Military's unorthodox approach to shopping for soldiers

The armed forces are using pastel-colored Humvees and fight simulators as a way to boost recruiting numbers.

As soldiers clapped with the enthusiasm of a "Wheel of Fortune" audience, the South Carolina National Guard last week unveiled its newest recruiting tool:

A psychedelic Humvee.

Resembling the pastel school bus once driven by actress Shirley Jones in the 1970s TV show "The Partridge Family," the customized recruiting vehicle is a four-wheeled testament to the military's recruiting challenges today.

From the Army's announcement that it may sponsor a drag racer to each service's recruitment Hollywood celebs to promote the armed forces, the services are trying methods that might seem better suited to the world of MTV and infomercials.

To some, the moves make sense in a world in which few recruiting methods seem to be reaching young Americans.

To others, though, they smack of the desperate methods adopted and quickly dropped by recruiters after Vietnam.

"All of this symbolizes an admission on the part of the services that they are unable to articulate a reason for citizens to join the military," said Andrew Bacevich, a former Army officer and now a foreign-policy specialist at Boston University.

In the wake of Vietnam, for example, one infamous campaign wooed recruits with the motto, "The Army Wants to Join You!" In those days, the Army would let recruits try the military for a few days without obligation and even sent out recruiters clad like "Easy Rider" bikers.

Today, some critics hear echoes of those recruiting tactics.

*Several weeks ago, the Army said it is considering reviving its sponsorship of a high-performance dragster. In the 1970s, Army commanders recruited legendary driver Don "The Snake" Prudhomme to drive his "Army Funny Car" at drag strips around the United States.

*The Air Force is currently sending two tractor trailers packed with flight simulators and a real F-16 around the country to catch the eye of potential recruits.

*And all the services have explored the possibility of sponsoring NASCAR vehicles, harking back to a period in the 1970s when the services tried to portray themselves as cool and nonmilitaristic to skeptical youth.

Noting that the Navy also recently hired filmmaker Spike Lee to design TV pitches, Professor Bacevich detects a frantic search for identity in the new brand of military marketing.

"I'm not attacking Spike Lee, but he does not represent the ethos of service to country and a willingness to put your life on the line," Bacevich said.

The Navy, and the South Carolina Guard, might not agree.

The Guard's new pastel Humvee, which will cruise to festivals, parades, and shopping malls, is equipped with a 12-speaker stereo system, turquoise vinyl seats, mag wheels, and a color scheme that would make Sgt. Pepper proud.

"Anything we can do ... we've got to compete with the other services," says Lt. Col. Eddie Goff, recruiting and retention manager for the South Carolina Guard.

Noting that a number of other National Guard commanders recently introduced customized Humvees - and that his normally fertile state missed last year's goal of 1,580 recruits by 600 - Colonel Goff said the pastel vehicle might help.

The services' manpower efforts could certainly use a magic bullet. The Army missed its 1999 recruiting goal of 74,500 by about 6,200 soldiers. The Air Force also missed its goal last year despite an unprecedented TV advertising blitz. And the Navy's recruitment of Mr. Lee can be traced to its own dismal recruiting effort in 1998, when it missed its mark for new sailors by about 7,000.

Master Sgt. Tom Clements, a spokesman for the Air Force Recruiting Service near San Antonio, says his service is hoping that the new props can help turn the tide.

Known as the "Air Force Express," the two 18-wheelers hold an F-16 Fighting Falcon and six flight simulators. Guests can see what it's like to pull "Gs" in the cockpit, get an Air Force ID card, and be issued a pilot's call sign like "Buzz" or "Viper."

"What it comes down to is we're reaching young people in different ways," Sergeant Clements says. "We're doing things we haven't done before."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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