago because they didn't meet Army standards.

"They are seeing a few Cat IV's," he said. Category IV is the lowest acceptable level on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery.

"They are getting more GEDs (General Educational Development certificates) in place of high school graduates. They are paying bonuses to get people who wouldn't have qualified before," he said.

The one bright spot, Army spokesmen point out, is what they call the retention rate, the number of soldiers who choose to re-enlist and remain on active duty. They say that to date the Army has exceeded its retention goal by 107 percent. The figure is driven by many choosing the Army as a career.

Some divisions and brigades that rotated back into Iraq and Afghanistan earlier this year for second or third combat tours went with 60 percent combat veterans in their ranks—and some units were returning to Iraq after less than nine months at home.

But the unceasing rotations are wearing down soldiers and their families. Corporate headhunters are finding that more captains and majors are turning up to learn what's available in the civilian world because they see only an endless string of combat deployments if they don't get out.

The Army confirmed recently that statistics show that divorce among Army officers has tripled since 2000, with a 75 percent increase in 2004 alone. The divorce rate among enlisted soldiers is up 75 percent. An Army commander told a Knight Ridder reporter that one of his junior officers was only half-joking when he told him: "Sir, you've got to give me at least enough time between deployments so I can get a divorce."

Army advertising spots are shifting their focus to include parents as well as potential recruits. The Army's lead ad agency, Leo Burnett USA, has created four new TV commercials revolving around the theme: "Help Them Find Their Strength." A news release says, "Both the parent and child become the hero."

If this trend continues into next year, or if another war erupts in some other hot spot, the country may find itself forced to return to the draft.

When America stopped drafting young men in 1973, it didn't abolish the vast Selective Service machinery that scooped up 15 million young men to fight in World War II and more than 20,000 a month to fight in Vietnam.

It's all still in place, and American men still are required to register with Selective Service on their 18th birthdays or soon after. Failing to do so is a felony, and those who don't register can't obtain federal student loans or, in many states, even driver's licenses.

It would take an act of Congress to crank up the whole thing, starting with local draft boards, which are still manned by unpaid volunteer appointees prepared to choose who in their neighborhoods will receive the letters that begin: "Greetings! Your friends and neighbors have selected you. ..."

The Pentagon said in a news release Friday that it had "no intention of supporting a draft" in spite of the recruiting shortfalls.

Right now, everyone involved in such a decision is publicly opposed to reviving the draft. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has declared repeatedly that the draft is an inefficient and costly way to man a modern military force. Congress voted overwhelmingly, with only two yes votes, to kill last year's bill to reinstitute the draft. Its author, Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., said he'd introduce it again this year.

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