Army tries a softer touch to retain new recruits

Special barracks with TVs and bathtubs help trainees adjust to rigorsof military life. But is this coddling?

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

For new Army recruits who couldn't cope with the rigors of basic training, there have always been two options: Get out or get down and do 50 more pushups - sir!

Now, at this sprawling base in the piney woods of South Carolina, there's a third option: Head over to a secluded dormitory for a quiet "timeout."

The dorm has TVs and VCRs. It has private bathrooms with bathtubs. The troubled enlistees watch movies like "Glory" and "Renaissance Man" and drill sergeants counsel them empathetically and in hushed voices.

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The new program, called "Think It Over," is one of several initiatives the Army and some other branches of the military are instituting in an attempt to cut down on the dropout rate of new trainees.

While critics both inside and outside the military consider much of this more summer camp than boot camp, the Pentagon believes it is essential to try to deal with the worst soldier shortage in more than a quarter century.

Already, the military is trying a host of new initiatives to entice young people to sign up for active duty. But it is also increasingly worried about those who show up and then quit before their first buzz cut.

Here at Fort Jackson, for instance, 800 of the 35,000 trainees who arrived last year left in their first week - before they even began basic training.

Behind the new initiatives, though, lies a growing debate: Is the military now coddling recruits too much, or is all this appropriate - even essential - at a time when many of today's youth lack the commitment of earlier generations?

"If you are catering to them or bending over backwards, you're going to get a lot of dead weight on your hands," says Bill Hyman, a retired Army drill sergeant of the "old school."

Steven Paulk, a staff sergeant whose current duty station is the "Think It Over" dorm here, harbors a different view. "Now it's OK for society to say, 'I quit,' " he says. "Look at the profession athletes - they follow the money. They have no commitment to their teams."

Lack of commitment

Certainly, the numbers show some parallels in today's military. Nearly 40 percent of the Army's soldiers are now leaving before their first enlistment is up. This comes as the numbers of recruits continue to plummet.

To cope with this, Fort Jackson is trying programs that in essence give trainees a second and third chance:

*Think It Over. During this two-day respite at what looks more like a university dorm than an Army barracks, complete with private bathrooms and double beds, Sergeant Paulk delves into what is bothering the new recruits, tries to explain what it means to honor a commitment. About one-third who come here give the Army another shot.

One of those is Thenda Carter, an 18-year-old recruit from Wilmington, Del. She was ready to leave, but changed her mind after her stay at the "Think It Over" dorm. Even so, she still believes many who arrive at basic training have been given "a sugar coated" view of the Army by recruiters.

*See It Through. Recruits who misbehave or screw up are put into this two-week program. While these underachieving trainees don't get the kid-glove treatment of those in "Think It Over," they do get individualized attention so they can master basic military arts such as marching, drill, and ceremony.

*Study and language classes. Other programs are in place for soldiers who are in danger of failing because of poor language skills or who scored poorly on military aptitude tests.

Already, Fort Jackson's programs are being used by other Army and Navy training bases around the country.

At the Great Lakes Naval Training Center near Chicago, several programs are in place for new enlistees who are having difficulty adjusting to military life and training.

They range from teaching recruits how to study and succeed in boot camp, to stress and anger management classes, to individualized attention for out-of-shape recruits.

Lt. Cmdr. Rob Newell, a spokesman at Great Lakes, says the Navy is not lowering its standards. "It's a matter of bringing kids up to the same standard before we shoot them through," he says.

Dumbing down the military?

The alternative to resurrecting more recruits, base commanders say, is to take a larger share of enlistees who score dismally on military entrance tests.

The Army divides its incoming soldiers into mental categories based on aptitude test scores. Typically, no more than 2 percent of its recruits can be from the lowest test group, known as "Category Four."

"Eighteen months ago, I didn't feel the pressure on the Army to work as hard with the 15 percent having trouble," Maj. Gen. John Van Alstyne says. "Now, I feel a tremendous obligation."

General Van Alstyne's dilemma could soon be the same for the other services.

They are also facing a shortage of young adults who meet their standards - nondrug users, high school graduates, and score well on entrance tests - and are interested in military jobs.

A group of new recruits at "Think It Over" believes the Army should look for one other quality: self-discipline.

"Parents don't have control of their children today," laments 19-year-old Sarah Wurl, who was planning to leave the Army after her two days in the "Think It Over" program.

"If parents can't do it, how can you expect drill sergeants to?"

PART 1: AUG. 5 Reasons behind the thinning ranks

PART 2: AUG. 6 Hispanics: the military's new recruitment pool

PART 3: TODAY Kinder basic training to help recruits adjust to Army life

PART 4: AUG. 10 Another draft? Ideas to put more teens in fatigues

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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