Army `thinking outside the box' to recruit

Offering $45,000 toward a house, business after stint

October 21, 2007|By Aamer Madhani | Aamer Madhani,Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON -- With the Army entrenched in two protracted wars while trying to increase its overall troop levels, commanders are finding they have to sweeten the pot to attract a few good men and women and keep the ones they already have.

Next month, the Army is launching a pilot program called the Army Advantage Fund, which offers recruits $45,000 toward buying a house or new business upon completion of their military stint. That program comes on top of thousands of "quick-ship" bonuses that the Army doled out earlier this year to recruits who agreed to ship out to basic training within 30 days, as well as re-enlistment programs to retain those with special skills.

The Army also hopes to sign up at least 2,000 recruits during the next year into Active First, a new program that allows enlistees to start their service on active duty and complete it in the National Guard. The Army also hopes to bolster troop levels through peer-to-peer recruiting programs that give soldiers bonuses for persuading friends and family to serve.

And looking ahead, the military hopes to get more money to assist in the needs of military families. More attention to their needs is crucial if the services are to retain personnel after their initial tours of duty end.

While the Army managed to meet recruiting goals for the last fiscal year, commanders have acknowledged that the terrain is only getting rougher as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue.

Last week, Lt. Gen. Michael Rochelle, deputy chief of staff for personnel, said the Army will continue to rely on the unpopular "stop-loss" program that requires some soldiers to stay with their unit beyond their retirement or re-enlistment dates. Earlier this month, Army leaders reported that for the fifth straight year they gave more waivers to recruits with criminal history and medical issues, and that fewer than 80 percent of new enlistees had a high school diploma.

A relatively strong job market - along with resistance by parents to steering young people toward military life - is further complicating the recruiters' mission. And senior Pentagon officials, including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, say they worry they are losing many of their best troops to private security companies that can offer two to three times what the military pays.

"In order to be competitive, we simply have to be in the marketplace with them," said Rochelle, explaining the reasoning behind the ways the Army hopes to beef up recruitment during the next year.

Spec. Victor Taylor, 32, who plans to re-enlist next month to a six-year contract with the New York National Guard, said the cash incentive is not the reason he decided to stick with his unit. But he acknowledged that the $15,000 bonus he will receive is a nice perk.

The Pentagon is hoping to receive billions of dollars in next year's defense spending bill to help bolster the needs of military families.

Deep in the House version of the defense appropriations bill, $670 million has been set aside for family advocacy programs and more than $600 million for child care centers. A whopping $1.6 billion is designated for education programs, including allotments to pay for college loan deferrals.

"The Army is starting to think outside the box on retention and recruiting," Kathy Moakler, director of government relations for the National Military Family Association. "There is a realization that supporting families is part of the cost of this war."

Aamer Madhani writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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