Talking Points by Terry M. Neal

Military's Recruiting Troubles Extend to Affluent War Supporters

By Terry M. Neal Staff Writer
Monday, August 22, 2005; 8:00 AM

There was an eye-opening article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette a few days ago that explored the increasing difficulty the military is having recruiting young people to enlist. As has been well reported in many newspapers, including The Washington Post, the Army and Marines are having a particularly tough time meeting recruitment objectives, in part because of Americans' concern about the war in Iraq.

When you dig deeper into the reason for this phenomenon, it turns out that parents of potential soldiers and sailors are becoming one of the biggest obstacles facing military recruiters. Even top military officials acknowledge this and unveiled a new series of ads this spring targeted at "influencers" such as parents, teachers and coaches.

But the Post-Gazette raises another issue. There has been much talk about the relationship between race and ethnicity and military recruitment. But what about social and economic class? Are wealthier Americans, who are more likely to be Republicans and therefore more likely to support the war, stepping up to the plate and urging their children and others from their communities to enlist?

Unfortunately, there has been no definitive study on this subject. But it appears that the affluent are not encouraging their children and peers to join the war effort on the battlefield.

The writer of the Post-Gazette article, Jack Kelly, explored this question in his story that ran on Aug. 11. Kelly wrote of a Marine recruiter, Staff Sgt. Jason Rivera, who went to an affluent suburb outside of Pittsburgh to follow up with a young man who had expressed interest in enlisting. He pulled up to a house with American flags displayed in the yard. The mother came to the door in an American flag T-shirt and openly declared her support for the troops.

But she made it clear that her support only went so far.

"Military service isn't for our son," she told Rivera. "It isn't for our kind of people."

The Post-Gazette piece focused on parental disapproval of military recruitment efforts, and dealt only tangentially with the larger question of class. What we do know is that recruiting is down across the board and that both the Army and Marines have fallen significantly behind their recruiting goals.

This is what the Army's hired advertising company, Leo Burnett, had to say about the ads targeting influencers that it began running in April: "Titled 'Dinner Conversation,' 'Two Things,' 'Good Training' and 'Listening' (Spanish-language ad), the commercials portray moments ranging from a son telling his mother he's found someone to pay for college, to a father praising his son who has just returned from Basic Training for the positive ways in which he's changed. They capture the questions, hopes and concerns parents have about a career serving the United States of America and include families from many different backgrounds."

I asked Army spokeswoman Maj. Elizabeth Robbins for further explanation on the intent of the ads.

"Clearly it was to talk to influencers," she said. She said studies have shown that today's young people yearn to serve their country in one way or another. The problem is that today the people who influence their decisions "are less likely than they were in past generations to recommend [military service]."


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