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Tougher sell for recruiters: Dad

The percentage of fathers who would support military service for their kids dropped from 77 percent in 2003 to 59 percent by last August, according to defense officials.

By Gordon LuboldStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 14, 2007


Here among the rolling hills of southwestern Pennsylvania, where the effects of the shuttered steel industry still linger and some single-family homes go for under $25,000, Marine recruiter Gunnery Sgt. Brian Bensen has a lot going for him: a love for his Marine Corps, a sense of compassion, and what many military recruiters call "the gift of gab."

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But even a successful recruiter like Sergeant Bensen can find it difficult to convince a wary public that enlisting in the military, and maybe deploying to a war zone, is the way to go. That's especially true when it comes to convincing many would-be recruits, as well as their mothers – and now, increasingly, their fathers, too.

It's a sign of the new difficulties in selling Americans on the tradition of service to one's country at a time when the military is growing and the public's patience for the war in Iraq is on the wane.

Parents are more involved than ever in their children's life decisions, and in recent years their approval has emerged as a key factor when it comes to signing on the military's dotted line. Mothers have always tended to be skeptical. But when the Pentagon polled these so-called influencers last year, it found a troubling new trend: Now fathers are expressing more concern.

The percentage of fathers who said they would support military service for their son or daughter dropped from 77 percent in 2003 to 59 percent by last August, according to defense officials. Mothers' support also dropped, from 65 percent to 52 percent. Even grandparents, some of whom belong to the "greatest generation," showed slightly more reluctance to approve of a grandchild joining the military.

Despite it all, the Army and Marine Corps, which are bearing the brunt of the war, are making their active duty recruiting goals. That's in part due to the efforts of recruiters like Bensen, who has met or exceeded his personal mission of signing up at least two new recruits each month. But he knows that he is recruiting the parents as much as he is the kid he wants in uniform.

"Mom and Dad raised that child, and they deserve me coming to talk to them," he says as he drives a government-owned dark sedan from one high school to another.

And that's just what he'll have to do when it comes to recruiting a kid like Collus Smith, a junior at Belle Vernon Area High School. During a recent visit there, Bensen stood in the cafeteria talking up students about their future plans during lunch period. Bensen knows many of them, having made contact with them before. Others approach him, drawn to his flashy dress blue uniform.

Mr. Smith, an African-American whose long, bushy hair and droopy pants don't suggest military discipline, is nevertheless intrigued with joining the Marines. But he knows that convincing his father will be difficult.

"My dad doesn't want me to go to war," says Smith, who could enlist this summer with his father's consent and depart for boot camp after graduation next year. "He thinks the whole thing is stupid; he just doesn't want me over there."

Bensen is quick to point out that not everyone who joins the Marine Corps will go to war, and that numerous technical jobs are available that would lessen the chances that he would find himself gunslinging on the front lines. Bensen himself, who has spent 15 years in the Marines, has not been to Iraq. But the recruiter doesn't sugarcoat military service at a time of war, either.