WASHINGTON -- When potential soldiers ask if they'll be fighting Iraqi tanks in the Kuwaiti desert, Staff Sgt. Gregory L. Massey often turns their attention to matters closer to home -- like wages, college financial aid or generous cash bonuses for signing the enlistment papers.
For him and other recruiters in the U.S. Army's Baltimore recruiting battalion, aggressive sales pitches and economic incentives -- including new $6,000 bonuses for taking combat assignments -- are key reasons why they were able to bring more young men and women into the military last month than most other recruiters across the country.
"The bottom line is that you join the Army to defend your country, but we try to get some benefits to you at the same time," said Sergeant Massey, a recruiter at Mondawmin Mall in West Baltimore.
Ever since Iraq's invasion of Kuwait Aug. 2 triggered the massive deployment of U.S. forces to the Persian Gulf, mounting public anxiety over a possible war has made it tougher for the military to sign up recruits, Pentagon figures show.
Although the services say they can maintain their strength with a large pool of recruits whose enlistment contracts require them to report to boot camp this winter, recent recruiting figures suggest trouble ahead.
The Army, whose troops make up the bulk of forces committed to Operation Desert Shield, already is bearing the brunt of the problem.
"Recruiting will never be the same after Desert Shield," said Northwestern University sociologist Charles C. Moskos, a leading authority on military manpower. "It's falling through the floor.
"People have found out the military is not just a job, that training really is for the possibility of war. People have found out it's for real. There's not enough money in the world to ask people to get shot at."
Last week, the Army acknowledged failing to meet quotas for new enlistment contracts in three of the last four months.
In October, the Army fell more than 17 percent short of its goal of nearly 10,000 new contracts, and November figures show a shortfall of more than 22 percent.
The Navy has experienced an 11 percent decline over the last three months -- and a 15 percent drop in November alone -- while the Air Force and Marines, which set smaller quotas, have met or exceeded their objectives, Pentagon figures show.
At the Navy Recruiting Command, Cmdr. Mel Sundin described recent difficulties as "not significant, percentage-wise."
But, he added, "If shooting starts, God forbid, then we'll really have something to worry about."
Competition among the services for a shrinking population of young people has intensified, and even the military reserves are being raided for the active-duty Army, recruiters said.
In Baltimore, Sergeant Massey's most recent recruits were three members of the Maryland Army National Guard. "You have to generate leads and go where you can find them," he said.
Like most recruiters these days, he has been telling anxious prospects that signing up doesn't mean shipping out to Saudi Arabia right away, since recruits still face eight weeks at boot camp and another eight weeks to a year of advanced training in a military occupation.
"No one comes in the recruiting station who doesn't know what's going on" in the Persian Gulf, the sergeant said. They are all aware of the potential for war, he said.
For now, there is little alarm being expressed publicly at the Pentagon because, as one official put it, enough recruits are "coming through the door and filling empty slots."
The drop in new enlistment contracts -- which traditionally far exceed actual manpower needs -- means only that the line of people trying to get into the military seems to be getting shorter, said Pete Williams, chief Pentagon spokesman.
Lt. Col. Alex Angelle, spokesman for the Army Recruiting Command, said recent statistics on people actually entering active-duty service each month paint a brighter picture. These are recruits who signed enlistment contracts allowing them to hold off entering the service for as long as a year. The Army has enough contracts, many of them signed as part of a delayed-entry program, to meet its goal of filling 25,700 active-duty slots for the first quarter of fiscal 1991, he said.
"We realize we're being affected by Desert Shield . . . but it's too hasty to draw conclusions now," Colonel Angelle said. "There's no sign the pipeline's drying up right now."
The Baltimore battalion -- which operates in Maryland, the District of Columbia and parts of West Virginia and Delaware -- missed its quotas for recruiting contracts in September and October, the latter month by more than 15 percent.
But the unit exceeded its November quota by signing up 188 active-duty recruits and 146 reservists, Army figures show.
The total was the third highest in the country, surpassed only by figures in Dallas and Miami, which came in first and second, respectively, the Army Recruiting Command reported.