Army sweetens its offer

IN FOCUS

Incentives are planned for signing up new troops, retaining current ones

In Focus -- National Security

October 24, 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 have.

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

At the same time, the Army is hoping to sign up at least 2,000 recruits over 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 enter the service.

Also 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.

While the Army managed to meet recruiting goals for the past 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 D. 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 units beyond their retirement or re-enlistment dates. 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 high school diplomas.

A relatively strong job market - along with resistance by parents to steering young people toward military life - is further complicating the recruiters' mission. Also, senior Pentagon officials, including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, say they worry they are losing many of their best troops to private security companies working in Iraq and Afghanistan 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 admittedly "novel" ways the Army hopes to beef up recruitment over the next year.

Spec. Victor Taylor, 32, who plans on re-enlisting next month on 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, the 42nd Infantry Division. But he acknowledged that the $15,000 bonus he will receive is a nice perk.

"When I was Marine, you never heard of these kinds of incentives," said Taylor, adding that he has been on the lookout for potential recruits so he can cash in on the peer-to-peer recruiting program. "There is a lot of flexibility and a lot of incentives available right now. I think it is what it is because we're in a time of war."

The Pentagon is hoping to receive billions of dollars in next year's defense spending bill to help bolster the needs of military families, an issue that commanders say is central to whether a service member re-enlists. Recruiters have a well-known saying that "you sign a recruit, you re-enlist a family."

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.

As the Army tries to build its force level over the next two years and the Marine Corps starts its own major expansion, commanders and Congress have come to realize they need to pay more attention to caring for the troops' families, according to military advocates.

Last week, the Army leaders announced a initiative called the Army Family Covenant, a pledge that commits to spending $1.4 billion in 2008 on Army family programs. Army officials have said repeatedly that retention, not just bringing in new recruits, is central to the expansion.

"There is a saying we use around here ... `If Momma ain't happy, no one is happy,'" said Kathy Moakler, director of government relations for the National Military Family Association. "The Army is starting to think outside the box on retention and recruiting. There is a realization that supporting families is part of the cost of this war."

Gen. David D. McKiernan, commander of U.S. Army Europe, said the covenant is less about starting new programs and more about putting "resources and people" into existing programs that military families rely on. He said that commanders in Europe recently moved to increase child care availability from 55 to 70 hours per week, a step necessary as more military spouses are finding themselves temporarily becoming single parents while soldiers deploy.

"The idea is to make the leadership responsible and accountable and then give them the right resources to take care of Army families," McKiernan said. "What we've got to do now is put our money where our mouth is."

Aamer Madhani writes for the Chicago Tribune.

Recruitment incentives Next month, in an effort to recruit soldiers, the Army will launch a pilot program called the Army Advantage Fund. It will offer recruits $45,000 to help buy a house or start a business after they leave the service.

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