By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
For the first time in more than 35 years, the U.S. military has met all of its annual recruiting goals, as hundreds of thousands of young people have enlisted despite the near-certainty that they will go to war.
The Pentagon, which made the announcement Tuesday, said the economic downturn and rising joblessness, as well as bonuses and other factors, had led more qualified youths to enlist.
The military has not seen such across-the-board successes since the all-volunteer force was established in 1973, after Congress ended the draft following the Vietnam War. In recent years, the military has often fallen short of some of its recruiting targets. The Army, in particular, has struggled to fill its ranks, admitting more high school dropouts, overweight youths and even felons.
Yet during the current budget year, which ended Sept. 30, recruiters met their targets in both numbers and quality for all components of active-duty and reserve forces.
"We delivered beyond anything the framers of the all-volunteer force would have anticipated," Bill Carr, deputy undersecretary of defense for military personnel policy, said at a Pentagon news conference.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are considered by experts to be an unprecedented test of the volunteer military's resilience. Its ability to bring fresh recruits into the force is critical not only to increasing the overall size of the Army and Marine Corps, but to ensuring that additional units are available to rotate into conflict zones. Some Army units sent overseas recently have been deployed at less than full strength.
As lengthy, multiple combat tours place U.S. forces under enormous stress, the willingness of young people to enlist has surprised even military leaders, experts said.
The military is suffering "strains that are tragic in personal lives, but institutionally the ground forces have held together and are not broken. They are even recovering a little bit as we speak," said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Still, it is difficult to predict how much stress the volunteer military can take as it navigates uncharted waters, experts said.
"There is no way to tell at what point the Army will break in the sense of mass desertion, or people unwilling to stay in, or not meeting recruiting quotas," O'Hanlon said.
Overall, the Defense Department brought in 168,900 active-duty troops, or 103 percent of the goal for the fiscal year, officials said. It reached 104 percent of the goal for recruitment of National Guard and reserve forces.
The quality of recruits also improved, with about 95 percent reporting that they had received high school diplomas; last year, 83 percent of the Army's active-duty recruits had diplomas, short of the goal of 90 percent. The active-duty Army this year admitted only 1.5 percent of recruits who scored in the lowest acceptable category on the standard qualification test; in recent years, that figure had reached nearly 4 percent.
Carr said strong recruitment was driven by economic conditions that have made civilian jobs scarce, along with other factors such as pay increases and investment in recruiting budgets.
The recession "was a force," Carr said, and, "given the unemployment that we had not directly forecast, allowed us to be for much of the year in a very favorable position."
Historically, there has been a strong correlation between rising unemployment and increases in "high quality" enlistments, according to Curt Gilroy, the Pentagon's director of accession policy.
Carr said the Defense Department spent about $10,000 on advertising, marketing, recruiters and other budget items per recruit, with the Army spending more than double that, at $22,000.
"The unemployment . . . left us with more dollars per recruit than proved to be minimally necessary," he said.
Carr also credited hefty enlistment bonuses for the military's success, saying 40 percent of recruits received an average bonus of $14,000, compared with $12,000 on average in 2008. The size of the bonus varied by service, with the Army, which has the toughest mission, offering more.
Maj. Gen. Donald Campbell, head of the Army's recruiting command, said one factor in its success was putting a large number of recruiters on the streets.
"I think the most important thing that helps us with success, whether you're talking money, resources, advertising, is having the right number of recruiters, soldiers on the ground," he said.
In recent years, military officials cited the intensity of the fighting in Iraq as dampening interest in military service among 17-to-24-year-olds and, in particular, lessening the support of parents and other influential adults. But Pentagon officials said earlier this year that the declining violence in Iraq had made young people more willing to sign up.
Carr said that given the success this year, the Pentagon is cutting its $5 billion recruiting budget by 11 percent for next year.