For Army Recruiters, a Hard Toll From a Hard Sell
NY Times - March 27, 2005
The ongoing “war on terror” is pushing the need for fresh cannon fodder, and the army’s recruiters are feeling the heat. A number of them have gone AWOL, others are suffering from mental and physical illnesses, and many are signing up ineligibles just to fill their quota. Recruiting improprieties are sharply on the rise. Chalk one up for the counter-recruiters and concerned parents, but this makes a draft look more likely.
by Damien Cave
The ongoing "war on terror" pushes the need for fresh cannon fodder, and the army's recruiters are feeling the heat.
The Army’s recruiters are being challenged with one of the hardest selling jobs the military has asked of them in American history, and many say the demands are taking a toll.
A recruiter in New York said pressure from the Army to meet his recruiting goals during a time of war has given him stomach problems and searing back pain. Suffering from bouts of depression, he said he has considered suicide. Another, in Texas, said he had volunteered many times to go to Iraq rather than face ridicule, rejection and the Army’s wrath.
An Army chaplain said he had counseled nearly a dozen recruiters in the past 18 months to help them cope with marital troubles and job-related stress.
“There were a couple of recruiters that felt they were having nervous breakdowns, literally,” said Maj. Stephen Nagler, a chaplain who retired in March after serving at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, where the New York City recruiting battalion is based.
Two dozen recruiters nationwide were interviewed about their experiences over four months. Ten spoke with The New York Times even after an Army official sent an e-mail message advising all recruiters not to speak to this reporter, who was named. Most asked for anonymity to avoid being disciplined.
A handful who spoke said they were satisfied with their jobs. They said they took pride in seeing awkward, unfocused teenagers transform into confident soldiers and relished an opportunity to contribute to the Army effort.
But most told similar tales: of loving the military, of working hard to complete a seemingly impossible task, of struggling to carry the nation’s burden at a time of anxiety and stress.
The careers and self-esteem of recruiters rise and fall on their ability to fulfill a mission, said current and former Army officials and military experts who were also interviewed.
Recruiters said falling short often generates a barrage of angry correspondence, formal reprimands, threats or even demotion.
“The recruiter is stuck in the situation where you’re not going to make mission, it just won’t happen,” the New York recruiter said. “And you’re getting chewed out every day for it. It’s horrible.” He said the assignment was more strenuous than the time he was shot at while deployed in Africa.
At least 37 members of the Army Recruiting Command, which oversees enlistment, have gone AWOL since October 2002, Army figures show. And, in what recruiters consider another sign of stress, the number of improprieties committed – signing up unqualified people to meet quotas or giving bonuses or other enlistment benefits to recruits not eligible for them – has increased, Army documents show.
“They don’t necessarily have real bullets flying at them,” said Major Nagler. “But there are different kind of bullets they need to contend with – the bullets of not producing numbers, of having a station commander shoot them down.”
The Army is seeking 101,200 new active-duty Army and Reserve soldiers this year alone to replenish the ranks in Iraq and Afghanistan, elsewhere around the world and at home. That means each of the Army’s 7,500 recruiters faces the grind of an unyielding human math, a quota of two new recruits a month, at a time of extended war without a draft.
The mission puts them in a different kind of cross-fire: On one side, the military’s requirement that new soldiers be found. On the other, resistance by many parents to Army careers for their children in wartime.
Maj. Gen. Michael D. Rochelle, commander of the Army Recruiting Command, acknowledged it is a stressful time for recruiters, who face “the toughest challenge to the all-volunteer Army” since it began in 1973.
“I do not deny being demanding,” said General Rochelle, leader of the command since 2002. “We have a vitally important mission in terms of providing volunteers for an army that is at war and that is growing.”
He said the Army has already added recruiters and taken measures to expand the pool of potential soldiers, by accepting older recruits and more people without high school diplomas. Other changes are being considered, he said.
But many recruiters said the Army continues to minimize how difficult it has become to find qualified volunteers during a war and in a growing economy.
For the first time in nearly five years, the Army missed its active-duty recruiting goal in February. The Reserve has missed its monthly quota since October. Army officials said the goals would most likely be missed the next two months as well.
Gen. Richard A. Cody, Army vice chief of staff, told Congress on March 16 that he is concerned about whether the Army can continue to provide the troops the nation needs.
“What keeps me awake at night,” he said, “is what will this all-volunteer force look like in 2007?”
The Marines also missed monthly recruiting goals in January, for the first time in a decade. The Navy and Air Force, which provide fewer people for the war, are on track to meet their quotas.
Trying to refill the ranks solely through recruitment in wartime is rare. Historians say the Spanish-American War, Mexican-American War and Gulf war were the only major conflicts since 1775 that did not rely, in part, on conscripts.
Since 1973, the Army has usually maintained an all-volunteer force of a million active-duty, Reserve and National Guard soldiers, primarily through a marketing campaign that promoted opportunities for adventure, new skills, college money and other personal goals – enticements that, in wartime, often do not outweigh fear of combat and death, Army surveys show.
While some in Congress have raised the specter of a draft, the Bush administration has rejected that idea, saying higher skilled soldiers are needed in a high-tech age, and are best found through recruitment.
But several senior officers interviewed, including Col. Greg Parlier, retired, who until 2002 headed the research and strategy arm of the Army Recruiting Command, said the pressure on recruiters shows the policy should be re-examined, and initiatives like national service should be considered.
Courting Mom and Dad
The Army is the nation’s largest military branch, comprising 80 percent of the 150,000 troops in Iraq. Its recruiters are among its best soldiers. Most are sergeants with 5 to 15 years of experience, pulled randomly from the top 10 percent of their specialty, as defined by their commanding officers. More than 70 percent did not volunteer for the job.
Some soldiers are better suited to the task than others. Staff Sgt. Jose E. Zayas, 42, is outgoing, bilingual and embraces his mission. Recently, canvassing in the Bronx, he had little trouble persuading a couple from Massachusetts to accept a few pamphlets.
But for every Sergeant Zayas, there is a recruiter like Sgt. Joshua Harris, 29, a former personnel administrator in a New Jersey recruiting station, who struggles when talking to strangers. Seven weeks of instruction in approaching prospects helped him, he said. But many recruiters said few soldiers possess the skills they need.
Recruiters are paid about $30,000 a year, plus housing and other allowances, including $450 a month in special-duty pay for recruiting. They live where they recruit, often hundreds of miles from a base.
These men, and occasionally women, spend several hours a day cold-calling high school students, whose phone numbers are provided by schools under the No Child Left Behind Law. They also must “prospect” at malls, at high schools, colleges and wherever else young people gather.
The follow-up process often takes months. Though parents do not have to sign off on the decision to join, recruiters said it is virtually impossible to enlist a new recruit without their approval. Over dinners and on the phone, they make the Army’s case over and over to win parents’ support.
If they succeed, they are responsible for bringing the recruit in for 5:30 a.m. processing , organizing physical fitness training or, in the case of one California recruiter, taking 3 a.m. phone calls to comfort a recruit crying over a breakup with her boyfriend.
The whims are many from the young, restless and uncertain, experts said.
Recruiters have “the only military occupation that deals with the civilian world entirely,” said Charles Moskos, a military sociologist at Northwestern University.
Even before the war, recruiters contacted on average of 120 people before landing an active-duty recruit, Army data showed. That number is growing, recruiters said.
One recruiter in the New York area said that when he steps outside his office for a cigarette, he often is barraged with epithets from passers-by angry about the war.
n January, the brother-in-law of a prospective recruit lashed into him. “He swore at me,” the recruiter said, “and said that he would rather have his brother-in-law in jail for selling crack than in the Army.”
The recruiter said, when out of uniform, he often lies about his profession. “I tell them I work in human resources,” he said.
Still, they must sign up two recruits a month. Anyone with outstanding criminal cases, health problems or poor test scores is disqualified. Most months, at least one must have a high school diploma and score in the top 50 percent of an aptitude test.
Lt. Col. William F. Adams, a psychologist at the United States Military Academy who has counseled recruiters, empathized with the pressure but said it came with the job. Of the recruiting goal, he said, “It is not a goal or a target; it is a mission. If you don’t do it, you’re a failure.”
A December report from the commanding officers overseeing about 40 recruiters in West Houston reflects the mission-driven culture of recruitment. Sent by e-mail to station commanders, it started by declaring, “We can sum up the month of Dec with one word – Unprofessional!”
The document noted that in a month’s-end drive to meet quota, seven recruits had appeared for processing. Of those, two did not meet weight requirements and needed a waiver, while two others lacked paperwork.
“We are processing crap,” the report stated, “double and triple waivers, waivers which get approved and the applicant refuses to enlist (two this month), waivers on people with more than 20 charges, etc. We are putting these people in our Army!”
The cause, it said, was a lack of leadership: “I challenged you to fix your stations. No one has stepped forward.”
Asked to respond to the document, the Houston recruiting battalion declined.
The report was followed on Jan. 6 by an e-mail message from Command Sgt. Maj. Frank Norris, the second in command of 212 recruiters in and around Houston, threatening to deny all requests for leave.
“There are no excuses and I am tired of entertaining such lack of discipline and focus,” he said in the e-mail message forwarded to The Times by a recruiter who received it. “Let this serve notice that any station commander that is holding this great battalion back will not be a station commander in this battalion very much longer.”
Neither document contained any mention of the war, nor other possible obstacles. Sergeant Major Norris declined through an Army spokesman to be interviewed. General Rochelle said most battalions do not resort to such tactics.
Brawling Over Prospects
The recruiter in New York who had considered suicide said he has seen at least four marriages break up among the 9 or 10 recruiters in his area since 2002. He said he has been subjected to threats of discharge and “zero-roller training,” when superiors comb through recruiters’ phone logs and other materials, then lambaste them for failing to enlist anyone.
After more than a decade in the military, he said he still loves the Army. “It’s just this detail,” he said. “This is hell.”
A Texas recruiter – a gruff man whose home is decorated with military commendations – said that he suffers from severe headaches lasting up to six hours. “I never had them until I got out here,” he said. “They’re from recruiting.”
He and other recruiters said they sometimes feel angry enough to hit someone. Two years ago, he said, two recruiters in his office brawled over who should get credit for a new recruit. “We call this the pressure plate, like on a land mine,” he said, pointing to the recruiter patch on his uniform. “If you push it too hard, we’ll explode.”
His wife, like spouses in California and elsewhere, is furious at what she sees as the Army’s lack of support. “What we are doing is good; recruiting is good and important work,” she said. “But the fact of the matter is that it’s killing our soldiers.”
Many of the recruiters said they have asked for other assignments. One of them is Sgt. Latrail Hayes. Now 27, Sergeant Hayes enlisted in the Army 10 years ago, out of high school in Virginia Beach, continuing a family tradition of military service. He volunteered to be a recruiter in 2000, after 52 jumps as a paratrooper, and at first his easy charm, appeals to patriotism and offers of Army benefits enticed dozens of recruits.
But Sergeant Hayes said he started rethinking his assignment as the war went on. Mothers required months, not weeks, of persuasion. And stories he heard from some of his recruits who had gone to Iraq and Afghanistan made him reluctant to pursue prospects by emphasizing the Army’s benefits. When his cousin, whom he had recruited, returned from Iraq with psychological trauma, he filed for conscientious objector status in June, to get a new assignment.
The application was rejected in November. Now, instead of serving 20 years in the Army, he intends to leave in December, when his tour ends. “There’s a deep human connection when you try to persuade someone to do something you’ve done,” he said. “So when it turns into something else – maybe even the opposite – it’s difficult.”
Some recruiters said they witnessed more “improprieties,” which the Army defines as any grossly negligent or intentional act or omission used to enlist unqualified applicants or grant benefits to those who are ineligible. They said recruiters falsified documents and told prospects to lie about medical conditions or police records.
An analysis of Army records shows that the number of impropriety allegations doubled to 1,023 in 2004 from 490 in 2000. Initial investigations substantiated 459 violations of Army enlistment standards in 2004, up from 186 in 2000. In 135 cases, recruiters – often more than one – were judged to have committed improprieties, up from 113 in 2000. The rest were defined as errors.
General Rochelle acknowledged that the impropriety figures “may be a reflection of some of the pressure that is perceived at the lower levels.” He also said that the increase could partly be explained by improvements in tracking violations.
“We hold every recruiter responsible for being a living and breathing example of Army values,” he said.
The quotas will remain unchanged, General Rochelle said. But the commanders should be held responsible for finding ways to meet their goals. “It does no good to pass the heat, as it were, or the correction down to the individual soldier,” he said.
The Army announced in September that it would add about 1,200 active-duty and Reserve recruiters to the field. It has also more than doubled bonuses for three-year enlistments to $15,000 and increased its advertising budget.
For the first time since 1998, the Army has lowered its standards, last week increasing its age limit for Reserve and National Guard recruits to 39. Last year, it agreed to accept thousands more recruits without high school diplomas.
In a small concession to recruiters, Army brass announced in February that they can trade the green slacks and shirts that they said made them feel and look like security guards for battle fatigues.
General Rochelle said the uniform swap was part of a new recruiting strategy to stress patriotism over salesmanship and enlist veterans to help make the Army’s pitch. “It’s less materialistic, in terms of the focus, once we get a recruiter face to face with a young American,” he said.
The recruiter in Texas, for one, said the changes are too little too late. He said he would prefer to be in Iraq.
“I’d rather be getting shot at, because at least I’d be with my guys,” he said. “I’m infantry. That’s what I’m trained to do.”
Margot Williams contributed reporting for this article