Military sees concern, interest among youth

CULVER CITY, Calif. _ The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks planted the idea in Steve Solway’s head to do something else with his life than pursue a dream of going to film school. His friend’s mother and grandmother perished in one of the planes that struck the World Trade Center.

Then the deepening U.S. dispute with Saddam Hussein sealed it: Solway, like thousands of other young Americans wanting to serve their country, decided to enlist in the Army.

As the United States prepared for a war against Saddam Hussein that began Thursday morning over the skies of Baghdad, some military recruiting offices across America experienced dramatic increases in signups.

From last October to December, the first quarter of the military’s fiscal year, the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force combined met recruitment goals with a bit of room to spare. The four branches together signed up 39,041 recruits, 386 above their goal. The Department of Defense has not yet compiled figures for the current quarter.

A depressed job market plays a role in the increase. In some areas, so does the Iraq crisis. Many recruiters report a jump in calls, e-mails and visits from youths, and not so young people, who say they are inspired to serve because of Iraq.

But some recruiters say the prolonged buildup to military conflict has made their jobs more difficult. They are seeing a decline in interest, with high school seniors _ and their parents _ expressing anti-war sentiments and safety concerns.

“I have no problem going to Iraq,” said Solway, 18, who graduated from high school last June and begins basic training in April. “Someone has to get the job done, right?”

Still, Solway has been told he may not see combat duty in Iraq. If predictions of a short conflict prove to be accurate, the fighting would be over by the time Solway’s nine or so months of training are completed.

“We’ve seen about a 75 percent increase in contracts here,” said Army Staff Sgt. Patrick Luley, who oversees the recruiting station where Solway signed up.

“Some are coming in based on what they see in the job market; they’re looking for experience so they can be more competitive,” Luley added. “Others say they want to serve and help defend our country.”

But Navy Storekeeper 1st Class Samantha Romero-Green illustrates the difficulty some recruiters are facing. Romero-Green, who holds the title “recruiter of the nation” among some 4,000 recruiters for her outstanding record, sees a significant decline at her station in Brooklyn, N.Y.

“People are running away from us. People are crossing the street when they see us coming,” Romero-Green said.

“I had a recruiter who went to a school, and a teacher said it was best for him to leave,” she added. “Students are saying, `No, I don’t want to join. I don’t want to go to war. I don’t want to die.’ ”

The military’s recruiting picture represents a dramatic turnaround from a few years ago.

Then, with a wide array of college and job opportunities in the booming economy, the military was less attractive for many high school seniors. As a result, the Navy in 1998 missed its recruiting goal by 7,000, the first shortfall in 19 years. The next year the Army missed its target by 6,300 recruits and the Air Force by 1,700.

The problem prompted the Pentagon to double the spending for advertising and recruiting to $270 million.

Now, the lack of jobs because of the sagging economy and a lack of money for college tuition have compelled many young people to consider the military, according to recruiters.

“They have so many career fields, and they pay for your schooling,” said Daniel Datavs, an 18-year-old high school graduate from Wood Dale, Ill., who is in the process of signing up for the Air Force. Yet the higher unemployment rate also is making it more difficult for others to get into the armed forces. With fewer lucrative jobs in the private sector and the military’s efforts to increase pay and improve working conditions, turnover of experienced officers has dropped dramatically. Therefore, fewer recruits are needed.

“In the past four years our recruiting goal has decreased because sailors are deciding to stay in,” said Cmdr. Steve Lowery, who oversees Navy recruiting from Millington, Tenn.

Though teenagers are a prime group for recruiters, people in their late 20s and 30s and older are expressing interest.

“A lot of them said they felt called to serve, like preachers are called into the ministry,” said Gunnery Sgt. Kentry Ellison, who works at a Marine recruiting station in Dallas.

Army Capt. Bert Shell, who commands recruiting in western Maryland and northern Virginia, said he has seen a number of veterans re-enlisting. Army regulations set a cutoff age at 35 with no prior service. Those who have served, though, may be older.

“We get veterans who want to provide their services again,” Shell said.