By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 27, 2007
More than 90 percent of the Army's new recruits since late July have accepted a $20,000 "quick ship" bonus to leave for basic combat training by the end of September, putting thousands of Americans into uniform almost immediately.
Many recruits who take the bonus -- scoring in many cases the equivalent of more than a year's pay -- leave their homes within days, recruiters said. The initiative is part of an effort by Army officials to meet year-end recruiting goals after a two-month slump earlier this year. With the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, the Army hopes the extra cash motivates those interested in joining or entices those just considering enlisting.
The program began on July 25, and in three weeks the Army had enlisted 3,814 recruits using the bonus, according to the U.S. Army Recruiting Command in Fort Knox, Ky. Those recruits accounted for 92 percent of the 4,149 recruits who signed contracts between July 25 and Aug. 13.
The $20,000 bonus is a hefty sum for many of the individuals the Army targets most aggressively: young men and women who have not settled on a career. The Army estimates that soldiers coming out of initial training are paid $17,400 a year on average.
But the effort, experts said, could pose problems for the Army in the coming months, because those who might have helped fill recruiting quotas later this year or in early 2008 are instead joining now.
Bethany Moore, 19, of Jessup, visited a recruiting station Wednesday, knowing that she wanted to sign up in the hopes of building a stable career. A 2006 graduate of Northern High School in Calvert County, Moore had worked a series of "regular jobs" and wanted to make a serious change. "I just wanted to do something better with my life," she said.
Although she expected a six-month waiting period to go to basic training, she learned of the bonus and immediately accepted. She will ship out within a week. "It was a welcome surprise," Moore said. "And it's a lot of money."
Military personnel experts said the signing bonuses are a transparent way for the Army to meet its annual goal of 80,000 recruits amid an increasingly difficult recruiting environment. They also said the rush to get people into uniform might have more to do with meeting numerical targets than with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, though many of those who join the Army face the possibility of deployment to combat soon.
The Army hopes the bonus will increase its recruiting numbers for August, a month whose goals are among the largest of the year. The Army will announce the August numbers in early September.
"The Army is intent on trying to meet its recruitment goals in terms of numbers by the end of the fiscal year, so they're doing just about anything they can to bring those numbers up," said Cindy Williams, an analyst at the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "To me it signals something that we've been seeing already from the Army, a trade-off in terms of quality and quantity. My sense is that right now, they're willing to take anybody who is willing to walk in the door and ship by Sept. 30."
Army officials have lowered standards and increased waivers in recent years to meet their recruiting goals, in part to deal with the strain of the wars and to quickly expand the Army. But the Army has been more concerned with nose-diving public opinion about the war in Iraq and the role of "influencers" -- parents, teachers and coaches -- who have been increasingly unwilling to recommend the military as a career option to young people.
The $20,000 bonus can be enticing, especially to those who lack a steady job, languish in debt or are worried about their future. Staff Sgt. Kevin Gordon, a recruiter in Glen Burnie, said a majority of the people who come into his office have already decided to join the service and then jump at the chance to leave now.
"They have school loans, mortgages, they have family concerns," said Gordon, whose three recent recruits all took the bonus. "It's a great incentive because something like that leaves families in a good financial posture, and they feel a little more comfortable knowing their bills will be taken care of."
The way the bonus works is simple: Recruits willing to ship out within the next month will receive $10,000 upon completion of basic training and advanced individual training. Then, over the course of their initial active-duty enlistment, they will receive $10,000 in even annual sums. For a young recruit with no college education, the bonus, which is taxable, could be the equivalent of a year of pay over the course of a three-year enlistment. And the recruit can still qualify for other sign-up bonuses.
The quick-ship bonus spurred John C. Davis III, 24, of East Baltimore to sign his enlistment papers on July 27, two days after the program began. Davis received a two-year college degree in graphic design in 2005 but has been stuck in a "dead end" job without much pay, loading tractor-trailers. He will ship out Wednesday after doing regular workouts with his recruiter in Towson, Staff Sgt. Brian Grotz.
Davis will also get a $25,000 bonus for taking an Army position as a petroleum specialist, meaning he will have a year's salary in his bank account before he starts his first Army job.
For Davis, who has 4-year-old twins and relies on his mother for help, the bonuses will give him a start on finding a nice place to live and a foundation for a graphic design business someday.
"When I first heard about the bonus, I thought that I could really get my life in order," Davis said. "Pay some bills, put some money aside, help my mother. I was really going to go in anyway; I just wasn't planning to go this soon."
Sgt. Willie Thomas, a recruiter in the Woodbridge office, said the quick-ship bonus is helpful as an eye-catcher, but he thinks that it is not enough to change attitudes about the military or the Iraq war. Although his office has a sign on its door advertising the bonus, he said it is one of the last things he mentions to a potential recruit.
He says he emphasizes "Army benefits" above all else, such as a stable job, work experience and health care.
"They would have to be really interested in the Army before I would mention the bonus," Thomas said. "I don't want anyone making a commitment based on $20,000. That amount of money doesn't last a lifetime."
But James Hosek, a defense manpower expert at the Rand Corp., said that though the quick-ship bonus is a "very smart move" by the Army, it could attract people who are less motivated to be in the service.
"There's a risk of bringing people in with lesser attachment or commitment to the Army," Hosek said. "Adding money will, for some people, sweeten the deal enough to persuade them to enter."