Military recruiting improving, but remains fragile

Military leaders are cautiously optimistic about the services' improving ability to recruit and retain adequate numbers of troops, but they warn that it's far too soon to claim victory in the ongoing battle to sustain the all-volunteer force. In a hearing Tuesday before the personnel panel of the Senate Armed Services Committee, service personnel chiefs said the gains they've seen in recent months are "fragile," and will require sustained attention and resources if they are to continue. The Army, Navy and Air Force have all struggled--and at times failed--to meet annual recruiting goals over the past several years. Only the much-smaller Marine Corps has continually met its goals, but even the Marines have found it a challenge. In the last year, the services have taken significant steps to reverse the trend. Through new advertising campaigns and new Web sites, partnerships with private industry and by revamping their recruiting operations, the services all managed to meet their 2000 recruiting goals. "Despite last year's accomplishments, we are not yet positioned for long-term success," said Vice Adm. Norbert Ryan, chief of naval personnel. Nearly one-third of new recruits end up leaving the Navy before their four-year enlistment has expired, a situation that exacerbates personnel problems throughout the fleet. Last year at this time, for instance, the Navy was short 11,500 sailors in at-sea billets; today the shortage is 6,100, thanks in large part to the Navy's aggressive retention and re-enlistment efforts that included offering bonuses and better professional opportunities for many sailors. The Army has the largest recruiting hurdle--it enlisted 190,724 men and women into the active force and its National Guard and Reserve units last year, fully meeting its recruiting goals for all three branches for only the third time in 10 years.

"These successes do not come easy or cheap," said Lt. Gen. Timothy Maude, the Army's deputy chief of staff for personnel. Last year, the Army opened or relocated more than 110 recruiting stations, boosted the number of recruiters working in the Southwest and on the West Coast, and started targeting high school graduates with some college experience. In March, the Army launched a controversial new advertising campaign, "Army of One," replacing the "Be All You Can Be" slogan that defined the service for the baby boomer generation. While critics have derided the new slogan as anathema to the military ethos, service leaders say it isn't designed to reach those critics. While it's too soon to say how successful the new campaign will be, Maude said the early indicators are positive. Recruiters representing each of the services told the Senate panel that just getting the message out-that the services are hiring-has been a problem. In many parts of the country, recruiters are not welcome in high schools and do not have access to lists of graduating seniors, their traditional targets for pitching a military career.

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