Five years ago [WORD ILLEGIBLE] Fred Hull, a tall, black officer in command of a tank battalion at [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] from here, was [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] grounds on his way to [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] over drug use.
The soldier was high on [WORD ILLEGIBLE] at the time, but shot straight enough to put a rifle bullet into Hull's stomach. The colonel survived and is back here today as commander of the 1st Armored Division's support command.
The Army of five years ago, he says, was "another world."
"In the early 1970s, there were a lot of soldiers looking for trouble here. There were bad fights and a small riot in 1972. You don't see any of that at all now, though I'm not going to say there are no drugs here. The people who are coming in now wanted to join, are more motivated and willing to tackle the job," he says of recruits joining what has been an all-volunteer army since the draft ended in 1974.
Yet, something is nagging at Hull. "I'm satisfied with the troops I have," he says, "but I'm not one who will go so far as saying that the Army is better off today. You need a compromise, but there is something to be said about somebody with a little better education. They just catch on better."
What is nagging Hull, and numerous other senior officers and experienced enlisted men, is the most important issue the Army faces today. How good is the volunteer Army? Are the recruits being attracted today, with the pressure of the draft long since removed, good enough to handle the increasingly complex equipment of a modern army and provide leadership in the field? Is the loss of collegetrained or otherwise highly skilled draftees a fatal flaw?
The Army's official answer is that the all-volunteer Army can do the job.
Says the Army's top European commander, Gen. George S. Blanchard: "I have not yet talked to a single commander or senior NCO who feels he is going to have trouble executing his mission because of the quality of the privates and enlisted men, including the most technical units."
Interviews with scores of officers and senior enlisted men at a dozen bases in West Germany over the past month - men whose careers span both draft and volunteer armies - generally support this contention. Recruiters seem more willing to be led and do the job these days, their leaders say. Even some critics acknowledge that which the Army is in the field - as it more frequently is these days - it performs well.
Yet, the issue is extremely complex. There is an important dissenting minority view. And one can detect enough doubt and faint praise in the words of many experienced leaders to suggest that four years is still not enough time to judge whether the Army will succeed with just volunteers.
Some already have judged for themselves, however.
"What we are really getting," says an infantry captain with 17 years of service, much of it in the enlisted ranks, "is a better class of bad people. We are not getting a cross-section of American society. They can't get a job and want that paycheck. That's why they're joining. They don't want to be soldiers. They are harder to train and don't retain it and a lot of company commanders say that."
Interviews with scores of soldiers show that many, perhaps most, newer recruits joined because they couldn't get a job in what they call "the real world" or because the jobs they had were dead-ends.
"The army is my bread," said a young Puerto Rican private here who said he joined because he kept getting laid off from jobs in Brooklyn and could not support his wife and child.
Patriotism is almost never mentioned by young recruits. Blacks and Hispanics in particular say they joined because they couldn't find a job.
"It's a job, pure and simple," says a specialist fourth class here who, like many younger soldiers in Europe today, joined during the peak U.S. recession years of 1975-76.
"Is the quality of the soldier down a little bit from 3-4 years ago? Yes," says Col. John Kirk, an armored Brigade commander. "Is the level of education down a bit? Yes." Are Army weapons too sophisticated for new recruits? "We are right on the margin of that, yes," He says, adding that whether troops will be able to handle the Army's new XM1 tank will be "one of the first early tests of that."
Kirk's view, which is widely shared, is that instruction and leadership training an and must be improved, and that on-the-job, or "hands-on" training and manuals with more pictures are probably better anyway.
Maj. Gen. George Patton, deputy commander of the 7th Corps, says, "The quality we've got coming in now on balance is better than what we had in 1971 over here from the viewpoint of dissent and mutiny. But I'm not saying it's better than the troops I saw in Vietnam in 1968-69.
"We can make it if the education level goes down. But we've got to lengthen the training time before soldiers are assigned a particular skill and sent overseas. I deeply feel, if given the chance, the Army can take a low-intelligence guy and make him operate complicated equipment."
In Kaiserslautern, the man who runs the huge 21st Support Command, Maj. Gen. Lawrence M. Jones, says "in terms of readiness of the total force, the all-volunteer force is not working in such fields as medical support. Too few doctors are coming in, Jones said, and "my people in peace-time are not getting the medical support they deserve."
But while debate swirling around the volunteer Army has focused on quality of recruits, side issues, ultimately are apt to decide whether it works. "I'm also very concerned about racial polarization," adds Jones. "The number of blacks being brought in is increasing by a great rate. There are now over 30 percent blacks. That is more than double the 12 percent black percentage of the military age population." But officers still are predominately white, he warns, with only 6.4 percent of the officer corps black.
"Those are the ones getting ahead these days. The black officers in my batteries are, in fact, the best young officers I have," says a white colonel. "But if you get a bad one you can't give them a bad fitness report with out a very long explanation and a lot of hassle from higher up. It's also tough for whites to get regular Army commisions these days and there is pressure to give them to blacks."
The Army seeks to bolster its image of attracting high quality recruits by pointing out that it is getting about 85 percent high school graduates higher than ever before. Yet, as officers point out, American high school graduates these days are frequently reading at eighth-grade levels.
Partly as a result, the army is getting rid of more than 30 percent of those it recruits each year before they complete their original tours under new discharge procedures to handle marginal performers.
The idea that some in the Army and outside view today's recruits as losers is a fact of life, bitterly resented.
It also seems to be too cynical. Weeks of traveling and interviewing throughout the 7th Army leaves one with the feeling that it is more resilient than generally given credit for.
Unit commanders are heavily involved in being "community commanders," which in effect means acting like the mayor of a small town to improve relations with surrounding German communities and easing personnel problems.
Soldiers in almost every barracks were seen painting, plastering and building improved living areas or clubs using Corps of Engineering money and material and their own labor in self-help projects.
"Society dumped on us and thinks we're outcasts," said one soldier at Illesheim, "so we do it ourselves."
Is the volunteer Army separating itself from American society because there is no longer a draft? "The great danger to the volunteer Army," says Patton, "is what I call the mercenary outlook." But he adds he does not see that happening "to any significant degree."
"The Army has got such a low profile today that if there is an dissatisfaction in society about the Army, it is very hard to see," says Capt. D. L. Scibetta at Army headquarters in Heidelberg.
Col. Crosby Saint, an experienced armored unit commander put it more succinctly: "The Army is not touching anybody's life who doesn't want it touched."