Here in some of the Army's most fertile recruiting territory, Lt. Col. Jim Helis watched in frustration as his recruiting battalion missed its first-quarter goals by 40 percent.
A career infantry officer who commanded eager young soldiers in the flush 1980s, Colonel Helis is now charged with persuading skeptical young Americans to embrace the rigors of military life. Even in the patriotic South, even a few miles from the Army's biggest basic-training site, it's a difficult sell.
"We're now into our second generation without a draft," Helis explains, speculating on why the Army seems to be marching in place. "To an 18-year-old, Vietnam is as distant as World War II was to me. These kids were in grammar school during Desert Storm."
So beginning later this year, the Army will try something new to reverse an expected shortfall of 6,000 recruits by year's end: The service's Recruiting Command at Fort Knox, Ky., will send hundreds of young corporals to storefront offices to join veteran recruiters.
The move to connect more directly with young people - many of these new recruiters will be in their early 20s - comes as Americans are increasingly rejecting military service.
Last year, the Navy missed its recruiting goals by nearly 7,000 sailors. In the first quarter of this fiscal year, the Army suffered a similar shortfall, missing its quarterly goals for manpower by about 2,400. And earlier this month, the Air Force announced it would begin a $54 million TV ad campaign next month, the first time that service has ever aired paid commercials to get new airmen.
Too many choices
Eight years removed from the Gulf War, American youth are faced with numerous opportunities in a robust economy. And even many who agree to join the service find the sacrifices of military service not worth it.
Last year, while the Navy and Air Force saw a growing exodus of mid-career non-commissioned officers (NCOs), the Army suffered, too. The rate at which soldiers in their first enlistment left the Army rose to a troubling 40 percent.
In an effort to sell the virtues and rewards of service, the Army is banking on younger, fresher faces out front. Maj. Gen. Evan Gaddis, who heads the Army Recruiting Command, said recently that the influx of young recruiters should help.
"What this will do is give us a better contact with our target population and give us credibility and rapport," he said.
Army recruiters, like drill sergeants, are typically mid-career NCOs in their late 20s and early 30s. The several hundred new recruiters will have completed their first enlistment and many will be in their early 20s, closer to the 17- to 21-year-old age group the service counts on to replenish its ranks every year.
General Gaddis defines post-Generation X youth this way: "They are looking for instant reward. They expect they are going to have five different jobs in their life right now.
"They are continually shopping and looking because they have so much more information available to them."
Army's new carrots
In addition to college benefits the Army offers to recruits, the service is now dangling $3,000 bonuses to young people who attend boot camp in the next few months.
The service is also kicking off a new series of ads geared to the "Net Generation" that have an MTV quality and focus on training and opportunities in the Army.
Pentagon officials are hoping that proposed pay raises, a boost in retirement pay, and an influx of cash will help the services reverse the downward trends in recruiting and keeping people.
Still, commanders at every level acknowledge that they must now try out new and different approaches, too.
At a conference of top Air Force officials earlier this month, Gen. Lloyd "Fig" Newton noted that most youths today have little connection to the armed forces. And military service is a tough sell without a major adversary like the Soviet Union dominating the news.
"Clearly the economy plays a role," Newton said. "But the public just doesn't perceive a direct threat anymore."