Military finds itself short of good recruits

Trend: Increasingly, too few people want to join the United States armed forces, and too many want to leave

July 18, 1999|By Dave Moniz

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- The stories are making the rounds among Fort Jackson's battalion commanders and drill sergeants.

There's the one about the recruit who showed up for basic training missing a trigger finger.

There are tales of several trainees who arrived missing toes.

And another whose X-ray showed a drainage tube running from his brain to his chest.

Most of the stories are, to the Army's dismay, true.

At Fort Jackson, a training post that is the portal of entry to 35,000 Army recruits each year, new soldiers have arrived recently with hepatitis C, severe psychological disorders and histories of confinement to mental institutions.

Early this year, officials at the post hospital noticed that admissions to their psychiatric ward had nearly doubled from the previous winter to 69.

In recent years, such physical and mental problems have been a hazard of recruiting tens of thousands of new soldiers. But a number of Army commanders say they have never seen such an increasing flow of people who clearly have no place in uniform.

From boot camps to operational bases across the United States, the military is suffering from a progressive, systemic disease. Far too few people want to join America's all-volunteer military, and far too many of those who join want to leave.

Short of a remarkable, and as yet unforeseen, turnaround, the United States will have a smaller military or a dumber military or perhaps both, many career officers quietly have concluded. Barring a recession that could create an instant recruiting pool, the force is unlikely to withstand a manic pace of life defined by never-ending overseas missions.

David Segal, a military sociologist at the University of Maryland, says the services are headed for a personnel train wreck that will be solved only by radical solutions.

"The nation is going to have to think about what sort of military force it wants and how it's going to get it," he warns.

Unless the United States suffers a major economic downturn, Segal says, "These problems are not going to go away."

In the past year, every service except the Marines has faced an emerging shortage of recruits and regular troops.

The Army expects to miss its year-end goal of 74,500 recruits by 7,000 to 8,000 -- nearly the equivalent of a "light" division such as the 10th Mountain based at Fort Drum, N.Y.

Next year could be worse, Army commanders privately admit.

The losses, some speculate, could force the service to shut down one, or perhaps two, of its 10 active divisions. The large combat units are the foundation for fighting major wars.

The Navy, which missed its goal of 55,000 recruits last year by nearly 7,000 sailors, is experiencing a frightful exodus of enlisted people. Retention statistics show that among new, mid-career and experienced sailors, the Navy is far short of retaining enough people for a fleet some 18,000 people short.

While it needs 38 percent of all new sailors to stay for a second enlistment, only 27.8 percent are doing so, down from 31 percent a year ago. Among mid-career enlisted personnel, the Navy needs 54 percent to stay in uniform, but only 42.8 percent are choosing to remain. And perhaps most telling, only 47.4 percent of third-term sailors are choosing the Navy as a career, far below the 62 percent that are needed.

The Navy is not having much better success keeping officers on submarines and surface ships, with retention rates 11 to 14 percentage points below what's needed to keep its force of about 320 ships steaming.

The Air Force has its own woes. The service is so short of air-traffic controllers it has curtailed flight hours at a number of stateside bases. Like the Navy, the Air Force has seen a rapid and escalating exodus of skilled workers. For the first time, the Air Force has been forced to air paid television commercials seeking recruits.

Turning to television

Despite a decision to spend more than $50 million on television recruiting ads this year and next, the Air Force is in danger of not meeting its enlistment goals for the first time in two decades.

Historically, no service has had an easier time recruiting than the Air Force. Yet in a country of 270 million, it might not be able to find 33,000 enlistees this year.

That comes on top of departures of skilled people that are so damaging the service that it approved a policy last month to keep some officers and enlisted members from leaving, noting national-security concerns during the air war over Yugoslavia.

The reasons for the military's growing distance from the American public are in a few ways obvious: A roaring peacetime economy is gobbling up every available worker.

Some are subtle, such as the one cited by Lt. Col. Jim Helis, a senior Army recruiting commander:

"The missions in Somalia and Bosnia have not produced any heroes," Helis says, noting that families of many potential recruits won't allow their children to join unless recruiters can promise they won't be sent to Third World backwaters.

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