In Howard, an Army of occupations

March 19, 1995|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,Sun Staff Writer

Velma J. Blunt walks into the busy cafeteria at Atholton High School, where the high schoolers relax and eat cold cuts and chips. The lady in green offers them something more substantial -- a job, a future and a chance to serve their country.

"We go to them," says the 38-year-old Army recruiter, one of that service's two female recruiters in Howard County. "To me, we do offer a service just like Giant, Johns Hopkins and IBM. My job is to find jobs for people."

Stationed at the Army Recruiting Office in the Clark Building in Columbia's Town Center, Sgt. 1st Class Blunt and her four colleagues recruit people ages 17 to 33 into the Army from one of the country's most affluent counties.

Though the sons and daughters of well-to-do parents may not automatically consider the military a career option, Howard's well-educated population makes it an attractive recruiting location for an increasingly selective military.

To help make those selections, Sergeant Blunt works the phones and goes door-to-door, often leaving her white business card and an Army pamphlet if no one is home. She also visits Howard Community College, shopping centers and malls and Atholton, Hammond, Howard and Wilde Lake high schools.

And while their gender makes Sergeant Blunt and Staff Sgt. Karenmary Melendez a minority among the 100 or so Army recruiters in Maryland -- where only about 15 percent to 20 percent are female, according to Army officials -- it hasn't made their work more difficult, says Sergeant Blunt.

"There are more male recruiters, that's just the way it is," says the 15-year veteran who has been a recruiter for four years in Howard County. "[Recruiters are] the backbone. If we don't supply the force, sooner or later, the force closes down."

In the past three years, the Army -- the nation's largest military service -- has scaled back from 795,000 soldiers to 500,000, according to Lt. Col. Willie Harrison, commander of the Baltimore recruiting battalion. The reduction is a result of government cutbacks and a drop in interest from youth in the post-Cold War era.

Getting a spot in the new, trimmer Army is becoming increasingly competitive.

"It's just like applying for a job," says Sergeant Blunt. She notes that many Howard County high school students are the type of high-quality candidates that the Army is trying to attract. "You can't come in here with a D" average, she says.

The county's only Army recruiting station has contributed to filling the Army's demand for high-quality recruits. (There also is a Navy and Marine recruiting station in the county.)

During fiscal 1994, which ended in September, 633 recruits enlisted in the regular Army and 283 in the Reserve from the entire Columbia area, which includes offices in Columbia, Gaithersburg and Rockville, an Army spokeswoman said.

That's compared with the 686 who enlisted in the regular Army and 293 in the Reserve in the Baltimore region, which includes Baltimore City and county.

Sergeant Blunt's team alone recruited 54 people into the regular Army and 33 into the Army Reserve last fiscal year.

Locally, most of the recruits are men who enlist right after high school, Sergeant Blunt says. That follows the national pattern in the first quarter of fiscal 1995, when 29,800 males enlisted in all U.S. military branches, compared with 6,800 females, says Susan Hansen, a Defense Department spokeswoman.

But Sergeant Blunt says recruiting remains the same process, whether for males or females, in the city or an affluent county like Howard, where 81 percent of the high school graduates continue their education.

"To me, it doesn't matter how much money the parents make . . . if you can give that kid what he wants," says Sergeant Blunt, who lives at Fort Meade with her husband, Jeffrey, a retired soldier, and 6-year-old son Blake.

"We've put kids in from The Preserves," an upper-class community in Ellicott City, she says.

To stress her point, she notes that many Howard County residents have done military service or are in the military themselves. "Some of these people who live in million-dollar homes are prior service," she says.

Colonel Harrison agrees with her focus on the individual.

"The key is understanding the product that you're selling," he says. "It's not like buying a Buick. You have to have a commitment from the individual."

He says the Army offers a lot: up to $30,000 in college tuition, great benefits, pay and training in 250 different skills.

Making that pitch is challenging for Sergeant Blunt, an energetic extrovert who does whatever it takes to connect with her prospective recruits. She makes small talk with them, listens and says "a name like Blunt" can be an icebreaker.

Her workday usually begins at 8 a.m. and lasts until about 6:30 p.m. or 7 p.m., a schedule that includes conducting interviews, setting up physicals and Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery tests and taking enlistees to the processing center in Elkridge.

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