NORFOLK, Va. - Despite a rising tide of combat deaths and the prospect of deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan for years to come, Americans continue to volunteer for duty and are re-enlisting at record rates.
Officials of the services say a combination of patriotism and the economy is driving people to the military and keeping them there.
"The war is not only not having a negative effect, but it is helping to reinforce the number of people who want to join," said Cmdr. John Kirby, a spokesman for the Navy's Bureau of Personnel.
Even the Army National Guard, which has had 150,000 citizen-soldiers mobilized for up to a year, has seen retention rates "going through the roof," said Guard spokesman Maj. Robert Howell.
"Mass exodus has not been the case in the Army National Guard," said Howell, deputy chief of the Strength Maintenance Division at the National Guard Bureau in Washington.
The Guard was prepared to lose up to 18 percent of units returning from lengthy deployments, but they have averaged 16.6 percent, with some as low as 12.6 percent, Howell said.
The Guard expects to again reach its recruiting goal of 56,000 members this year, to maintain its total strength of 350,000.
The Guard's goal for first-term re-enlistments, for those with less than six years of service, had been 65 percent this fiscal year, but has rocketed to 141 percent - which indicates that additional members re-enlisted early, usually to take advantage of bonuses.
The goal for second- and third-term enlistments, or those considered "career" soldiers, was set at 85 percent in the Guard but they have returned at 136 percent, Howell said.
The Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard all met or exceeded their year-end recruiting goals for fiscal year 2003, which ended Sept. 30. The figures continued to climb in the first half of fiscal year 2004, which was reached March 31.
The Army is at 100.1 percent of its "active-duty mission," said spokesman Douglas Smith, reviewing numbers current as of March 29. Smith said 34,593 soldiers had been enlisted for the active Army and 8,331 for the Reserves. The Army has been ahead of its goal every year since 2000 and every month this year, Smith said.
The Navy is meeting all recruiting and retention goals, and has cut the number of new recruits this year to the lowest target in 30 years.
Instead of bringing 41,200 new recruits into the service this fiscal year, the Navy will cut it off at 40,450, said Lt. Bill Davis with the Navy Personnel Command in Millington, Tenn.
"Thus far, through March, we've recruited 15,636, but this is normally our slow period," Davis said. "Things kick up in the summer with high school graduates. Where we've been getting 2,000 a month, we'll jump to 4,000 a month in the summer."
Navy re-enlistment rates are at an all-time high, with 62.3 percent of first-term sailors signing up for additional service. That compares with a targeted goal of 56 percent. The rate has grown each year since 2000, when 48.2 percent of the first-term sailors re-enlisted.
For those with six to 10 years of service, the Navy re-enlisted 74.1 percent; its goal had been 70 percent. For those with 10 to 14 years of service, 88.7 percent have re-enlisted this year; the goal was 85 percent.
The last time the Navy missed its recruiting goal was in 1998, Davis said.
In the Air Force, new recruit contracts are coming in at 104.2 percent of the goal in fiscal year 2003 and reached 102.6 percent of the goal through last month.
The Air Force is retaining 67 percent of its first-term enlisted members, 75 percent of its second term, and 98 percent of its career enlisted - all well above goal.
Like the Army, the Marine Corps has been in the thick of combat in Iraq; yet the Marines have exceeded their monthly recruiting goal every month for the past 106 consecutive months, or for nearly nine consecutive years.
From October to December 2003 - the first quarter of fiscal year 2004 - the Marines recruited 9,201 potential members, surpassing their goal of 8,729. The Marines recruit about 39,000 new people each year.
Even the Coast Guard, which has grown by more than 10 percent to 40,000 since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, is holding on to more of its members.
Traditionally, the Coast Guard has lost between 7 percent and 8 percent of its force through attrition each year. In 2001, the rate was 7.65 percent; in 2002, it was 7.9 percent, said Chief Petty Officer Paul Rhynarb, at Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington.
But last year, the rate fell to 2.68 percent, Rhynarb said.