rom all appearances it was an unremarkable scene-a military recruiter chatting with a recent high school graduate bagging groceries at a Safeway supermarket in a Washington, D.C., suburb. They had talked many times before, the kid in the baggy jeans and T-shirt that is his generation's uniform, and the staff sergeant, trim and neat, wearing his Army-green "Class Bs." The teen-ager wanted to become a soldier, but had scored too low on an exam to be considered for enlistment. So instead of flexing his muscles at basic training, he'll be cracking the books at a community college this fall, he told the recruiter.
The incident speaks volumes about how the military has changed since the last draftee was inducted in 1973. At that time, illiteracy, drug and alcohol abuse, and disciplinary problems were common among the rank and file. More than 40 percent of Army recruits were high-school dropouts. The conventional wisdom was if you couldn't do anything else, you could always join the military.
Not so today. It is nearly impossible to get into the armed services without earning a high school diploma and scoring in the top half of the standardized Armed Forces Qualification Test. Potential recruits are routinely disqualified for emotional and disciplinary problems, substance abuse and criminal activity. The all-volunteer force that has evolved since 1973 is vastly different from the problem-plagued conscription military most adults with enlistment-age children remember.
But as fewer Americans have any first-hand experience with the military, the gap between public perception and the reality of military life threatens to undo some of the accomplishments of the last 20 years. While service officials are determined they will not return to lower recruiting standards, they are finding it increasingly difficult to attract qualified young people, especially men.
Annual Defense Department surveys tracking young people's attitudes suggest a troubling trend. In 1989, 17 percent of 16- to 21-year-old males said they would consider enlisting in the Army or the Air Force and 13 percent said they would consider the Navy or the Marine Corps. By 1994, interest levels among the same age group had dropped to 12 percent in the Air Force, 11 percent in the Army and the Marine Corps and only 9 percent in the Navy.
Service officials are optimistic that beefed-up recruiting campaigns have arrested the downward trend. "Whether it was arrested only temporarily or whether it will continue is something we don't know," says Edwin Dorn, undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness.
The services signed up 175,783 recruits last year, meeting Defense Department goals for both quality and quantity. But it was a struggle-the most difficult year since 1979, according to one Air Force official.
The future is likely to be even tougher. While the military has been shrinking in the post-Cold War drawdown-700,000 troops will have been cut from the ranks by the end of the decade-recruiting goals are on the rise. To maintain the proper balance of skills and experience, the military must continually bring in new people to rise up through the ranks. In 1995, for example, the Army, which has the highest recruitment rate, brought in about 63,000 new soldiers. This year, the goal is 71,000; by 1997, it will jump to about 90,000.
It's a sunny June day at the Flower Hill Shopping Center in Gaithersburg, Md., and Army recruiter Staff Sgt. Michael Cato is surveying the terrain. His mission: Collect the names and phone numbers of at least five potential recruits. He spots a lanky kid, in his late teens or early 20s, leaning against the wall outside a Giant supermarket: Potential recruit.
"Hi. I'm Sgt. Cato, your local Army recruiter. How are you today?"
"Do you work here?"
"Are you a high school graduate?"
"Good for you. What are your plans for the future? The Army's got some great new programs these days."
"We've got some jobs you might be interested in. Have you made any plans yet for your future?"
"Yeah. I'm going to play badminton."
Army research suggests Cato will have to talk to between 140 and 160 people before he signs up one new recruit, says Lt. Gen. Theodore Stroup, the Army's deputy chief of staff for personnel. Cato's goal is three new recruits a month. As sales jobs go, this one is a nightmare. The target audience is ambivalent and generally doesn't think more than six months into the future. The product is intangible and demands a commitment of years, sweat and potentially blood.
Cato is continually astonished to discover how much the civilian world has changed since he first put on his uniform 15 years ago. Until this recruiting assignment, he spent his entire career on military installations, most recently overseas. He remembers a world where young adults saw the military as an opportunity, certainly preferable to the jobs held by some of the indifferent kids he sees today.
In some parts of the country, that still is true, particularly in the South. "The Florida panhandle is a marvelous place to recruit," says Col. Robert Mead, vice commander of the Air Force Recruiting Service. Recruiting is most difficult in regions where employment opportunities are abundant and where there is a general lack of awareness regarding the military, he says. "For reasons I can't explain, no one wants to join in Iowa."
Base closures and the military drawdown haven't helped recruiting, giving young people the impression the military doesn't offer a secure future. "Almost everybody I talk to is surprised we're still hiring," says Rear Adm. Anthony Watson, commander of the Navy Recruiting Command.
But there's also something else at work, service officials say. Before the all-volunteer force, the military was viewed as a cultural common denominator, among men anyway. While there were always people whose family connections, money, or educational opportunities would preclude them from military service, the majority of American men served in the armed services, however briefly, at one point in their lives.
The shift to an all-volunteer force has resulted in a more professional military, but it has also turned the military, with its own unique legal system, housing, dress code and even grocery stores, into a subculture with which few Americans are familiar. This shift has had an impact not just on the public perception of the military, but on the lawmakers whose responsibility it is to set policy for the armed forces.
Supporters of Republican presidential candidate Robert Dole would like to make an issue of President Clinton's evasion of the draft compared with Dole's heroic actions in combat in the closing days of World War II. But in 1992, voters didn't seem to hold Clinton's lack of service against him.
Rep. G.V. "Sonny" Montgomery, D-Miss., remembers when well over half of his colleagues in the House were veterans. Today, 36 percent of House members are veterans. As the World War II and Korean War generations retire in the next two decades, the percentage of veterans in Congress will drop even more sharply.
Montgomery, a soldier during World War II who was again called to active duty during the Korean War, says nonveterans in Congress must be educated about the military. "It's not necessarily a big problem, but the [military] must deal with the issue," he says.
As the architect of the Montgomery GI Bill, under which service members can receive $405 a month for college, he has been instrumental in helping the military attract higher-quality recruits. "We may even have to increase the benefits at some point," he says. Like senior military leaders who remember the disorderly days of the early 1970s, he believes the quality of new recruits is paramount to maintaining a high-quality professional force.
Cato climbs the escalator at the Lake Forest Mall in Montgomery County, Md. The mall is a magnet for teens. The mall would be a magnet for recruiters too, but the management has discouraged them from hanging around, he says. Cato's wife works at the mall, though, so he has an excuse to stop by occasionally.
There aren't many people around today. He spots two young men sitting on a bench on an upper level. By the time he gets to them he realizes they are too young.
Two young women look to be the right age. As he approaches, it becomes obvious they are far too overweight for the service. Young women are the hardest to judge. Makeup and clothing can make a 13-year-old eighth-grader appear as old as a high school senior.
He stops by Express to check on a young saleswoman who told him previously she was thinking about enlisting in the Army. When he asks for her, he's told she's quit and moved out West. He leaves his business card anyway, in case the clerk has a friend who might be interested in the Army.
Military recruiters ply their trade wherever they find young people-malls, parks, basketball courts, arcades and even the Internet. Watson estimates the Navy recruits a new sailor every other day from its home page on the World Wide Web. Of course, that's only a fraction of the 1,000 new sailors the Navy must recruit every week.
High schools are the most productive places for recruiters to spend their time-if they can get in. "Access to high schools is getting more and more difficult," says Mead. "Some school systems have objected to the Defense Department policy on homosexuals. Some have just taken liberal stands on anything involving the military," he says. "Just to get in and talk to an assembly is sometimes difficult, unless you can show some academic value. Some schools will only let you set up a table in the lunch room, which is fairly passive."
Only about 3 percent of public high schools do not allow military recruiters on their grounds, according to Marine Corps Col. D.R. Rose, assistant chief of staff for operations, Marine Corps Recruiting Command. But another 40 percent will not provide recruiters with the names and addresses of high school seniors, making it difficult for local recruiters who try to talk to every graduating senior.
Recruiters insist they never try to steer kids away from college. Instead, they say, they can help young people get to college who otherwise wouldn't be able to afford it. Training and education opportunities and money for college are the most effective incentives recruiters have. While the services offer different education programs and incentives, a young man or woman can generally earn up to $30,000 for a college education in exchange for a four-year enlistment.
Much of what the military has to offer is intangible, however, and the services' marketers work hard to capture the imaginations of potential recruits. For the Navy, there's the romance of the sea and foreign ports. The Air Force has the most corporate image, conjuring visions of high-tech efficiency. While the Army will always be associated with battle fatigues and muddy boots, they're the guys on the ground and everybody knows winning the land battle is what counts in warfare. As for the Marines, well, they're Marines-tough, elite and there when you need them.
Of course it's not all glamour, and for some recruits there may never be any glamour. All the services offer plenty of mind-numbing jobs, less-than-outstanding pay, and the opportunity to put one's life on the line. High schoolers know this.
"Kids are a little more sophisticated in their view of what they want out of life," says Mead. They are more suspicious of recruiters than in the past; they are uneasy making a commitment for longer than a year; and they expect higher pay than the $875 per month plus food and housing for an average recruit with four months of training.
The information most kids today have about the military is more apt to come from movie director Oliver Stone than from a friend or relative who knows firsthand the peculiar aggravations and rewards unique to life as a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine. So the services have tried to dispel some myths about the military. The men and women you see in the television ads are real soldiers, not actors. The Marine Corps has even produced a film designed to show the ins and outs of work and life on base.
The kid was a high school dropout but he showed promise. He also was eager to join the Army. As evidence of his seriousness, he'd earned his general equivalency diploma and had more than 15 credit hours from a local community college -the minimum requirement for enlistment without a high school diploma.
Cato decided to help him out. After hours of checking, he found a spot for the kid. Only about 4 percent of Army recruits have a G.E.D. instead of a high school diploma, and it's a number the Army would like to cut. Finding a place for a G.E.D. is tough for a recruiter.
Cato estimates he invested about 60 hours of his time on the kid, in interviews, administering tests, and driving him around before he took the kid to the Military Entrance Processing Station in Baltimore where new recruits undergo a physical and take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery.
The kid's military career ended before it started, though. He tested positive for cocaine.
Rising crime and drug use among juveniles are only some of the troubling trends Lt. Col. Joe Reich, assistant chief of staff for human resources at the Marine Corps Recruiting Command, sees today.
"In 1960, 78 percent of young people reached age 18 in a house with their two biological parents. Today, that's 56 percent," he says. In an information paper on leading cultural indicators, Reich cites reports showing that 18- to 22-year-olds from disrupted families are more likely to have emotional problems. Children from single-parent families are two to three times more likely to drop out of high school, abuse drugs and have problems with the law. One-fifth of high school graduates cannot read their diplomas and average SAT verbal scores have dropped 60 points in the last 35 years. Up to a third of students are overweight. As for ethics, 76 percent of 14- to 19-year-old males admit to cheating in school.
In short, recruits who meet the Marine Corps' mental, physical and moral standards are getting harder to find, Reich says.
It's not all bad news, though. Young people today are more technically competent than their predecessors, says Stroup. And the recruits who do make their way into the service are drug-free and crime-free, even if it is getting harder to find them, he says. More and more, those people are women.
"There has not been a decline in young women's interest in joining the military, although young women's interest has traditionally been significantly lower [than men's]," Dorn says. But the Pentagon hopes to change that. Last year, the services began advertising in magazines that target high-school girls, in addition to the sports and auto magazines high school boys read.
"While women are excluded from ground combat positions in the Army and the Marine Corps, the vast majority of our jobs are open to women, something many of them may not realize," says Dorn. "We are putting women on combatant vessels and we're putting them in combatant aircraft. Better than 80 percent [of military positions] are open to women. What we've got to do is let them know."
What does this mean for the military in the long run? "The military will have to adapt," says Montgomery. "We need young people coming into the service. We'll have to start drawing from other sources. It's been a men's military for a long time. It will take time to turn it around. But they will get it turned around, I believe."
Cato was excited. The kid was 19 and he had a high school diploma. He was smart. He didn't use drugs and he'd had no problems with the law. Best of all, he wanted to be a paratrooper. The part-time lifeguard, part-time security officer was a year out of high school and ready for a career in the military. He was one of those rare kids who walks into a recruiting office looking for a recruiter.
It wasn't until after the would-be paratrooper had taken the enlistment oath, signed the paperwork and gone through the entrance processing that Cato learned there was a problem. His mother wouldn't like it, the kid said. Cato offered to talk to her.
Before too many days passed, the mother, her lawyer, and her Congressman intervened, demanding the kid be released from the contract. The Army obliged.
"Mothers are the hardest," says Sgt. Leon Tillman, a Marine Corps recruiter. "It's hard for them to let that kid go. There's always the war factor." He understands their concern, but just wishes it would manifest itself as pride rather than protection.
"I'm somebody's son too. The police officer that risks his life every day is somebody's son. Freedom isn't free. You should be proud your son or daughter is willing to carry the torch," Tillman says.
Convincing young people of the benefits of military service is difficult. Convincing their parents is sometimes impossible. "People who are coming of age today have parents who were part of the Vietnam generation, and that's a generation that was very divided on questions about the military," says Dorn. "If you're an adult with an 18- to 20-year-old child, even if you've been in the military, your perception of the military was likely formed in the 1960s and early 1970s. It was a draft-era military which was not terribly high quality in the enlisted ranks. The stereotype NCO, the hard-drinking, cigar-chomping, beer-gutted NCO is what a lot of us remember. Very few American civilians have been on a military base in the last 20 years to see how good they are."
It's a perception recruiters like Cato and Tillman are trying to change.
Tillman has been a Marine for 12 years, since he was 18 years old. He respects the kids he tries to recruit. He just wishes more of the public had has much respect for him: "It's not just the kids rejecting you, but their parents. They sometimes treat you like you're some kind of peasant, when all you're trying to do is serve your country."