Ready to Serve?

March 1st, 2008

 Military changes rules to overcome disillusionment

By Rose Zonetti

Living on a campus bereft of military recruiters, it’s easy to forget the recruitment tables covered with military literature and forms in the high school cafeteria, gym or library.  But the presence of recruiters on many college campuses and in many high schools across the country has far from disappeared as the military continues to face an extremely difficult recruiting environment.

The recent crisis in military recruiting first surfaced in 2005, when the military failed to meet its fiscal year recruitment goals.  After missing some of its benchmarks again in 2006, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps all exceeded their active-duty enlisted recruiting goals in fiscal year 2007, the American Forces Press Service reported in February.  Only the Air Force fell slightly short of its goal on the reserve-component side The attainment of these goals, however, seems largely due to shortcuts the military has taken to expand its pool of prospects.

The 2005 recruitment crisis coincided with a decline in approval ratings of the War in Iraq. According to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll conducted in May 2005, 57 percent of those polled said that it was not worth going to war in Iraq. That was triple the percentage of respondents expressing those feelings shortly after the war began.  These feelings of disapproval accompanied the military’s failure to meet recruiting goals for February, March and April of 2005, suggesting a relationship between disillusionment with the War in Iraq and the military’s difficulty with recruitment.

To address recent difficulties in recruiting, the Department of Defense has altered its recruiting standards.  As a means of extending the age range of eligibility, the Department of Defense raised the maximum age for enlistees from 35 to 40 in January 2006 and from 40 to 42 in June 2006.  According to nationalpriorities.org, a research organization that analyzes federal data, 2.4 percent of recruits in 2007 were 35 to 40 years old and less than one percent were 41 or 42.

But a more significant change in terms of increasing recruitment numbers came from relaxing restrictions on criminal charges. The number of granted moral waivers, issued when an applicant has been found guilty of four or more minor offenses, two to four misdemeanors, or one felony, has also increased.  The Boston Globe reported in July 2007 that “nearly 12 percent of U.S. Army recruits who entered basic training this year needed a special waiver for those with criminal records, a dramatic increase over last year and more than twice the percentage four years ago.”

The Army also relied on more recruits with GEDs as opposed to a regular high school diploma. In 2007, it failed to meet its goal of 90 percent of new recruits holding a typical high school diploma.  According to nationalpriorities.org, the proportion of active-duty Army recruits with a regular high school diploma dropped from 83.5 percent in 2005 to 70.7 percent in 2007. These percentages were the lowest in at least 20 years.
Despite a decrease in the number of high school dropouts between 1972 and 2005, Lt. Col. Brian Page, who has served in the military for 26 years and is now stationed with Cornell University’s ROTC program, points to education requirements for military eligibility as a major obstacle.

“Part of what we’re looking for, even in the lowest ranking soldier in the army is education,” he says. “We’re expecting them to be high school graduates, and what’s happening in many of the inner cities now is recruiters are going out, finding the dropouts from high school, taking them and getting them training, so they can pass their GED, getting them a GED, and then bringing them into the Army.”

Cases like this have led to accusations that the military aggressively recruits and lies to prospective enlistees. Over the past few years, mainstream media have reported on several instances of recruiter impropriety.  In 2005, the Army suspended two recruiters in Colorado after an undercover high school journalist recorded the recruiters suggesting that he conceal marijuana use by taking a detox and meet the educational requirement by creating a fake diploma.

A similar situation occurred in 2006 when WABC television sent several undercover students with cameras into 10 recruitment offices in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Reporter Jim Hoffer found that nearly half of the recruiters suggested to the students that they had as great a chance of being killed at home as they would in Iraq.  Recruiters also de-emphasized the commitment of joining the military, telling one student about a “Failure to Adapt Discharge” (which does not exist) that would allow him to simply quit if he didn’t like the military.  Other students recorded recruiters giving them tricks for passing the drug test necessary for entrance into the military.

But Page believes the media has exaggerated the problem. “[Lying to recruits] does happen, but it is not the norm, and it is a violation of our organization’s rules and values.  When those individuals are found out, they’re dealt with pretty severely,” says Page.

Ithaca College sophomore Aaron Furtner is enrolled in Cornell University’s Army ROTC Basic Course.  When he first started thinking about joining the military during his senior year of high school, he did plenty of research before talking to a recruiter and making a commitment.  “I’ve never come into contact with a recruiter that lied.  They have a responsibility to get people to join—they’re not supposed to be teachers. If you go [to a recruiter] prepared and with questions then you won’t be deceived,” says Furtner.
But counter-recruitment agencies believe that some populations may be more vulnerable to recruiters than others.  Karen Sackett, a spokesperson for the Long Island Counter Military Recruiting organization says, “The recruiting officers are definitely located in lower income areas more prevalently than in other areas.” In Huntington, Long Island, the recruiting station was recently moved from Main Street, in a commercial district, to a low-income neighborhood.

According to Jim Murphy, a spokesman for New York Veterans Speak Out and a retired dean of a high school in New York City, “there is a lot of deception” in the world of military recruitment.  Even though recruits may choose which branch of the military they would like to serve, he says, “There’s fine print in the contract that says they’re going to use you where they’re going to use you.” Murphy says one of his students, who joined the Navy for economic reasons, was assured when he signed up that he wouldn’t be sent to Iraq. He died there last year.

In addition to altering standards of eligibility, the Department of Defense has increased the incentives for joining the military.  In 2005, the Army increased signing bonuses from $8,000 to $10,000 and college scholarships from $50,000 to $70,000.  In addition to these incentives, the Army has enticed recruits with a $20,000 “quick ship” bonus, which “more than 90 percent of the Army’s new recruits since late July have accepted,” according to an article published in the Washington Post in August 2007.  This bonus, which in many cases equals more than a year’s pay in the Army, puts recruits into action almost immediately.  Job security, health care and vacation benefits also act as major incentives for enlistment.

Despite all these efforts, the recruitment leaders of the four branches of the military admit they still face an extremely difficult recruiting environment. An article published by the American Forces Press Service on Feb. 1 lamented, “The propensity among young people to serve is the lowest it’s ever been, and key influencers, like parents and teachers, are not always supportive of military service. Also, the military is competing with the private sector for talented young people, many of whom see a college degree and high-paying job as the path to success.”

Page believes a “me first” attitude dissuades many potential recruits from even looking into a career in the military.  “There is an element of sacrifice and service to the military, whether you’re an enlisted soldier or an officer.  There are people that aren’t willing to make those sacrifices,” he says.

This “me first” attitude does not correspond with rates of volunteerism, though. The Corporation for National and Community Service, the nation’s largest giver of grants for service and volunteering, found that “Americans over the age of 16 are volunteering at historically high rates, with 61.2 million giving their time in 2006 to help others.”
The issue of recruiting will only augment in severity as our involvement in Iraq deepens and as the potential for conflicts with other nations grows more tangible.  “If something else happened, we’d be stretched,” says Page. “We’re already stretched.” Perhaps an attack on the home front or a more explicitly justified and necessary war would boost recruiting numbers, but current military endeavors seem to have taken a costly toll on attitudes regarding the defense of this nation.

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Rose Zonetti is a sophomore journalism major. Email her at rzonett1[a]ithaca.edu.

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