Parent-trap snares recruiters
The tune changes at some homes when they hear 'sign here'
Thursday, August 11, 2005
By Jack Kelly, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Staff Sgt. Jason Rivera, 26, a Marine recruiter in Pittsburgh, went to the home of a high school student who had expressed interest in joining the Marine Reserve to talk to his parents.
Alyssa Cwanger, Post-Gazette
Jason McCamey, 19, does push-ups under the supervision of his recruiter, Staff Sgt. Jason Rivera, at the Armed Forces Recruiting sub-station on McKnight Road in Ross yesterday. Marine recruits meet weekly with their recruiters for physical training and pep talks until they leave for boot camp.
It was a large home in a well-to-do suburb north of the city. Two American flags adorned the yard. The prospect's mom greeted him wearing an American flag T-shirt.
"I want you to know we support you," she gushed.
Rivera soon reached the limits of her support.
"Military service isn't for our son. It isn't for our kind of people," she told him.
"Parental consent is the toughest thing we face right now," said Rivera's boss, Maj. Michael Sherman, 36, commander of the recruiting battalion headquartered in Pittsburgh. "There are so many kids just waiting for their 18th birthday, so they can enlist."
It is even tougher for the Army, which, along with the Marines, has seen the bulk of the action in Iraq, but has far higher enlistment quotas.
Recruiters have to contact as many as 100 young people just to get one who is willing to talk about enlisting, chiefly because of opposition from parents, said Maj. Gen. Michael Rochelle, commander of the Army Recruiting Command. That's nearly four times as many as before the war in Iraq began.
The Army's difficulties were reflected in the latest monthly recruiting figures, released yesterday by the U.S. Department of Defense.
They show that while all active-duty military services met their goals for July, and the Army met its goal for the second month in a row, the Army continues to lag for the recruiting year that began 10 months ago, reaching only 89 percent of its goal.
The Army figures to be about 8,000 soldiers short of its goal of 80,000 for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, which would be the first time since 1999 that it will have missed an annual target.
Army National Guard and Reserve units, even more than the active service, have been having trouble attracting recruits as the war in Iraq continues and the economy improves. Their enlistment figures have not started to rebound -- the Army Guard reached only 80 percent of its July recruiting goal; the Army Reserve, 82 percent. Among all Guard and Reserve units, only the Marines and Air Force achieved their quotas for July.
Stopping the bleeding
For the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, last year was the worst. Total strength fell 1,088 soldiers below target. The additional shortfall this year has been only 192 soldiers.
"We've stopped the bleeding," said Lt. Col. Michael Curran, chief of recruiting. "The tourniquet has been applied."
If that's the case, it is because the Army and its affiliated Guard and Reserve units have succeeded in throwing money at the problem by boosting enlistment bonuses, hiring more recruiters and spending more on advertisements.
A recent surge in re-enlistments by people with prior service coincided with a tripling to $15,000 in the bonuses the Army Guard can pay to veterans. If Congress approves doubling the bonus for initial enlistments in the Guard and Reserve, to $20,000, the Guard's recruiting troubles should be over, said Lt. Col. Mike Jones, a personnel expert at National Guard Bureau headquarters in Arlington, Va.
The Army added 1,015 recruiters this year, the Army National Guard, 1,600. And the effect is just beginning to be felt, according to Maj. Scott North, Western Pennsylvania recruiting officer for the National Guard. Recruiters had to be selected and trained and are only now becoming familiar with their territories, he said.
The Army also increased its advertising budget this year by $40 million, to $300 million. The Army National Guard boosted its ad budget to $52 million, from $46 million.
Army recruiters say all these efforts are fine, but that education benefits remain their most effective lure.
Those who join any branch of the military are eligible for the G.I. Bill. The Army provides additional benefits up to $70,000. Those who enlist in the Pennsylvania National Guard can get up to $270 a month from the G.I. Bill and an additional $4,378 a year from the state.
On the other hand, the military's stiff educational standards make recruiting more difficult. At least 90 percent of those entering the Army this year will have a high school diploma. The figure is 96 percent in the Marine Corps.
"There are a lot of people who are interested, but they can't pass the [Armed Forces Qualification Test]," said Staff Sgt. Mark Hatfield of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, who recruits in five Pittsburgh area high schools.
"A third of the people we talk to cannot pass the AFQT," said Sherman of the Marines.
Another issue is a provision in the No Child Left Behind law that requires high schools to give recruiters access to information about their students. Parents can opt to deny this information to recruiters, and antiwar groups are mounting a national effort to encourage them to do so.
Recruiters say a quarter of the schools, mainly in the suburbs, do the minimum the law requires, anyway.
"At Baldwin High, they put five recruiters in a small room," Hatfield said. "It was an uncomfortable environment for potential recruits."
Donna Milanovich, superintendent of Baldwin-Whitehall School District, said recruiters may come to the high school once a month, where they are provided a room in the guidance office to meet with interested students. The school is old, she said, and space is limited. The school has denied recruiters' requests to meet students in hallways or phys ed classes.
"I thought we had a good relationship with the military," she said.
Antiwar activists present an obstacle, as well. Demonstrators disrupted Army Reserve recruiters at Carnegie Mellon University in April, and the local chapter of the American Friends Service Committee plans a "nonviolent day of direct action" a week from Saturday to "shut down military recruiting in Pittsburgh."
Dealing with the parents
Despite the challenges of recruiting during a war and a growing economy, this remains a rewarding time to be a recruiter, according to Rivera.
"Nowadays you deal with a lot of good kids," he said. "It takes a lot of courage to join the Marines today."
Tequia Brown, 21, wanted to join the Marines when she was 18. But her mother objected strenuously, so she went to college instead. But after her mom died this spring, she enlisted.
"It's a wonderful opportunity to see the world, to develop self-respect, to have a sense of importance, to make a contribution," said Brown, who hopes to make a career of the Marines and then become a doctor.
Jason McCamey, 19, got support from his family when he told them he wanted to join the Marines.
His dad, Don, 46, who had served in the Navy from 1983 to 1986, joined the Pennsylvania Army National Guard shortly after his son enlisted. Jason's younger brother Sean, 17, a high school student, has joined the Army Reserve.
"I taught my boys you should serve your country," Don McCamey said.
But McCamey is an increasingly rare kind of parent these days.
Jason McCamey said, "I tried to get a friend to come down [to the Marine recruiter] with me, but his dad wouldn't let him."