South, Midwest Drive Army Recruiting

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Army recruiters are not making their quotas nationwide, but in the South and Midwest, they're having less trouble finding recruits. One reason may be the economy, but recruiters and military families also point to a rural tradition of military service.


US Army officials have confirmed they are unlikely to meet their recruiting goals this year. That's a problem affecting the Reserve, the National Guard and the active duty Army which is expected to fall several thousand short of its troop recruitment goal of 80,000. But in some parts of the Midwest, recruiters are having little trouble meeting their quotas. NPR's Greg Allen spent some time recently with one of the Army's most successful recruiters in Sedalia, Missouri.

GREG ALLEN reporting:

Sedalia is a town of just over 20,000 people in central Missouri. It's an area Sergeant Eric Kearst(ph) knows well. For nearly three years, he's visited the schools and driven the streets here looking for young men and women who are ready to consider joining the US Army.

Sergeant ERIC KEARST (Recruiter, US Army): Right now, I'm just kind of scoping out, looking at the different ages here.

ALLEN: On this day Sergeant Kearst pulls his US Army-issued Malibu over next to a skate park and sizes up the recruiting prospects.

Sgt. KEARST: What I'm looking for is individuals that may meet the age requirement, you know, the 17-to-34, 35. I don't want to approach a young 13-year-old and scare them to death thinking I'm drafting him or something.

ALLEN: Sergeant Kearst decides this group is just too young. The Army here in Sedalia, as everywhere, depends heavily on face-to-face recruiting. In rural areas, that can mean a lot of driving; an hour or more each way to keep appointments and to visit schools. In the summertime it gets even tougher to find places where young people gather.

Kearst drives across the railroad tracks to Sedalia's north side and wheels into a park where a group of young men are playing basketball.

(Soundbite of car door opening and closing)

Sgt. KEARST: Oh, worth a try here.

ALLEN: Sergeant Kearst hardly steps out of his car before he's greeted by Sonya Frazier who asks him if he's recruiting.

Ms. SONYA FRAZIER: I'm ready. You doing--you do a lot of good recruiting out here.

ALLEN: Frazier says she's 34 and interested in joining the Army Reserves. Sergeant Kearst gets her a card and a US Army beer huggy.

Sgt. KEARST: So you're in nursing?


Sgt. KEARST: Really? How long you been in nursing?

Ms. FRAZIER: I just graduated April 2nd.

Sgt. KEARST: Congratulations.

Ms. FRAZIER: Thank you.

Sgt. KEARST: Congratulations.

Ms. FRAZIER: So if I go to school, you have to pay for my schooling?

Sgt. KEARST: Yes, we can.

Ms. FRAZIER: Cool.

Sgt. KEARST: In fact, if you already have student loans...

Ms. FRAZIER: I already do. I just graduated.

Sgt. KEARST: ...we'll be able to pay those student loans off.

Ms. FRAZIER: OK. All right, I'll call you.

(Soundbite of people playing basketball)

ALLEN: Kearst has less success with the group playing basketball. `No Army here,' one of the players shouts from the court.

Still, he's not concerned. This year, Kearst and his team of recruiters in Sedalia have already signed up 58 young men and women, 11 more than their quota.

Although recruiting is down nationally, the Midwest is the region where it's stayed strongest. One reason is the large rural population. Many who live nearby farm or raise livestock, and there are several small factories making everything from automotive parts to cookware. The biggest employer is the Tyson's turkey processing plant.

Before coming to Sedalia, Sergeant Kearst recruited in the Kansas City area where he says he encountered more skepticism and generally felt less welcome than here in Sedalia. Driving past the State Fair Shopping Center he recalls one of the first nights here when he stopped in at the local Wal-Mart.

Sgt. KEARST: A young girl about age six approached me and the mom was standing back, and the little girl looked up at me and said `Thank you.' And I was looking at the mom and the mom had a tear in my eye, and it just--it gave me a really good feeling, a sense of duty and respect that I had never felt before from someone in the general public just to walk up like that.

ALLEN: Kearst and other recruiters say there's a strong current of patriotism in the Midwest, especially in small towns that makes their jobs easier. But they acknowledge that economic factors also play a major role. Missouri's economy has bounced back more slowly than the country as a whole. Unemployment in Sedalia is a percentage point higher than the national average. In addition, the factory and service sector jobs that are available here don't appeal to many recent high school and college graduates.

Loren Thompson is a defense analyst at Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia.

Mr. LOREN THOMPSON (Defense Analyst, Lexington Institute): There's no question that patriotism plays a significant part in the propensity of people to be recruited into the military. On the other, in many small towns scattered across the Midwest and the South, military service is also a way out. It's a way out of an economy that offers few opportunities, or it's a way up in the sense of a higher standard of living.

ALLEN: Even in the Midwest, though, the Army isn't meeting its recruiting goals. Although some offices, like the one in Sedalia, are meeting their quotas, the battalion they report to, based in Kansas City, expects to hit just over 80 percent of its recruiting goal. Here, as elsewhere, recruiters say that the war in Iraq and the growing number of attacks against soldiers by insurgents has made their task more difficult. Some of the toughest recruiting is in suburban areas, such as Overland Park, Kansas, where parents have higher incomes and their kids have more educational and career opportunities. Because of increased resistance to recruiters, especially among parents, teachers and counselors, the Army has begun running a series of television commercials.

(Soundbite of rain)

(Soundbite from Army TV commercial)

Unidentified Man: When you got off that train back there you did two things you've never done before, at least not at the same time. You shook my hand and then you looked me square in the eye. Where'd that come from?

ALLEN: The ad closes with a message aimed directly at parents: Help them find their strength.

Ms. DEBORAH MILLER (Parent): When he told me that this--the recruiter had called and that he was even thinking about going to talk with him, I was a little surprised at that. Pleasantly surprised.

ALLEN: Deborah Miller hasn't seen the ad, but says it doesn't matter. She served nine years in the Navy. When her son told her he wanted to enlist she says she was glad.

Ms. MILLER: As a Navy vet, it was--I had been trying to push him into the military, which, of course, any teen-ager's going to back up immediately.

(Soundbite of door squeaking and items being handled)

Ms. MILLER: But I was happy to hear that he had made that decision.

ALLEN: Miller's son, James, is 17 and going into his senior year at Olathe South High School, not far from the Overland Park recruiting station where he signed up. Of all his friends, he says, he's the only one who's enlisting. Only one other is even considering it. For Miller, a major factor was his family's tradition of military service.

JAMES MILLER (Enlistee): I mean, my whole family's been military, and my grandpa was in the Navy. My uncle's in the Air Force right now. That really played a role on it. Also, my grandpa hasn't been feeling too well lately. He--so I started thinking about him and I got to do something--one last thing to make him, you know, happy and, you know, satisfy him. So I was like, you know what? This is perfect.

ALLEN: Increasingly, that tradition of military service is something that's breaking down along regional lines. It's also one reason why the South and Midwest are so important to Army recruiters, accounting last year for more than 60 percent of enlistees. Defense analyst Loren Thompson says this growing regionalism ultimately may not be in the best interest of the Army or the nation.

Mr. THOMPSON: This military's already running a danger that most of its bases have gone away in the Northeast. If most of its recruits go away, too, then it relies on a smaller and smaller part of the nation to sustain its institutions and its service.

ALLEN: Thompson says strong support in every part of the country may not matter so much to the military in a time of crisis, but it can become crucial, especially if the nation finds itself in an extended conflict.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Kansas City.

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