Army Returns to Varsity Playing Field

Recruiters flock to high schools across country after one year hiatus from campus.

Sgt. First Class Robert Abbott could be the poster boy for US Army recruiting.

Angular, well-spoken and zealous, he is to the Army what sportscaster Dick Vitale is to college basketball, a nonstop talker willing to preach the gospel to any moderately interested prospect.

But this year, his bosses at Recruiting Command at Fort Knox, Ky., want him to be one other thing: a bigger man on campus.

After neglecting America's high schools last year and scrambling to find new soldiers elsewhere, the Army's 5,000 recruiters are back in force, reestablishing ties with their local schools.

This shift in focus back into high schools is occurring all over the country. It marks a return to the battle-tested methods that Army recruiters have used since the advent of the all-volunteer force in the 1970s and its popular pitch, "Be all that you can be."

Army officials say it's important because they have more control over the quality they are getting when they can go into schools, sign up kids for the delayed-entry program, and in some cases work with them to get them into better shape before they hit basic training.

"When the mission gets high and we have an immediate need, we have to go elsewhere," says Michael Kuzma, plans and policy branch chief at Army Recruiting Command at Fort Knox, Ky.

In 1997, immediate need meant cruising malls, department stores, and fast food joints in order to find prospects that could quickly be turned into enlistees to feed an insatiable personnel beast.

"It is hard to work the local high school program and work a large volume of grads," Kuzma explains.

Last year, with a crunching goal of putting nearly 90,000 new soldiers into the Army, recruiters like Sergeant Abbott were forced to sign up prospects as quickly as they could. That meant neglecting high school students for whom they would have to wait anywhere from several months to a year to send to basic training.

This year, with a new mission of almost 20,000 fewer soldiers, recruiters can head back to campus in force.

The Army says the benefits of being back in school are obvious. In addition to reemphasizing the service's "stay in school, stay off drugs" message, recruiters can also begin the often arduous task of wooing young adults earlier to help identify those interested in the military's college-fund benefits.

"For me to be successful, I've got to be in the high schools. That's my market," says Abbott, a 15-year soldier who recently completed a three-year tour as a drill sergeant at nearby Fort Jackson.

That Abbott would move from drill sergeant to recruiter - perhaps the two most challenging jobs in the military - says much about the Army's priorities. Recruiting Command made its year-end goal in 1997 only after lowering it by about 5,000 new soldiers. And this year, recruiters are facing the double challenge of declining interest in military careers and a red-hot civilian economy. In South Carolina, for example, unemployment is at 2.4 percent.

Such challenges are not daunting to Abbott, who says he sees himself in many of the young people he recruits.

"I came out [of high school] as an average student, with C's and I thought, 'I'll attack the world, and get a good job.' A lot of these kids expectations are a little higher than reality," he says.

On the 20-minute drive from his storefront office to a nearby high school, Abbott points to the many small businesses he has already visited as "an ambassador for the Army." His goal this year is to talk to every student at Lexington S.C. High School - including about 600 seniors - while also visiting three other schools that are now part of his turf. At Lexington Vocational School, he woos a classroom of students who've returned to complete their high school education after briefly leaving the system. As 20 kids listen with rapt attention, he begins a process that he hopes will one day bear fruit.

Only recently has the Army joined recruiters from the other services at the sprawling campus near Columbia, S.C.

"You can pick a good job, have good hours, and if you don't like the service after three years, you can move on," he tells them as he is peppered with questions about driving tanks and single parents enlisting.

Concluding, he sounds a bit like a bright-eyed guidance counselor.

"If you're unsure what you want to do with your life, come talk to an Army recruiter," Abbott says, preparing to leave for another nearby high school.

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