U.S. Army overrun with recruits Rise in recruits may allow Army to raise its standards of quality.

March 27, 1991|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Evening Sun Staff

The young man who phoned Fort George G. Meade last week sought to serve his country.

"I want to join the Army," he said, "but I'm in a wheelchair."

Connie Hill will never forget the call.

"It was one of the hardest conversations I've ever had," says Hill, spokeswoman for the Baltimore Recruiting Battalion. "I suggested he apply for a civil service job like mine, because the Army needs us,too."

Recruiting fever -- fallout from the Persian Gulf war -- has left the Army in its most enviable manpower position in a decade, VTC officials say. Thanks to the heady successes in the Middle East, and generals-turned-media-stars like Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell, the Army is in a position where it may have rid itself of the image of the service of last resort.

The only problem on the horizon is the Army's need to shrink its overall forces, but even that concern is viewed with optimism, as it will allow the Army to boost its standards of quality.

In other words, Uncle Sam still wants you, but it is getting harder to make the cut.

"Business is okey-dokey," says Maj. Gen. Jack Wheeler, commander of U.S. Army recruiting. "The war showed we have a dedicated, courageous Army, but we don't intend to milk the war. That's history."

The recruiting picture isn't as rosy for the Army Reserves, whose ranks are expected to thin as those weekend soldiers, faced with family and financial hardships, return from active duty and think twice about continuing in uniform.

Nonetheless, regular Army recruiting is up because of the war. Nationally, more Americans enlisted during the past five months than during the same period a year ago. And the Baltimore Recruiting Battalion consistently surpassed its recruiting goals during the conflict in the Persian Gulf.

All the services have exceeded their recent recruiting goals, thanks to a combination of downsizing and war publicity. But the effect on the Army, which has the largest personnel requirements and, some say, the least desirable image, has been the most dramatic.

In January and February alone, Army recruiting surpassed its national quota by 14 and 17 percent, respectively, enlisting more than 13,000 new soldiers during the two-month period. Meanwhile, the Baltimore Recruiting Battalion signed up 451 young men and women, well over the quota of 402.

All of this comes as the Army is closing 170 recruiting stations nationwide.

Polls show that public support for the military is at a 10-year high, due to the speed and decisiveness of the allied victory engineered by Army generals Schwarzkopf, commander in the Persian Gulf, and Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon.

Television played a key role in the new popularity. The Cable News Network became a round-the-clock Home Shopping Club for the military, and Army recruiters acknowledge the lift provided by high-profile figures like Schwarzkopf, who earned the respect of American parents, and Powell, considered a role model for minority enlistees. Both wear four stars.

Ironically, the Army is shrinking at the same time that its popularity is peaking: The Pentagon has ordered a reduction in troops from 745,000 to 535,500 before 1996.

Downsizing the military in the aftermath of victory makes recruiting easier, say officials, and allows the Army to be a truly selective service. The young people who enlisted during the Gulf War were the best-educated group ever recruited for the all-volunteer Army.

"Last year at this time, 88 percent of our recruits had high school diplomas; this year, the figure is 96 percent," says Wheeler.

The Baltimore Recruiting Battalion boasts even higher numbers for its enlistees during the past two months: 100 percent of the women and 97 percent of the men are high school graduates.

"And March is going to be our best month yet," says Wheeler. "This will be a history-making year."

The Army may have problems recruiting reservists, he admits, notably professionals with high-paying civilian jobs who have the most to lose from long-term deployment. But the Army Reserves also face deep personnel cuts of 200,000 men and women, which eases the recruiting burden somewhat. The Army also hopes to nudge some active-duty personnel into the reserves.

"We'll be challenged to find doctors and nurses and other professionals" for the reserves, says Wheeler. "I don't know what we'll do about doctors just yet. But we are going to start a Nurse Candidate Program sometime this year, offering monthly stipends to juniors and seniors in nursing schools" in return for service commitments.

Wheeler also predicts that the skyrocketing cost of college will cause more young people to view the military as a steppingstone to higher education; by joining the Army they can amass $25,200 in tuition benefits under the College Fund program. In return, the high-tech military gets the top-drawer recruits it is actively seeking.

"In the 1990s, that $25,200 will take on a different luster than it did in the past," he says. "Young men and women will take that benefit and enter college. We'll become a viable solution for many of them."

Moreover, says Wheeler, today's 10-year-olds received a crash course in military technology. They know all about Patriots and Scuds and laser-guided missles, and this familiarity could aid recruiting in years to come.

"If what these kids saw [in the war] motivates them to take math and physics in school, and go on to high-tech training in the Army, that's great," says Wheeler.

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