Army Recruiting Gap May Force Compromises

Internal military documents show that the Army continues to fall short of its recruiting goals. It expects to be 7,000 short of its 80,000 recruiting goal by Sept. 30, the end of the recruiting calendar year. The shortfall — the same as last year — is detailed in documents given to the Army Secretary. The concern is that the Army will have to scramble to plug holes in units heading over to Iraq and shift more soldiers from support jobs, such as training and logistics, into combat units.

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As the war in Iraq enters its fourth year, the U.S. Army is struggling to find new soldiers. The Army has reached its monthly recruiting goals so far this year, but an internal memo obtained by NPR says that the Army could be short as many as 7,000 recruits by the end of the year. NPR's Tom Bowman has the story.

TOM BOWMAN reporting:

Sergeant Gilbert Rosa[ph] flipped through a binder, thick with the names of high school seniors. He punches in a home phone number and begins his pitch.

Sergeant GILBERT ROSA (Recruiter, U.S. Army): (On the telephone) Hello, how are you doing, ma'am? This is Sergeant Rosa. I'm a U.S. Army recruiter for Hilton High School. Is ..."

BOWMAN: Sergeant Rosa is luckier than most recruiters. This storefront recruiting station in the Virginia suburbs has been making its quota, 13 or 14 teenagers each month. Nationwide, it's a different story. Documents obtained by NPR show that the active duty Army is projected to miss its goal of 80,000 recruits by 7,000 this fall. Last year the Army was also 7,000 below its needs, the largest shortfall since 1979 and the first time in six years that the Army failed to make its recruiting target.

It is more challenging in this environment because we are in sustained combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

BOWMAN: That's Major General Tom Bostick, a West Point graduate who heads the Army's Recruiting Command. He brushed aside the projections, and said he still hopes to recruit 80,000 by year's end.

Major General BOSTICK: The models we have here do not include the incentives, the motivation of our recruiters, and really any changes in policies. So whatever shortages, let's take your number that you gave, 7,000, I have over 7,000 recruiters out there right now. It's an increase of 1,200. But if each recruiter wrote one extra contract, that makes up the 7,000.

BOWMAN: But some retired generals and lawmakers fear that if the Army is once again thousands of recruits below its goal, the impact could be serious. Combat units would be increasingly under strength. The Army would have to move more soldiers around to fill those units heading for Iraq. It may have to cannibalize important Army functions, such as training, to fill the gaps. Retired Lieutenant General Ted Stroop was in charge of Army personnel during the 1991 Gulf War.

Lieutenant General TED STROOP (Retired, U.S. Army): And the real question, which we will not be able to answer until you really see whether or not the Army makes its final recruiting marks and that would be perhaps four to five months after the recruiting year is closed, is whether or not you will find shortages in some of the combat units. In the institutional and the training army, there's liable to be some critical skill shortages in the mid-ranks.

BOWMAN: Others say the Army may be forced to lower standards still further, to pick up more recruits. The Army already has doubled the number of recruits with the lowest scores on military aptitude tests. Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed, a former Army paratrooper, fears the quality of the force will continue to drop.

Senator JACK REED (Democrat, Rhode Island): Every year that this gap exists, there's much more pressure to lower the standards.

BOWMAN: And Reed says with fewer recruits, the Army may also find it difficult to increase the number of combat brigades.

Senator REED: You might even have to start making some concessions when it comes to force structure. You might not be able to fill all the new modular brigades if you don't have adequate, you know, enlisted personnel.

BOWMAN: The Army wants to create 42 of these combat units in the next few years, up from the current 33. Soldiers would then have fewer deployments to Iraq. Andrew Krepinevich, a retired Army officer and defense analyst, worries about the long-term effect of the recruiting shortfall on the country's largest military service.

Lieutenant Colonel ANDREW KREPINEVICH (Retired, U.S. Army): The thing that no one really knows is, where's the red line? You know, where does the Army as an institution really begin to hit the wall? Where does the Army become progressively less combat effective?

BOWMAN: But General Bostick of the Recruiting Command is confident his soldiers will meet the mark by year's end. There are more recruiters on the street, and a bigger ad budget. Andy says the Army's considering a few more incentives to attract recruits: loans to buy a house, or start a small business. In the meantime, Sergeant Rosa and his fellow recruiters continue to work the phones in suburban Virginia.

Sergeant ROSA: (On the telephone) As you already know, the U.S. Army, we have over 200 jobs available. And you know we have ultimate ...

BOWMAN: Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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