Off-duty recruiting a bonus for soldiers

Military pays by the head in effort to fill quotas, but expansion plans pose daunting challenge

December 23, 2006|By David Wood | David Wood,Sun Reporter

WASHINGTON -- A young Baltimore man with flashing eyes and an infectious grin - a nonstop charmer - Dolton Goolcharan might hold part of the answer to the nation's military recruiting problem.

Goolcharan, from Penhurst Avenue in Northwest Baltimore, is a 21-year-old immigrant from Trinidad and a private first class in the Maryland National Guard. He is also a conspicuous success in an initiative that pays soldiers to scour the streets for recruits and persuade them to sign up.

It has always been difficult to find people willing to serve, doubly so during wartime. Now, President Bush wants the military to add more troops, perhaps as many as 70,000, a daunting challenge, say Pentagon officials and military manpower specialists.

The military has traditionally relied on servicemen and women assigned to recruiting offices across the country, where they work through phone books, set up booths at high school career days and make "cold calls" to graduating seniors in the endless hunt for new soldiers.

But young men such as Goolcharan have big advantages over these recruiters. They mingle easily with their peers, unlike traditional recruiters, who are often older by half a decade or more. They are cheaper, because they work on their own time and use their own resources, and don't require office space, cars or phones. And because they are selecting other youths who will serve in their own units, they are pickier about whom they will enlist.

The incentive: They get paid $2,000 for each prospective soldier they find who completes basic training.

"I've got good communications skills with people," says Goolcharan, who likes to be known as "Trinidad."

Sporting a National Guard T-shirt, he cruises places such as the Inner Harbor where young people throng and prides himself on his ability to spot a potential soldier.

"Anywhere you go, you're going to find people interested and people who are not. If they have drop-down pants, they're smokin,' head hanging down - no, they won't join," he says. "But most people are positive about the National Guard."

This approach seems to work, according to officials at the Maryland National Guard and at the Pentagon. Goolcharan has signed up 11 new soldiers so far, a record many full-time military recruiters would envy. And he has netted himself a cool $22,000.

Out on the streets of Baltimore, where Goolcharan is scanning the passing crowd for potential recruits, even the prospect of fighting in Iraq doesn't seem to be a show-stopper.

"Some people say, `Uh, I don't want to go to war,"' he says. "You always tell people there is a potential you could go to war. Always - in block letters! That changes things. Then, when they hear about the benefits, they're interested again."

One prospect he spotted out of an Inner Harbor crowd was 19-year-old Patrice Brooks from Prince George's County. The daughter of an Army officer, she knew she wanted to enlist but was wavering between the Air Force and Marines. When Goolcharan explained the National Guard's 100 percent college tuition plan, she signed up.

Now, Private Brooks is a sophomore at Morgan State, with part of her tuition waived and the rest paid for, along with a generous stipend from the GI Bill for books. She'll do her training in the summers between semesters.

"Iraq?" she says. "I wouldn't mind going. I think I'd be excited to go."

About 1,000 Maryland Guard soldiers like Goolcharan are working on their off hours to find recruits. So far this year, they've encouraged 183 to enlist in the Guard. Nationally, just over 100,000 National Guard soldiers are working as "recruiting assistants," and so far this year they've brought in 20,375 enlistees, about a third of the Guard's overall take. The active-duty Army has also seen encouraging results from a more limited soldier-recruiter program.

Still, these efforts, by themselves, might not be enough. Today, the services are barely making their manpower goals, even with $20,000 signing bonuses for new recruits and re-enlistment rewards as high as $150,000. The Army has hired hundreds of new recruiters and has begun accepting volunteers up to 42 years old as well as those with lower test scores and certain criminal records. The recruiting crunch is so severe that some have suggested tapping into two unused manpower pools, illegal immigrants and gays, to avoid a draft.

In a news conference this week, Bush endorsed the case, long made by senior military commanders, that the country's ground forces - 1 million active, National Guard and reserve soldiers and 220,000 active and reserve Marines - are not big enough to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, let alone to respond to future crises. Despite current problems in recruiting, the Pentagon will be directed to expand its recruiting goals.

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