By Tom Philpott : CNJ columnist
In 1998 and again in 1999, the Army missed its recruiting goals. But the challenges then were modest compared to what the Army faces today, said Curtis Gilroy, the Defense Department’s director of recruiting policy.
“And that’s primarily because of the Iraq War,’’ said Gilroy. “It’s really very, very different’’ than in the late 1990s.
The problem then was a budget miscalculation. Recruiting services had too little money for advertising and too few recruiters on the street to compete for volunteers in a thriving economy.
“We had record-low unemployment (of) 4 percent. Also, we were drawing down the force so we cut budgets at the same time,’’ Gilroy said.
Today’s challenge centers on the continuing deployment of 140,000 ground forces to the war zone of Iraq with no exit schedule on the table. The Marine Corps is still getting the recruits it needs. Not so the Army.
From October 2004 through June this year, the Army enlisted 47,121 recruits. That was 14 percent below goal, for a shortage of nearly 8,000. The Army National Guard was short by 23 percent, or 10,400 recruits, and the Army Reserve by 21 percent, down 4,100 volunteers. Those are significant shortages. Gilroy cited four factors, three of them tied to Iraq.
The first is an expanding job market. As in the late ’90s, the U.S. economy is strengthening. Current unemployment is 5 percent, Gilroy said, down from 6.3 percent in June 2004.
A second factor is a bigger recruiting mission. Worried about the strain from Iraq operations, Congress ordered active Army strength raised by 30,000 soldiers over three years. To achieve that growth, the Army raised its recruiting target for 2004 in mid-year, from 72,000 to 77,000. For fiscal 2005, it raised it again, to 80,000.
That 8,000 increase, said Gilroy, “is a lot for any service … The Army did not budget for this so it had to reprogram (money from other accounts) to the extent it could in the short term.’’
The third factor is the Iraq war, Gilroy said. “That is critical. It’s the first protracted conflict that the all-volunteer force has been engaged in.’’
Prospective recruits obviously weigh the dangers. But Gilroy said the war increased the “frequency and duration of deployments’’ and also forced the Army to issue “stop loss’’ orders to block scheduled separations or retirements of thousands of soldiers with critical skills.
“Those have been significant issues for a lot of service members and their families,’’ Gilroy said.
The fourth factor, widely acknowledged now by military leaders, is the declining propensity of parents, teachers and other “influencers’’ of American youth to recommend they join the military. Mothers, in particular, said Gilroy, “are very concerned about their sons and daughters joining the military and are not encouraging it.’’
He shared survey data showing that, in November of 2004, only 31 percent of parents and 47 percent of non-parent influencers said they likely would encourage youth to join the military. By May 2005, or after another six months of war, only 25 percent of parents and 42 percent of non-parents said they would encourage youth to enlist.
Unlike during the Vietnam War, there are no draft boards today feeding a stream of youth into the Army in whatever numbers the service says it needs. Now if a war loses popular support, the flow of volunteers can dry up. Larger and larger enlistment bonuses and other incentives can help but for how long?
Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at: