Military recruiters losing war at home Enlistment: Poor education and drugs are increasingly eroding the applicant pool as the Navy and Army struggle to meet recruiting goals.

November 03, 1998|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Chief Petty Officer Will Cawley is working overtime on the faded blocks of West Baltimore, trying to coax the next generation into the Navy fleet. His chief obstacle is not competition from a robust economy; it's drugs and poor education.

Working from a storefront recruiting station off Pratt Street, Cawley rejects more than half the would-be sailors because of their persistent drug use or inability to pass the military's general-knowledge entrance test.

"What do they learn in school?" asks an exasperated Cawley, a third-generation serviceman from the Eastern Shore. With five days left in October, Cawley was sure he would miss his six-sailor monthly quota.

"I've talked to 42 people, and we have two in the Navy," he says.

What Cawley, 35, is experiencing is not simply the pathologies of the crumbling inner city. Navy and Army recruiters across the nation say these same problems are crossing racial and regional lines, extending into leafy suburbs and rural outposts. Recruiting shortages, top officers say, are dulling America's military edge.

What's more, past and present Pentagon officials say, the Navy has bungled its recruiting efforts over the past year by failing to send more recruiters into the field or to pump enough advertising dollars into its budget. Those missteps contributed to the Navy having missed its recruiting goal for the first time since 1973, when the all-volunteer military was created.

The Navy fell 7,000 sailors below its recruiting goal last year. As a result, some ships are not fully staffed. The Navy's recruitment problem is the worst in the military, but the other services are in trouble as well.

For the fourth time in 25 years, the Army missed its recruitment goal last year -- by about 800 soldiers, officials say. The two smallest services -- the Marine Corps and the Air Force -- are meeting their personnel needs, but leaders say that attracting recruits is becoming harder for them as well.

Military leaders tell Congress that the lure of fat paychecks and benefits from a thriving job market are to blame for recruiting shortfalls. The military is now spending tens of millions of dollars more on advertising and hiring hundreds of additional recruiters to attract America's youth.

"We definitely have to talk to and screen many more people than we did years ago," says Rear Adm. Barbara E. McGann, commander of Navy recruiting. "Those most qualified in the marketplace have many options."

Meanwhile, polls show a declining teen interest in enlisting, McGann and other top recruiters say. There are also fewer military-veteran role models at home or in the schools to encourage a career in uniform.

In good and bad times

But interviews with nearly two dozen recruiters around the nation suggest that the economy, bungled planning and declining interest are only a partial answer to the recruiting crisis. Drugs and poor test scores are increasingly eroding the applicant pool, worming their way through good and bad economic times.

As a result, recruiters are working longer hours, sometimes six or seven days a week, to attract high school and junior college students. And they are going into middle schools and junior high schools in greater numbers, preaching an anti-drug message and urging students not to drop out.

"We let them know there are things you can't do," says Sgt. 1st Class Donnel Daniels, an eight-year veteran of Army recruiting in Detroit, noting that the effort potentially benefits society as well as the military. "I've talked to seventh- and eighth-graders who [later came] back and joined the Army."

In the suburbs of Phoenix, Ariz., Petty Officer 1st Class Mark Butler also appears before younger students. "Hopefully, when they see a sharp Navy guy in a uniform, they'll remember what they were told about drugs," Butler says.

"You see more of it than years ago, as far as marijuana and different types of drugs," says the petty officer, a recruiter for eight years. "I would say half the people you talk to are currently using."

The same is true in the suburbs and farming communities that rim Sacramento, Calif., where Army Sgt. 1st Class Dustin W. Harrington-Collins has spent a decade trolling for new soldiers. "I've seen the drugs move in -- it's become more of a problem for recruiting," says Harrington-Collins, who turns away 50 percent of the teen-agers because they fail the drug test or have arrest records.

The sergeant sees troubling evidence of drug use, mostly marijuana and cocaine. "The kids get younger and younger," he says.

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