Army Retooling Recruiting Practices

The Army has taken the unusual step of planning a "values stand-down" for its recruiters on May 20. Recruiters will retrain on acceptable recruiting practices. Robert Siegel talks with New York Times reporter Damien Cave, who has written stories about military recruiting abuses.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Later this month US Army recruiters will suspend work for one day. May 20th is to be what the Army calls a values stand-down; that means a day of retraining the recruiters in what is ethical and acceptable and what is not. Damien Cave of The New York Times has reported on some of the recruiting abuses that led to this decision, and he joins us from Newark, New Jersey.

Damien Cave, what did you find?

Mr. DAMIEN CAVE (The New York Times): Well, we found, actually, a significant rise in the number of impropriety investigations and substantiated cases. They've gone up from 213 cases of substantiated allegations in 2002 to at least 320 in 2004. The range is quite wide. It's everything from hiding a police record to hiding a medical record--in many cases, it's attention deficit disorder--to things like creating false diplomas or encouraging people to create false diplomas. And in at least one case in Ohio, recruiters were found to have tried to recruit a bipolar 21-year-old young man who was fresh out of a psychiatric ward of a hospital in the area.

SIEGEL: But when you're talking about medical records or diplomas, you're saying that the recruiter is supposed to recruit people who have met a certain standard. And the ethical lapses, at least those that are alleged or being investigated, are either ignoring the fact that the potential recruit hasn't met those standards or helping him lie about it.

Mr. CAVE: Exactly. Recruiters are required to check and make sure that everyone who they sign up has the qualifications to be a good soldier.

SIEGEL: These all fall under the category of allegedly unethical behavior that helped somebody who wanted to be recruited get recruited. There was also a story out of Houston of a volunteer fireman, Christopher Monarch, who had backed off his recruiter after, I guess, his wife had a baby, and he was threatened. He was told, `The police are going to come get you if you don't show up at the recruiting office.'

Mr. CAVE: Exactly. And then he was told that this is just a marketing tactic when he called back. That case of using the threat of arrest is something that I haven't heard before. The more common thing is to say, `Well, you can't get out of it. You've already come in, you've signed this initial form. You're already signed up,' when, in fact, any recruit has the ability to step away from the process until they actually ship out.

SIEGEL: Three hundred cases in which there are allegations or investigations, up, as you say, from in the 200s. But, still, in the broader picture of how many people are being recruited by the Army, certainly not the majority of recruitments at issue here.

Mr. CAVE: No, that doesn't seem to be the case. It seems to be a minority of recruiters and recruits who are put in with some of these issues. However, some recruiters say that one out of every three people they send up to be processed have something that's hidden or something that's problematic. And, in fact, the number of cases doesn't actually reflect the number of recruiters involved. Many of these cases had multiple recruiters involved. In certain cases, a recruiter may have done something unethical and may have been either signed off on or encouraged by a station commander, according to the dozens of recruiters at least that I've talked to nationwide

SIEGEL: What do you hear from the recruiters? Do they say that with the war in Iraq continuing, that it's getting harder and harder and harder to find more young men and women who are willing to enlist?

Mr. CAVE: They describe it as the most difficult job in the Army. Many of these men would prefer to be back in Iraq serving; many of them are veterans. And they feel like the war and the combination of that and the growing economy has made it nearly impossible to find good soldiers who are willing to enlist. Even before the war they had to contact 120 people at least to get a single recruit, according to Army figures. Now that number has skyrocketed, according to these recruiters I've talked to, and the pressure to get these people in is intense. They work 80-hour weeks, six days a week, often without holidays or vacation. For them, this is a mission; they must get what usually turns out to be about two recruits a month, and if not, they're failures. And that means punishment, it means written reprimands, it means threats to their career, and they take this very seriously.

SIEGEL: Do you get the impression that the recruiters look toward May 20th with seriousness, as a day in which something might be accomplished, or is this for public relations purposes?

Mr. CAVE: Some of the recruiters I've talked to today have said that it feels like it might just be another day of training. Others--military historians, other experts that I've talked to today--say that this is a very big deal and that this is something that could turn things around in terms of the ethics for at least three to six months. But for it to actually be lasting, they need to follow up and create some kind of system in place in which integrity is always the highest standard.

The difficult part is that when you emphasize that issue, it means that the pressure on these recruiters to get people in is going to be even more intense if, in fact, they are no longer allowed to bend the rules and cut corners.

SIEGEL: Damien Cave, thanks a lot for talking with us today.

Mr. CAVE: Sure.

SIEGEL: Reporter Damien Cave of The New York Times.

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