Army faces hard battle for recruits

December 27, 1993|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Army that fought Iraqi troops and fed starving Somalis is rapidly losing its appeal to young men across the country, even among those prepared to accept the risks of combat.

Their willingness to wear a uniform has dropped sharply since 1990 and will continue to decline unless the military finds a way to rekindle interest among high school juniors and seniors, Army and defense officials said in recent interviews.

"It's getting worse, and there's no indication it'll get better right away," said Lt. Col. Greg McGuckin, the Army's marketing and advertising chief, who called the trend "alarming."

He and other officials offer different reasons for the drop in interest, although they agree that the prospect of getting killed or sent to a combat zone is not what concerns potential recruits the most.

Some officials blame news of military cutbacks, early discharges and base closings for driving potential recruits away. Others contend that young people are eager to get on with their lives and don't want to postpone college or the pursuit of a "real" career.

Whatever the reason, waning interest in the Army could not come at a worse time for the nation's largest military service.

It is already struggling to adjust to massive budget cuts and a dramatic increase in labor-intensive humanitarian and peacekeeping missions. In the face of those changes, the Army's future readiness to fight wars will depend on its ability to attract high-quality recruits, namely high school graduates who score in the upper half of their military qualification exams.

Even as it gets smaller, the military needs nearly 184,000 recruits in 1994, 70,000 of whom are to go to the Army. The services met their 1993 quotas, and the Army Recruiting Command said this week that the Army will exceed its first-quarter goal for the current fiscal year by 2 percent.

But some officials who are beginning to see raw data from the latest Pentagon-sponsored national poll of young Americans said they expect a much smaller percentage of males between 16 and 24 years old to have any "propensity" to enlist.

The trend has affected the Army, Navy, Air Force and, to a much lesser extent, the Marine Corps, which remains a strong draw for young men who want to "challenge themselves," Pentagon analysts say.

At Glen Burnie Senior High School in Anne Arundel County, where Army recruiters maintain a high profile and often sign up more seniors than needed to meet their quotas, some prospective Army enlistees have doubts about the value of entering active-duty service.

David Kreimer, 17, who needs money for college, wants to join the military police and use his training to get a civilian law enforcement job. While he said he would be ready to accept dangerous overseas assignments if he enlisted, Mr. Kreimer still hasn't made a more fundamental decision: Should he give the Army all of his time in return for tuition benefits under the G.I. Bill?

"With the Army National Guard, you're talking about 39 days on duty," he said. "I could go to Anne Arundel Community College in the ROTC program and come out an officer. Or I could get a job.

"I'm not too worried, because the Army isn't the only thing," he said.

Roland Gross, 18, also sees the Army as a potential source of money for college or for training as an electrician at a trade school. But he's not sure about making a full-time commitment to the military.

"I don't think I want to be far away from my family," Mr. Gross said, who added that the possibility of being sent to hostile areas also concerns him.

Across the country, the loss of interest in joining the military has been most pronounced within the "prime market" of young men between 16 and 21 years old, while the willingness of young women of the same ages has been relatively low but stable, Army officials said.

Decline among ethnic groups

Among ethnic groups, young black and Hispanic men, who traditionally have shown more interest in enlisting than white men, are now less willing to enter the Army, Colonel McGuckin said. Blacks and Hispanics with a propensity to enlist dropped by 47 percent and 37 percent, respectively, from 1989 to 1992, while interest among young whites fell 31 percent, he said.

Attitude survey

The Defense Department's annual Youth Attitude Tracking Study, which surveys a random sample of 10,000 young Americans about enlisting in the armed services, revealed last year that interest by young males between the ages of 16 and 18 reached its lowest level in nine years. Interest among those 19 to 21 also was sinking to new lows.

Among all males between 16 and 21, only 11.3 percent expressed interest in joining the Army, the 1992 survey shows.

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