Where recruiting runs strongest

Indiana is among the states - often in Midwest and South - that rank highest, a trend driven by economic opportunity

The recruiting crisis that has gradually spread to all quarters of the United States Army has not yet made it past the front door of the Indianapolis office of Sgt. 1st Class David Lacks.

Like every recruiter, he had heard the stories of how the Army National Guard again missed its quota last month and is now 23 percent off its annual target, of Army recruiters who scramble to meet their mission of two new soldiers a month.

But he has no time for them. From the moment he enters the office, he is a flurry of activity and optimism, fielding calls, bustling among files, and talking - always talking. This is a man who tried to recruit nurses when he was recently taken to the hospital with an arm injury. No long ago, he won a prize for signing up a dozen new National Guard members in 90 days.

His success, he says, comes from the counsel that the most difficult times call for the simplest remedies: desire and hard work. Yet it also echoes beyond Indiana and indicates that, as the war in Iraq continues, certain areas of the country are responding more eagerly to the call of military service than others.

To be sure, none of the trends is overly hopeful for the Army, which has been hit harder than the Air Force, Navy, or Marines. The Army, Army Reserve, and Army National Guard all look likely to miss their annual recruitment goals across the country, but statistics offer clear regional distinctions.

Recruiters and experts agree the distinctions are not based on patriotism, but the changing economic character of different regions of the country. The blue- collar jobs and culture most clearly connected with military service are vanishing from the Northeast, leaving recruiters there with a tougher sell, while others in the South and Midwest pick up the slack.

"Over the past two generations, the people the armed forces disproportionately recruit from have moved out of the Northeast," says Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.

Statistics released by the Army and National Guard last week point to several trends across the 50 states:

Across all three sectors of the Army - the Army, Reserve, and Guard - states in the Midwest and Great Plains have had the smallest drop-off in recruiting. These states are currently meeting 86 percent of their National Guard recruiting goals - tops for any region of the country. For their part, the Army and Reserve set out a national goal, which is 80,000 troops for the Army this year. The last time the Army set an 80,000-troop goal was 2000, and the Midwest states are on a pace to hit 84 percent of their total from that year.

Far more new soldiers come from the South, however. The South still shoulders a disproportionate recruiting burden compared with the rest of the country; its recruits make up nearly 40 percent of the Army soldiers who have enlisted since the beginning of the fiscal year in October.

For the Army, at least, the Iraq war appears to have had little effect on recruiting in red states versus blue states. Recruiting is down by virtually the same amount in both areas - at 73 percent of 2000 levels in red states and 72 percent in blue states. Red states, however, have produced 63 percent of the recruits enrolled since October, though they make up barely more than half the total US population.

All sectors of the Army place the lowest recruiting burden on the Northeast, where they expect the fewest number of recruits compared with the population. The Northeast remains the poorest-performing quarter of the nation. While the South is at 82 percent of its year-to-date National Guard mission, for example, the Northeast is at 70 percent.

It presents a dilemma for the military. "Do you look to overproduce in an area that is capable of doing it? How much do you back off from areas that have underproduced in the past?" says Doug Smith of Army Recruiting Command at Fort Knox, Ky.

As well, in a political atmosphere that has equated patriotism with support for the war in Iraq, regional recruiting is a topic fraught with dangers, and recruiters approach it carefully.

Those in states that have proved difficult for recruiters insist a lack of new enlistees does not mean a lack of love for country - or even the military. In Vermont, which has experienced some of the greatest drop-offs in recruiting among the Army, Reserve, and Guard, Lt. Col. Darryl Ducharne of the Army National Guard says he has felt only support. "There's a lot of patriotism out there," he says.

Others say drawing a direct line between patriotism and recruitment rates would be misleading. The real link is economic. "It's not political philosophy. It has to do with why a military career would be appealing," says Mr. Thompson. "It is a step up for those that are disenfranchised, but not an attractive alternative for those who are already established in society."

For Sergeant Lacks, it has turned out to be nothing short of a calling. His life was not so different from those of the kids from the Indianapolis projects that he works to recruit - a broken home and the temptation of drugs and gangs. He still recalls sleeping in stairwells and the day his mother told him that she had no money for his college education.

Not long after, he was on a bus to Fort Benning in Georgia. Now, the roles have reversed. "I can take a kid who has nothing and give him direction," says Lacks.

On this day, Lacks coasts into a housing complex in the Guard's minivan to pick up one of the six recruits that he's close to enlisting. With his baseball cap tipped askew and outsized clothes hanging loosely from a lanky frame, the youngster is the image of urban America. But his attitude defies any stereotype. Around Lacks, he is courteous, deferential, even. Then again, Lacks has not come for just a signature. He has come to show how he can make the young man's life better.

There is always the hint of the sergeant in his voice, but he is as much counselor as commander. When the young man suggests he wants to play basketball, Lacks gently redirects the conversation. " We can put you into college, but you're going to have to teach yourself how to jump. You need a Plan A, B, and C. If one doesn't work, then you go on to the next."

He asks the boy to write his plans down. The boy nods. He wants to be a mechanic. The Guard can get him into a technical school, Lacks responds. It is a recurring theme: The Guard is a way out.

Two generations ago, the Army was a way out for the children of factory workers and laborers in the Northeast. Now the upper echelons of the military are fretted with generals from the region. Today, blue-collar jobs have shifted out of the Northeast, and the rising generation of military leaders is increasingly coming from the American South.

Today, says Thompson, "there's no question that in place like the Carolinas and Mississippi, military service is not only respected but commonplace."

Yet even as the South continues to provide the most recruits, the Midwest has had slightly greater success in avoiding a drop-off in recruiting.

For example, the Minnesota Army National Guard is at 112 percent of its year-to-date goal, ranking No. 1 in the country. One reason is that the Minnesota Guard has had to work hard for its recruits because it lacked large bases, and therefore large numbers of troops who were likely to enter the Guard once they left the Army.

"Good old-fashioned hard work - that's the thing that works the best," says recruiting commander Lt. Col. Dirk Kloss.

That philosophy, beyond region or political affiliation, he and others say, is the surest guarantor of recruiting success. It has certainly worked for Lacks. He has already won two trips - one to Las Vegas and one to Hawaii - for meeting recruiting goals. But even then he doesn't have an off button. In Las Vegas, he made four poolside recruiting calls.

"Some people don't work as hard as I do," he says. "But you've got to be constantly, constantly recruiting."

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