Breaking It Down: Military Steps Up Recruitment

You have to have seen them. They're all over prime-time television: commercials for the Army, the Marines and the Air Force. I haven't seen any for the Navy or Coast Guard recently. But in last week's episode of the TV series "24," there were two commercials extolling the rewards of working for the FBI.

These commercials are as slick and glitzy as commercials get. Expensive productions, glitzy editing, music that swells your pride in country. They innocently offer young people opportunities for world travel, a college education, marketable skills, a future. There are no mentions of the war in Iraq. No mentions of those who have been killed and injured.

What's going on?

The Pentagon has finally acknowledged it is having trouble getting enough volunteers for our all-volunteer army. The Army for the first time in five years missed its recruiting goal. The Marines have failed to meet their goals the last two months.

The Army and Army Reserves alone need 100,000 new recruits this year. They say only about 10 percent of them walk into recruitment offices to enlist. The rest -- 90 percent of them -- have to be rounded up.

So the military, in 2003, spent an estimated $4 billion on advertising and recruitment activities. That budget is expected to increase.

I first wondered "what's going on?" last fall when I saw Marine recruiters -- in their snappy dress uniforms -- talking to a group of students in a Kansas City high school parking lot. But now I've been seeing uniformed military officers outside movie cineplexes, McDonald's and Wal-Marts. They are usually found at inner-city high schools and the places where black and Latino kids hang out.

I recently learned that U.S. military recruiters can now go into public schools and sit in guidance counseling offices to pursue their recruitment efforts. Then I discovered it is a provision of the No Child Left Behind legislation, which I have talked about before. The law says that any schools accepting federal funds (well, that's virtually every public school in the country) must give military recruiters the same access to students and data about students that college recruiters get.

It seems the military will go to great lengths to try to attract the teenagers they need. They have set up Army-style shooting ranges where students can take aim at targets, not with bullets, but with guns that look real. To be able to shoot, however, the students have to provide their names and phone numbers.

Army recruiters set up rock-climbing walls, pass out Army T-shirts, caps and other gear, and a new PC video game has gone online called "America's Army." Players can go through virtual basic training and participate in military "missions" online.

I was in Florida recently and spoke to teenagers in six high schools about the importance of keeping up with current events. After one session, a polite young black guy came up to me and asked for my business card. I gave it to him and he put it on top of another card he was holding. Nosy me, I asked, "Whose card is that?" He showed me. It belonged to an Army sergeant. Along with the official printing there was a handwritten cell phone number. I asked the boy if he was interested in signing up. He said, "Yeah, but I don't wanna die."

The two major problems the military is facing in getting new recruits is waning public support for U.S. involvement in Iraq and fear. What made the military a terrific career option for youngsters who couldn't afford college isn't viewed as so terrific anymore. It used to be you did your time, learned a skill, served your country and went on with your life. But now parents and kids are afraid they won't come back from Iraq or may come back with horrific injuries that would change their lives forever.

There is a growing backlash to the aggressive military recruitment. They call themselves counter-recruiters, a national network of antiwar activists. They include veterans, members of peace groups and teenagers. They say they don't tell kids not to join the military. They say they tell them there are other options. They don't believe the military is practicing truth in advertising with its video games and rock-climbing walls.

With the country committed in Iraq and Afghanistan, some people say it's difficult to see how the military will get the recruits it needs without re-instituting a draft. Yes, the "D-word." The Pentagon says there will be no draft. Still, it's a word you can hear being used around Washington, not in outspoken ways, but certainly among the whispers.