Here among the rolling hills of southwestern Pennsylvania, where the effects of the shuttered steel industry still linger and some single-family homes go for under $25,000, Marine recruiter Gunnery Sgt. Brian Bensen has a lot going for him: a love for his Marine Corps, a sense of compassion, and what many military recruiters call "the gift of gab."
But even a successful recruiter like Sergeant Bensen can find it difficult to convince a wary public that enlisting in the military, and maybe deploying to a war zone, is the way to go. That's especially true when it comes to convincing many would-be recruits, as well as their mothers – and now, increasingly, their fathers, too.
It's a sign of the new difficulties in selling Americans on the tradition of service to one's country at a time when the military is growing and the public's patience for the war in Iraq is on the wane.
Parents are more involved than ever in their children's life decisions, and in recent years their approval has emerged as a key factor when it comes to signing on the military's dotted line. Mothers have always tended to be skeptical. But when the Pentagon polled these so-called influencers last year, it found a troubling new trend: Now fathers are expressing more concern.
The percentage of fathers who said they would support military service for their son or daughter dropped from 77 percent in 2003 to 59 percent by last August, according to defense officials. Mothers' support also dropped, from 65 percent to 52 percent. Even grandparents, some of whom belong to the "greatest generation," showed slightly more reluctance to approve of a grandchild joining the military.
Despite it all, the Army and Marine Corps, which are bearing the brunt of the war, are making their active duty recruiting goals. That's in part due to the efforts of recruiters like Bensen, who has met or exceeded his personal mission of signing up at least two new recruits each month. But he knows that he is recruiting the parents as much as he is the kid he wants in uniform.
"Mom and Dad raised that child, and they deserve me coming to talk to them," he says as he drives a government-owned dark sedan from one high school to another.
And that's just what he'll have to do when it comes to recruiting a kid like Collus Smith, a junior at Belle Vernon Area High School. During a recent visit there, Bensen stood in the cafeteria talking up students about their future plans during lunch period. Bensen knows many of them, having made contact with them before. Others approach him, drawn to his flashy dress blue uniform.
Mr. Smith, an African-American whose long, bushy hair and droopy pants don't suggest military discipline, is nevertheless intrigued with joining the Marines. But he knows that convincing his father will be difficult.
"My dad doesn't want me to go to war," says Smith, who could enlist this summer with his father's consent and depart for boot camp after graduation next year. "He thinks the whole thing is stupid; he just doesn't want me over there."
Bensen is quick to point out that not everyone who joins the Marine Corps will go to war, and that numerous technical jobs are available that would lessen the chances that he would find himself gunslinging on the front lines. Bensen himself, who has spent 15 years in the Marines, has not been to Iraq. But the recruiter doesn't sugarcoat military service at a time of war, either.
"I'm not going to tell these kids they're not going to go because that's not necessarily true," Bensen says in the car later.
There are a number of things that are making recruiting that much harder, in addition to the emerging concerns of parents, says Curtis Gilroy, who oversees recruiting for the Pentagon. The war has lasted longer than expected, young men and women are generally less inclined to serve in the military anyway, and, overall, the unemployment rate across the nation is low, around 4.4 percent. On top of that, both the Army and Marine Corps are growing significantly to minimize the strains on those who are already serving. That puts even more pressure on recruiters to make their numbers each month.
"The good news story is that despite declining propensity and the declining degree to which influencers would support a child joining the military, the services are still making their missions," says Mr. Gilroy, who acknowledges the tremendous challenges. Overall, the armed forces recruit a total of about 180,000 active-duty soldiers and 60,000 for the Reserves each year, the bulk of which are drawn from the middle class, defense officials say. While the services are making their recruiting targets, the Army has had to invite more non-high school graduates into the service and has also allowed in a greater percentage of young men and women who don't score as well on the armed forces admissions test. The Marine Corps, which is about a third the size of the Army, has continued to meet its standards, Marine officials say.
For Maj. Brian Hawkins, who is Bensen's commanding officer and oversees recruiting in and around Pittsburgh, recruiting has always been a slog. That's in part because the Corps has insisted on maintaining its high standards for high school graduates and mental aptitude. While the war adds another factor to the equation, it's not the single issue, he says. Patriotism draws as many kids – and their parents – into the service as the war keeps away.
"You have just as many people coming to us because of the war as I think you have people leaning away from it," he says.
Not for long, if you ask Barry McCaffrey, a retired Army four-star general. He's been critical of the administration's execution of the war and believes the government is "denying reality" when it comes to the impacts the protracted conflict is having on the services. He is not surprised that parents are raising their collective eyebrows.
"The parents of the country now say, '29,000 killed and wounded, the president doesn't know what he is doing, we think the war is a mistake, and why would I want my son or daughter enlisting for college money?'" says McCaffrey. "So, no kidding, we've got trouble."
Yet not all parents buy into the not-my-kid mind-set, and defense officials believe there are enough of those kinds of parents to keep the military whole. Danielle Thompson, a Queens, N.Y., transplant who owns an apparel design shop called Any-Kind-a-Wear in nearby Monessen, says her daughter Olivia's military service makes her proud. Thompson wants US troops out of Iraq because she says Iraq is in a civil war and the troops should come home. But she supports the troops there despite her views, and when friends or neighbors ask her why, she counters with a question of her own.
"If not mine, then whose?" asks Thompson, who carries a picture of Olivia in uniform in her wallet. "If my daughter didn't go in, is your daughter going to go in?"