Military recruiters' new message

Of all the changes revolutionizing America's military, none is more dramatic than the vigorous new way it recruits young men and women.

Gone are the days when military recruiters in spit-shined shoes hunkered down in recruiting offices, waiting for would-be soldiers to walk through the door. In a dramatic break with the recent past, the military once again is inserting its presence into America's civilian life.

Television booms forth ads offering young people stimulating careers and five-figure education bonuses. Recruiters swear in enlistees at baseball games. In what is surely the noisiest change, both the Army and the Air Force sponsor stock cars that zip around the track in NASCAR races. (Beyond the visibility, both services need mechanics.)

"We advertise in movie theaters," says Brig. Gen. Duane Deal, commander of Air Force Recruiting Services. "We're on billboards. In Syracuse, N.Y., we're even on milk cartons."

The efforts appear to be paying off. Last year, even before the new ads rolled out, the services scrambled and met their recruiting targets.

In 1999, by contrast, Pentagon alarms went off when the Army, Navy, and Air Force each failed to hit the desired marks, for the first time since America shifted to an all-volunteer military in 1973.

But the improvement has come only with costly effort. Far from declaring victory on the issue, military officials are trying to pin down what strategies work and keep the momentum going in a cost-effective way.

The Army, for instance, has decided the old image of building a team by trampling on recruits' individuality was all wrong for today's generation.

Its new ads, unveiled in January, go in the opposite direction: "An Army of One" is the slogan, intended to stress the importance of each soldier.

"Each individual brings his uniqueness to the team," says Army recruiter Marcus Campbell, based in Norfolk, Va. "Young people like the fact that they're not going to be changed. They're just going to be made better."

Navy gets 1 in 80

It's a message the military desperately wants to convey. The stubborn fact is that few of today's young people are willing to consider the military.

Many who do meet with recruiters still aren't swayed. The Navy, for instance, talks with 80 people to get one new sailor.

Several factors have made it increasingly difficult to fill the ranks. A long economic boom has buoyed the college job market, the cold war's end has lowered the profile of the military, and cultural changes have demoted the drill-sergeant style of workplace management - whether it be at Fort Ord or Ford Motor Co.

All this comes at a time when "smart" weapons, unmanned planes, and 20-story-high aircraft carriers require increasingly smart personnel, with good computer skills, to control them.

To connect with a generation raised with cellphones and instant messaging on the Web, the Navy is centering its new ads around the theme, "Accelerate Your Life."

That slogan, or the "Army of One," sends a message of empowerment - including not only the promise of money for college down the road, but also of personal satisfaction in their work, recruiters say.

The concept is resonating with people like Charles Howell and Shanan Burns, who recently joined the Army.

Mr. Howell, of Virginia Beach, Va., graduated a year ago from Kempsville High School.

This past year, he was a freshman at Tidewater City College, "but it didn't seem as challenging as I thought it would be."

He wanted to do something different - but what?

He contacted Sergeant Campbell, who explained job possibilities in the Army. Howell scored very well on his entrance tests, and, he says with quiet pride, Campbell as a result offered him a job as an imaging analyst in military intelligence.

Howell jumped at the chance. He has a job he's looking forward to, in a field that he's sure will challenge him.

He'll get training in the Army and, if he chooses to continue his college education later, will have money to do that. He leaves for basic training on Aug. 14.

By that time, Shanan Burns will have been there almost a month. Mr. Burns, who graduated last month from Princess Anne High School in Virginia Beach, has wanted to be a cop since he was a little boy.

But he had a problem translating his dream into reality: He is only 17, and in his area, 21 is the minimum age for a civilian policeman. How could he get from here to there?

A career-development teacher urged him to talk with a recruiter, and Burns ended up joining, "mainly because I wanted to better myself."

For Howell and Burns, the Army made a convincing case, not just with ads but in person. Indeed, individual recruiters are often the vital link between a broad advertising campaign and the recruit whom it is intended to attract, military officials say.

They also now regularly visit places where college kids as well as high school seniors hang out.

"We've been seeing an influx of college-oriented applicants who want their college loans paid off, [or] who want money for college, who're looking to make themselves marketable," says Campbell, the Norfolk Army recruiter. "We spend as much time in the colleges as in the high schools."

His colleagues are exploring other recruiting venues, too. Capt. Dana Smith swore in 22 young people on the infield between two baseball games by the Norfolk Tides, a minor league team, on May 19.

He and his recruiters plan to be in a volleyball tournament next month that will have 2,000 participants.

He also goes to a spot where local hot rodders congregate, "driving a '66 Ford I built from the ground up," and will participate in a monster truck rally in September - again, partly in hopes of finding a few good mechanics.

The TV ads, for their part, are intended to dovetail with other recruiting efforts. In the five months since the Army started its latest push, for instance, 67 percent more visitors are using the Army's website to seek a recruiter meeting.

The TV ads have also focused new attention on the high-tech training and college credits that enlistees can receive, and on the sizeable bonuses they can obtain - to finance future education, to pay off past education loans, or just to enlist. The amount of money depends largely on their scores on various tests.

Desire to be 'bigger than themselves'

When young people are asked about the military, "educational benefits are one of the first things that they say they know about," says Douglas Smith, public-affairs officer of the Army Recruiting Command at Ft. Knox, Ky.

At the same time, today's youths "seem more interested in being part of something bigger than themselves, and are more interested in service," says Steve Lowry, a spokesman for the Navy Recruiting Command.

New recruit Burns, with his sights fixed on his personal goal of a police career, appears to view his upcoming tour of duty as more than just a stepping stone.

"It sounds good to be a part of the world's greatest Army," he says proudly.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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