Maryland enlistment for the Army Reserves and the Army National Guard has shown no sharp decline in recent months. But some recruiters say they have to sell harder at a time when a part-time hitch appears more likely to turn into full-time deployment in the desert.
The prospect of combat is also drawing more inquiries from people who want to fight, but aren't necessarily qualified, including a man with the AIDS virus who said he wanted to "die with dignity."
Among the services, the Army reports the deepest decline, with its national recruiting off by about 30 percent since September compared with the same period last year.
In Maryland, recruiters have met some but not all of their monthly goals for new Army Reserve and Guard soldiers since President Bush deployed troops to Operation Desert Shield and announced a reserve call-up in August. Navy Reserve figures were not immediately available.
Since Guard and reserve units began shipping out, "people are thinking much harder about whether they want to join the military for benefits of education, travel and a part-time job," said Col. Thomas Johnson, who is in charge of recruiting for the Maryland Army National Guard. "All the time we have been telling them we are a military organization, not just a part-time job."
Now the question potential recruits most frequently ask is whether they will be called to active duty and deployed to combat, said Capt. Sean Tuomey, who commands Army recruiting operations for much of the Baltimore metropolitan area.
"You might. I might have to go, for crying out loud," Tuomey tells them. "I don't think there's anyone on the planet that can answer that question."
That uncertainty apparently doesn't deter many who stroll into the offices under his command. "We're looking here to lock out a record year," he said, adding that people were still joining for the standard reasons: job-skill training, education subsidies, adventure, travel and service to the country.
Across the state, however, the results suggest that reserve duty may be losing some of its allure.
According to the Army's Baltimore Recruiting Battalion at Fort Meade, reserve recruiting in Maryland has missed its goals in two of the past four months. Recruiters exceeded by eight their reserve goal of 96 this month. But in October, they recruited 107, falling short of their goal of 129. They also fell short in September -- 108 recruits against a goal of 124.
As of a week ago, Maryland Army National Guard recruiters had signed only 68 people toward their November goal of 113, according to Johnson. But the Guard did 21 better than its October goal of 122. In September, the Guard was ordered to stop at 44 recruits toward a goal of 155, Johnson said, because the Pentagon feared it wouldn't have enough money to pay them all before the new fiscal year began Oct. 1.
Despite the shortfall in November, Johnson said he isn't worried yet. The pattern would have to continue for at least another six months, he said, before the Guard would respond by training in smaller units and by maintaining fewer airplanes and ground vehicles in a state of readiness.
Although candidates may be dwelling on the likelihood of deployment, only about 420 of the 9,300 men and women in Maryland's Army and Air National Guard have been activated so far, mostly transportation and military police units. While recruiters have to sell enlistment more aggressively to those who qualify, Johnson said they also find themselves having to put off more people who don't qualify, but are applying only because of the prospect of combat.
Recruiters speak of middle-aged, white-collar men who ask to ship out for a quick combat tour. One man, 42, told Johnson he had tested positive for the acquired immune deficiency syndrome virus and wanted to fight. "He wanted to die with dignity," Johnson said, but he had to tell the man that he was medically disqualified.
Other candidates have tried to get in with only a grade school education in the hope that the military had relaxed its standard of a high school diploma since the mobilization. "They were looking for some way to be accepted by society," Johnson said.
Actually, the military eliminated many of the exceptions for non-high school graduates last spring in response to the thaw of the Cold War, Johnson said. With fewer American troops needed in Europe, recruiters have been told to meet lower goals than last year, which means they can fill them with better-educated candidates who score higher on entrance tests.
Recruiters are also advertising less. Sgt. Melvin Grimes, in charge of marketing for the Maryland Army National Guard, said his advertising budget was cut in half as federal austerity, combined with the spending demands of Desert Shield, has siphoned money from several areas of the defense budget.
Joe Hanley, a spokesman for the chief of Army reserves at the Pentagon, said his national advertising budget was cut in the new federal budget, from a proposal of $21 million to $14 million.
Radio and television audiences would never have guessed that from the ad blitz going on now. But Hanley said the military has always advertised most heavily during the football season to reach its likeliest recruits -- young men.
Desert Shield has brought no changes to the traditional advertising themes of patriotism and the promise of education aid and job skills training, Hanley said. But if war breaks out, the pitch will have to shift almost entirely toward patriotism, he said, since recruits may have to wait a long time before realizing the promised benefits.