Victory aside, war no boon to recruiters

Education and skills, not military glory, draw enlistees.

Army Sgt. Nathan Washington is driving along a suburban residential street when he spots a target of opportunity.

"Excuse me, I'm lost," Sergeant Washington yells out his car window at a young man standing in a driveway. It's the Army recruiter's favorite come-on. The target takes the bait and approaches the car as Washington withdraws his weapons of choice: a business card and a folded one-page flyer.

Both miss their mark. The young man declines Washington's offer to join the service that markets itself as "the Army of One."

Just another long morning of slow progress for America's military, whose recruiters are discovering once again that winning a war can be easier than winning over new enlistees.

The US victory in Iraq came with few casualties, made military might look cool, and generated press coverage that treated soldiers like heroes. Yet recruiters such as Washington and his colleagues in this Missouri town say their job isn't getting any easier.

Like the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the Iraq war initially increased youths' interest in the military. But it has not boosted enlistments.

In fact, Washington says wars actually make his job tougher by reinforcing the perception that enlisting in the Army means getting shipped off to combat.

Given that challenge, the good news is that progress made by recruiters in recent years appears to be sticking. Although recruiting hasn't surged, the services are meeting their enlistment targets.

The Army, for example, signed up 40,597 men and women this year by April, a hair above its goal of 40,300. Marine recruiters pulled in 18,976 enlistees by March, right on par with their goal of 18,247. Air Force and Navy recruiters tell a similar tale.

Goal of college, not combat

This swath of southern Kansas City suburbs and rural towns - a land Harry Truman once farmed and where military retirees settle in large numbers - is no exception. Washington says most potential enlistees in the area don't have an urge to serve. Rather, most join the military to learn job skills or earn money for college. War is a tough way to do either.

Washington tries to tailor his pitch to the potential recruit: Those who say they're going to college hear about the education benefits. Bored in Kansas City? The Army is an adventure. Want to make more money? Perhaps a signing bonus will persuade you. Dad served in the Army? Maybe you're attracted to serving your country. The emphasis on the nonmilitary benefits of enlisting are clear in Washington's base - a storefront Army recruiting station in a suburban strip mall shared with two tax preparation shops and a tanning salon.

Entering the front door requires passing a shelf of pamphlets that highlight the Army's 200 job choices.

Bulletin boards are full of pictures of recent enlistees who are training in civil affairs, fuel transport, food-service operations, and mechanics, all after 9 weeks of basic training. Posters heralding $20,000 in potential sign-on bonuses and $50,000 in tuition benefits line the walls.

New recruits earn $1,150 a month (the Army also provides free room and board and 30 days paid vacation per year). In return, people enlist for two to six years and can be recalled to duty for eight years.

Shoe leather and a thick skin

With only a couple of walk-ins a week - most of whom have too little education or too long a criminal record - the eight recruiters here hit the streets to fill a monthly quota of eight new enlistees. Washington, who has 15 years in the Army under his belt and nearly as many ribbons on his lapel, served a previous three-year stint as a recruiter in Kansas. He returned last November for a second tour as a recruiter after doing logistics work in Korea. "I'm a people person," he says. "I can talk all day."

A thick skin helps too.

Each morning, Washington scribbles the names of a dozen recent college graduates on an index card and goes knocking on their doors. Only 1 in 10 are home. Today, Dion Williams, a student at a local community college, opens his door and invites Washington inside. When Williams explains he could only afford one course per semester, Washington tells him, "It's your lucky day." Williams isn't convinced: "War is not something I'm into."

As he leaves the house, Washington remains optimistic: "You cannot take this personally," he says. "There's a lot of rejection."

At lunch time, he freely walks the halls and cafeterias of the local high school, eyeing student name badges to see who is a senior. He pretends to shop at the mall to catch workers attention and hands business cards to waitresses during lunch. Twelve hours a week of phone calls after school hours prove most fruitful.

"Never let an opportunity pass," he says.

On this day, salesmanship, though, doesn't cross the line into dishonesty. Washington says he tries to tell both sides of his experience in the Army. The truth is, he doesn't care for training exercises in forests, nor does he like combat. "I particularly don't care for war," he says. "You do what you've got to do but if someone asks me if I want to go, my answer is going to be no."

The most productive lead of the day is Lana Howard, a recent high school graduate he connected with when he phoned her brother. Her parents met while serving in the military. Her sister and brother both enlisted.

Washington shows up at her door for their first face-to-face encounter. He's carrying a laptop. She must take a practice version of the Army's math and English aptitude test (only about a third of test takers pass), which determines job options and bonuses.

Sitting in her pajamas, she spends 20 minutes taking the test in her family's living room while Tarzan plays on the television in the background. She passes the test - but wouldn't qualify for bonus pay or the Army's most prestigious jobs.

After the test, she talks about a future in the Army with little enthusiasm. "I don't want to run around and shoot at people. I'm just all about the money."

"I can provide exactly what you're looking for," Washington says. What he can't provide is the schedule she wants. She frowns when told basic and advanced training lasts four to six months.

Still, she agrees to take the full test the following week, and Washington leaves, considering their meeting a success. "What we need to hear is how the Army will benefit her," he says. "Once they identify that, I can provide what she's looking for."

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