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Recession recruits

interior-recruitsThis article was published in the Sunday Herald on October 18, 2009.

For the first time since the draft was suspended after American soldiers came home from Vietnam, the US military has enlisted as many new soldiers as it needs. The defence department undersecretary in charge of personnel, Bill Carr, said his division had “delivered beyond anything the framers of the all-volunteer force would have anticipated.” He admitted the recession has played a major part in helping recruiters achieve their goals, adding that “the unemployment we had not directly forecast allowed us to be, for much of the year, in a very favourable position.”

Hailing a “banner year” for recruitment, the Pentagon’s director of accession policy, Curtis Gilroy, went further, saying that widespread redundancies and a chronic lack of entry-level jobs are driving school-leavers into the armed forces. “It’s everything from McDonald’s to cutbacks at Best Buy,” he told the Washington Post. “Those who are last hired tend to be first fired. They would then view the military option more favourably.”

The defence department signed up 168,900 active-duty troops during the financial year that ended in September. The Army and the Marine Reserve, in particular, far exceeded their recruitment targets. Carr noted that this is all the more remarkable since, when the all-volunteer force was created in 1973, only 5% of young people were classified as obese. That figure is now one in four, depleting the pool of available soldiers.

The results vindicate vast sums spent on improving and expanding the system. Each new soldier costs around $22,000 in advertising, marketing and recruiter salaries. The recruits themselves often receive a substantial signing bonus. Last year, the average payment was $14,000 to join up.

Recruitment has become more sophisticated, as well as more generous. Last month, veterans gathered outside the Army Experience Centre, in a Philadelphia shopping mall, to object to the computer simulations inside, which let youngsters pilot a Black Hawk helicopter, play at counter-insurgency on games consoles and “take part in an authentic battle scenario”.

Vietnam veteran Bill Perry told reporters that teenagers “can’t really handle something like this and understand that war is not a game. It’s not going to be like an arcade when you’re in Iraq or Afghanistan.”interior-recruits2

In the Bush administration’s second term, recruitment was so difficult that military analysts seriously considered whether the Army might be overstretched to breaking point. The maximum age of enlistment was raised from 35 to 42. Standards for physical fitness, mental aptitude and emotional stability were drastically lowered and a record number of convicted criminals received a waiver that allowed them to serve their country.

In the most extreme example of this lax recruitment policy’s potential to undermine the Army’s image and capabilities, Private Steven Green, a long term drug user with a criminal record, led a group of soldiers that raped and murdered a 14-year-old Iraqi girl after killing her father, mother and sister. He had been admitted to the military on a “morals waiver” that glossed over his charge sheet and history of alcohol abuse.

The most impressive aspect of the figures released this week was not the quantity, but the quality of recruits. The Army stopped issuing waivers to people convicted of assault, arson or robbery in April, and extended the period of ineligibility after a failed drugs test. Almost 96% of this year’s intake finished high school, compared with just 83% last year.

In April, I attended a swearing-in ceremony for recruits in New York’s Times Square. They shivered in the freezing cold as Chief of Staff General George W. Casey welcomed them to “a family 1.1 million strong that will wrap its arms around you when times get tough.”

Indian Umesh Sharma had enlisted to get his Green Card, but also to serve his adopted country. He’d chosen to be an infantry soldier. “I want to be in the front lines,” he told me. “I’ve got a degree from Harvard. Many of my classmates are in Afghanistan. I want to see first hand areas where education is a challenge. The Taliban are killing teachers. So that made me more determined to be a soldier that lives and works with local people.”

The recruiters, wearing their distinctive light blue badges, with a Liberty Bell surrounded by stars, were upbeat. I asked First Sergeant Scott Geise whether more people were coming in since the beginning of Obama’s presidency. “It may be a new administration, but we’re still in two conflicts,” he told me. “That’s never denied. We make clear that you’re joining the Army and this is what we do.”

The day after Obama was elected, online newspaper Vets Voice leaked an email from an army careers counsellor reminding former soldiers that they can join a Reserve or National Guard unit on a contract that guarantees they won’t be deployed overseas for two years. “24 Month Mobilization Deferment. A President Elect who says he’ll get us out of Iraq. What are you waiting for? By that time our new President will have gotten us out of these other countries.”

This was a rogue recruiter, not an official line, but it sounds more misguided by the day. As it becomes increasingly clear that thousands more American soldiers will soon be sent to Afghanistan, recruits to Obama’s army should be under no illusions about the task ahead of them.