Military recruiters challenged to fill smaller, specialized force

Marine Sgt. Bryan Nygaard, right, watches 17-year-old Uzoma Nnadozie of Perry Hall do pull-ups as part of his physical training at the recruiting center.
Marine Sgt. Bryan Nygaard, right, watches 17-year-old Uzoma Nnadozie of Perry Hall do pull-ups as part of his physical training at the recruiting center. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun)

Chief Petty Officer Tori Novo says she finds herself saying "no" to young people who want to ship out to sea with the Navy more often than she used to.

A recruiter for seven years, Novo says she has seen the standards for enlisting in the Navy become tougher. And that means more young people who desperately want to join the Navy — for a career with a steady paycheck, for educational opportunities, for a chance to serve their country — don't make the cut.


Many of those applicants — the ones "who would beg on their hands and knees to get in" — might make excellent sailors, Novo says. But there's no room for them in today's smaller, more selective military.

"It's a top choice. It's no longer a second chance," said Novo, who oversees recruiters in Baltimore and Western Maryland.


As the military shrinks, with a new focus on cutting costs after two long wars, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines all have grown more selective — which often comes as a surprise, recruiters say, to would-be enlistees and their parents.

Recruiters who once promised a haven for wayward kids or those who weren't cut out for school now are looking for young people who might otherwise be headed to college, or already have a degree.

The tougher standards are challenging recruiters, who say three-quarters of the eligible population wouldn't meet the minimum qualifications to enlist.

"Some parents think that is their right to serve," said Air Force Lt. Col. Charity Hartley, who supervises Air Force recruiters in the Mid-Atlantic. "It's interesting that they don't understand that you don't automatically get to sign up. The kid that seems to be on the bad track — 'Oh, you'll join the military and it will be OK' — it's a different military these days," Hartley said.


Each branch of the military has its own standards, but generally, a successful recruit must be a high school graduate with a clean criminal record and no tattoos visible on the arms or neck. He or she must be physically fit and achieve a minimum score on an SAT-like test called the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery.

Recruiters can grant waivers from some of the standards — such as accepting an otherwise solid applicant who dropped out of high school but earned an equivalency diploma or had a minor brush with the law.

And they'll encourage prospective recruits to study for the ASVAB or help them get into shape. Some recruiting offices offer physical training for prospective applicants, or for those preparing for basic training.

Marine Gunnery Sgt. Robert Kelm, a recruiter instructor in Maryland and Delaware, says he's seen prospective recruits work hard to meet the qualifications of the Corps, which include height and weight standards.

"You have the determined ones who lose more than 100 pounds to join," he said. "They go out on their own and get down their weight."

Kelm says he doesn't sugarcoat the requirements.

"We let them know what the standards are right off the bat," he said. "Sometimes they'll come back, sometimes they don't."

Some requirements are non-negotiable. Large, visible tattoos, a criminal record or serious medical problems are generally disqualifiers. Even a knee surgery or asthma might bar a prospective recruit.

Recruiters say they are looking for people like 19-year-old Jameisha Reid.

The Odenton woman graduated from Meade High School and attended Anne Arundel Community College for a while, but found that college didn't interest her. She took work at a fast food restaurant, but saw it as a dead end.

"I have way too much ambition," she said. "This is a nothing job for me."

Reid was familiar with the military. Her father, Clinton Winder, served 31 years in the Army.

Reid said she was "dead set" against joining the military, but was won over by the prospect of traveling and establishing a career while being paid.

She'll likely leave for boot camp in March. She visited a recruiting center in Laurel last week.

"I'm excited, nervous, happy and sad," she said. "A lot of different emotions at one time."

Reid's parents say they couldn't be more thrilled. Her father recruited doctors and other medical professionals into the Army.

"The standards are so high now," Clinton Winder said. "It's not granddad's Army anymore. You have to bring your A game."

Staff Sgt. Victor Diaz, who works at Army recruiting centers in Laurel and Silver Spring, says he tries to appeal to young people like Reid, who have ambition but need direction. He touts the military's educational opportunities as well as the chance to learn a trade that can be carried over into civilian life.

He also finds he has to assuage fears about the possibility of being sent to a war or conflict zone.

Kelm, the Marine recruiter, says some potential recruits believe that all Marines carry guns on the front lines. That's not the case, says Kelm, who was a firefighter in the Marines before switching to recruiting.

Likewise, Novo says some Navy recruits think they'll spend four straight years on a ship at sea. In reality, she says, cruises last months, not years. And in her 13 years, she says, she has never been on a long cruise.

Recruiters are often looking for young people to fill specific roles. The Marines, for example, need tuba players for their bands. The Navy needs sailors to work in nuclear power engineering, explosive ordnance disposal, air rescue and special forces.

As the military gets smaller and the demands of warfare become more complex, the recruiters have to adapt.

"We need the best and the brightest," Hartley said. "There certainly is room for some people with a few bumps in the road, but we are trying to take those youth that have the core values, who have integrity, because that's what the Air Force is all about."

Just as it's not as easy to join the military, it's not as easy to be a recruiter. In the Marine Corps, for example, just 5 percent of recruits volunteer on their own. The rest are recruited through career fairs, phone calls, community events and the like.

"Our recruiters are trained really well in salesman skills," Sgt. Bryan Nygaard said. "Our Marines are pushed to complete the mission. Marines, period, always get the job done."