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Army enlists twentysomethings to lure recruits

In a counteroffensive against thinning ranks, the Army hopes to

By Dave MonizSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 9, 1999



NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C.

Randolph Hughes will be making lots of treks onto campus at Goose Creek High School this fall, only this time he won't be wearing baggy blue jeans or $100 Nikes.

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Army Corporal Hughes, three years removed from English and gym classes there, is hoping to convince students and teachers at his old school that the Army is a cool place.

The muscular twentysomething is one of several hundred young recruiters the Army is sending across the United States to boost a moribund recruiting effort. These new, handpicked missionaries will try to sell the Army's gospel to young adults who are increasingly rejecting the military as an option. Less than one month from the end of its fiscal year, the Army is expecting to miss a goal of 74,500 recruits by about 7,500.

Yet Army officials hope that young adults just removed from homeroom might relate better to teens skeptical of military life. So Hughes and this new corps of corporals will fan out across the US hoping to connect with teenagers and help fill up the Army's thinning ranks in months to come.

"Most recruiters haven't been to basic training in 10 to 15 years. We have a better idea what's going on," says Hughes, who arrived at the Army's North Charleston recruiting office in early August.

Hughes and young comrades will join about 5,000 mid-career noncommissioned officers who make up the bulk of Army recruiters. Typically, these veteran NCOs have spent eight to 12 years in the Army and are in their late 20s or early 30s. Many have children and families and are several layers removed from teens who increasingly see large institutions - including the military - as irrelevant, if they think of them at all.

TO CHANGE this, the Army is launching a youthful counteroffensive. Besides the young corporals, the Army is greatly increasing the number of "hometown" recruiters it sends out for short stints after basic training. For years the Army has sent successful trainees back to their hometowns after basic training to help woo peers into uniform. Now, with a growing personnel problem, it has greatly increased the number of these informal recruiters who will spend several weeks talking up the service before heading to advanced-training classes.

Gen. Eric Shinseki, Army chief of staff, recently described his service efforts as a "full-court press" to fix personnel woes.

The corporal recruiters, all young and single, are a baby step. The Army recently graduated 200 from its Recruiting and Retention School in Fort Jackson, S.C., giving them a six-week crash course in sales before shipping them off to storefront offices like the one Hughes is assigned to.

The son of an Army combat medic, Hughes grew up on a farm in Missouri and has known since he was a young child that he wanted to be a soldier. But he has become a rarity in a society ever distant from military customs and protocol.

Interest in the armed forces has sunk so low that many military families are no longer encouraging their sons and daughters to enlist. And one recent survey showed that interest in the military is now lower than in the dark days following Vietnam. In 1976, 39 percent of young adults surveyed said they definitely would not enter the military. Today, that number has climbed to 62 percent.

But a recent article in the Navy Times suggests there is reason for optimism. The Times reported the Navy has had guarded success allowing petty officers third class - the equivalent of Army corporals - to join the recruiting ranks. In some cases, the young recruiters have outperformed their more experienced counterparts.

WINSTON CHAMBERS of Odenton, Md., seems convinced that he can pump up the Army's efforts once he arrives at his duty station in Atlanta. "I was lost before I came into the Army. I think we can relate to the young kids a little better," Mr. Chambers says.

Privately, some experienced recruiters believe the young corporals won't make much difference, citing their inexperience and the difficulties all services have enlisting recruits. But Army officials and the kiddie recruiting corps are willing to see how many teens might respond.

Says Amy Verghese, selected for a recruiting slot after two years in the Army: "I'm in their age group. It will be more of a peer relationship."

Laneika Johnson, a young corporal from Detroit, loves Army life. She is headed home to Michigan to convince others the Army has good jobs and a path of upward mobility. "A lot of teens are not focused on what they want to do," Ms. Johnson says, shortly after graduating from the Army's school for recruiters. "Some people are amazed that I'm so young and accomplished so many things."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society