Why teens balk at joining military

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Inside the halls of Spring Valley High School, Trey Sims sums up why many of today's youths don't want to join the military: It's the authority thing. "They don't like to be told what to do," the high school junior says. "They want to be more independent, do stuff themselves."

Other students waiting for appointments with a guidance counselor echo those sentiments. Senior Francisca Ladd, who plans to enlist in the Army, says that "most teenagers don't want to commit to anything." Senior Jim Wines, the son of a drill sergeant, gives the alarm-clock argument: "They don't like getting up early."

Across the United States - and even in the deeply patriotic South - the armed forces are losing their luster as a career option for many of America's youths.

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The falloff in new recruits is presenting the military with one of the biggest manpower problems in 25 years. Behind the dearth is a tale of the changing priorities of so-called "Generation Y," a booming peace-time economy, and a distancing of young Americans from the Armed Forces.

Though Spring Valley is only about five miles from Fort Jackson, the Army's biggest basic training site, it might as well be in another time zone.

"I'm not having nearly as many kids ask me about the military as an option," says Phil Grubbs, Spring Valley's director of guidance and a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard.

Teenagers and young adults are "not interested in politics or political affairs, not interested in what's going on in the larger world, and surprisingly open to alternative lifestyles," says John Scott Wilson, a history professor and popular culture authority at the University of South Carolina.

That does not necessarily mean today's youth are less patriotic or civic-minded, Wilson says. The military is simply not at the top of their career interests.

The numbers tell the story: Last year, the Navy missed its year-end recruiting goal by nearly 7,000.

The hard numbers

This year, the Army is estimating it could fall short of its yearly goal by 6,000 to 10,000. And the Air Force, which seldom has to scramble to fill its ranks, will begin airing paid TV ads for the first time ever next month.

Among the services, only the smaller, elite Marine Corps isn't struggling on the recruiting trail. Everywhere else, the numbers are troubling for Pentagon brass.

When you factor in the increased attrition of soldiers who don't complete their first enlistment - in the Army the number hit 40 percent last year - it's become clear that the services are not connecting with large segments of American youth.

"We're going to have to have some kind of paradigm shift to keep the military an attractive option," says Donna Shealy, guidance coordinator for a Columbia school district.

"In the past, the military has been a wonderful avenue for young folks to have an equal playing field, no matter their status or background," she says. "Students aren't feeling that because the economy is so good and diversity is more accepted."

The economy is indeed a factor. Last year, when national unemployment dipped below 4.5 percent, it marked an unprecedented threat to the nation's 25-year-old all-volunteer force.

A host of skilled mid-career non-commissioned officers, from jet mechanics to computer operators, began fleeing the Air Force and Navy for the private sector. In some cases, those leaving are able to double or triple their salaries.

While the Pentagon is moving to boost military pay, restore retirement benefits, and increase college funding and the GI Bill, it's clear that the personnel troubles aren't related solely to money and benefits.

Among the other reasons cited for recruiting woes include fewer numbers of young people, a world without a daunting threat like the Soviet Union, and the new realism portrayed in war movies such as "Saving Private Ryan" and "The Thin Red Line."

Movies like these could not be farther removed from the 1980s movie "Top Gun," which glamorized military service like no film this decade.

"I wonder how much of an impact those movies have had," Colonel Grubbs says. "I talked to young folks who saw 'Saving Private Ryan' and they said, 'Gee, we never thought war was like that.'"

Military professionals would add several other factors. Chief MSgt. Robert Flynn, an Air Force recruiting official in San Antonio, says awareness of the Air Force is diminishing for a good reason.

Since cold war downsizing, the Air Force has gone from a half million airmen to about 350,000. Surveys show that as many as half of Air Force recruits come from military families and today, those military families are simply getting more scarce.

Maj. Gen. Evan Gaddis, who heads Army Recruiting Command from Fort Knox, Ky., believes something else is occurring. He notes that many military retirees, upset over a steady erosion of benefits like health care and pensions, aren't talking up military careers to young adults as they might once have.

Couple that with the many options young people have today, the general says, and it makes for a very difficult sell.

Young adults today, Gaddis says, "expect they are going to have five different jobs in their life right now. They are continually shopping and looking because they have so much more information available to them."

View from Spring Valley

Students at Spring Valley, many from military families, confirm what the general says. About 5 percent chose to enter the service last year. But 70 percent entered a two- or four-year college, in line with the national average.

Those who do enter the service, increasingly seem to fit a mold outlined by students here. Wary of strict discipline, even some from military families don't like being bossed around.

Maj. Gen. John Van Alstyne, Fort Jackson's commander, notes that most kids who fail Army basic training can hack the physical regimen and learn to shoot an M16 rifle.

"It's the unwillingness to live an organized lifestyle. That's what gets them," he says. "Being disobedient to authority - that's the biggest reason they go wrong."

Spring Valley senior Joel Baublitz, who plans to attend the Air Force Academy, echoes the general's views. "A lot of teenagers view the military as something that is hard and difficult to do."

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