Military life a tougher sell

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON - Brian Moody signs up more soldiers for the Army National Guard than just about any other recruiter in Indiana. Across kitchen tables around the state, he has usually had an easy time convincing young people and their families that the military offers them what they want.

Until he met Jeff Fayette's mother.

"I came out of that house, and the dad had not said anything, and the mom said, 'The people at work tell me you're trained to lie to me. My son is not fighting for anybody in Iraq. He's going to stay right here, and he's gonna be my baby,'" Moody says. "That's the kind of feeling we're up against now. I tell you, it's real easy to get depressed."

As the war on terrorism stretches into its third year and the violence in Iraq drags on with no end in sight, Moody and other military recruiters across the United States are starting to get nervous.

The war's bad news has not translated into a widespread falloff in military recruiting and retention. But in the National Guard, which for decades has bolstered its ranks by signing up high school juniors such as 17-year-old Jeff Fayette, the deepening anxiety about the steady drum of casualties in Iraq is beginning to take its toll.

Reservists - civilians trained as soldiers and subject to call-up for full-time duty by the military when needed - were until recently asked to serve relatively infrequently. But during the past decade, their use has increased. And in the past two years, more than 212,000 reservists and National Guard troops have been mobilized for war overseas and the fight against terrorism at home, the biggest mobilization of citizen soldiers since World War II.

This year, for the first time in seven years, the Army National Guard - the largest organization among the military reserves - is uncertain of meeting its recruiting goals. As of Aug. 31, it was 13,459 soldiers short of its target of enlisting 62,000 troops by the end of this month. Guard officials say that because the organization is so big, with members in thousands of communities, it is particularly vulnerable to bad news. Pentagon officials are tracking the Guard's experience closely, concerned that the shortfalls it is beginning to register could signal a broader recruiting drought ahead.

Recruiters say teens show interest in joining - attracted by the chance to be part-time soldiers and go to college on the government's dime - but resistance is mounting from the parents who must give permission for under-18 recruits to enlist.

The sluggish economy makes it easier, recruiters say, to sign men and women up for the active-duty military services. Job protection, benefits and educational opportunities continue to make the military an attractive option, they say. And the surge of patriotic feelings and excitement about military service after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon continue to propel potential enlistees through recruiters' doors.

But National Guard recruiters say they're up against a force at least as powerful as economics or patriotism: parental instincts. In Jeff Fayette's case, his mother, Julia Couch, said that if her youngest son had asked her to sign his enlistment papers a few years ago, when the world seemed more at peace, she probably would have done it. Military service goes back a long way in her family, and on her factory worker's salary, it is hard to see how Jeff is going to afford college without outside help.

But on the crisp evening when recruiter Moody sat with her on the family's front porch on Indianapolis' East Side, the television inside was tuned to a CNN reporter saying the United States was girding for war. Three of the kids Jeff used to play football with were in Afghanistan. Terrorist threats seemed to be everywhere.

"'Aren't there enough older people, grown men, to send over to Iraq? You have to go after 17-year-olds?'" Couch recalls asking Moody. "We are a very patriotic family. But I'm not gonna sign what I felt like might be my son's death warrant."

With at least 29 National Guard members and 18 reservists dead in Iraq and with tours of duty in Iraq getting longer, recruiters concede that Couch is not the only parent to have blocked a child's enlistment.

"What we're telling these kids, well, it's just not taking," says Steve Long, a National Guard recruiter in Fayetteville, N.C. "They'll tell you right up front that they are interested in the college program. 'We didn't sign up to get shot at, we didn't sign up to get deployed,' they tell you. And these days, I can't sit across that dinner table at that family's house and tell them they're not going to be deployed. The fact is, the way things are, it would be a miracle if they didn't get sent overseas a long time before they get to go to college."

The military continues to show an overall ability to keep recruiting new members, despite the increasing dangers and long deployments facing troops. All of the active-duty services have met or exceeded their recruiting and retention goals this year. The Army Reserve was 651 new recruits short of its goal in June but has more than made up the shortfall since then.

Military officials acknowledge that the numbers are deceiving.

Straining to ensure it has enough troops to handle its commitments, the Pentagon issued orders this year preventing tens of thousands of soldiers who are serving in Iraq, or have served there recently, from leaving military service until further notice. That makes retention numbers look bigger than they might be otherwise.

When troops are not permitted to leave service, the military needs fewer new recruits to reach its personnel limits, which are set by Congress. As long as the orders are in force, they have a domino effect on military recruiting and retention.

Even in military units not affected by the orders, troops serve under fixed-term military contracts. That means that thousands of soldiers who might want to get out of service might not be eligible right away.

"This is not something we can expect to last indefinitely," warns James Hosek, an analyst at Rand Corp. who studies the effect of military deployments on recruitment and retention rates. "Past data suggests that troops are very resilient, but the entire volunteer force works on the idea that individuals have limits. And the experience in Iraq involves high risks and in some cases extremely long deployments."

There are more than 30,000 Guard soldiers and 50,000 reservists in Iraq today, the largest such battlefield presence since the Korean War.

Now, the part-time soldiers are being asked to do more. This month the Army announced that about 20,000 reservists and National Guard troops stationed in Iraq would have to serve a full year from the time they arrived in those countries, extending their tours in some cases for as long as 11 months.

Defense officials say the ultimate effect of the long deployments on the military - the financial and emotional strain on military dependents, the potential erosion of the desire to serve if troops continue to be subjected to random violent attacks - is being monitored closely by the Pentagon. "Keeping people is a top priority all the way from the secretary of defense on down," one senior official said. "I personally am surprised that we are doing as well as this, all things considered."

Esther Schrader writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
46°