Bad economy spells upturn for military recruiting: Pentagon officials


The US economic crisis could well make life easier for US military recruiters, who have struggled in recent years to meet their services' enlistment goals in a time of war.

"We do benefit when things look less positive in civil society," said David Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. "That is a situation where more people are willing to give us a chance."

The army and marines, in particular, have had to mount extraordinary efforts in recent years to attract fresh recruits at a time when many prospective candidates were put off by an unpopular war in Iraq in which more than 4,000 troops have lost their lives.

Despite the challenges, the military recruited more than 300,000 men and women in the fiscal year ending October 1, meeting or exceeding targets set by the individual services.

In all, 185,000 people signed up for active duty, and 140,000 for the reserves, according to the Pentagon.

"This is probably the strongest recruiting year we've had overall, taking all elements into account, since fiscal year 2004," Chu told reporters Friday.

"So what difficult economic times give us, I think, is an opening to make our case to people who we might not otherwise have. And if we make our case, I think we can be successful," he said.

Pentagon officials say the improved recruiting environment is due not only to the worsening economy. Subsiding violence in Iraq and shortened combat tours from 15 to 12 months have also helped.

Shortened tours "could have been a factor. Also the fact that the (media) coverage of casualties has declined," said Douglas Smith, a spokesman for the US Army's Recruiting Command said.

A key attraction in times of economic crisis are bonuses worth thousands of dollars that military is offering new recruits.

The army and marines, the services mostly heavily engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan, are encouraging troops to re-enlist with bonuses worth up to 40,000 dollars.

The army has been most generous with its most experienced officers and its special operations forces to stem an exodus to high paying private contractors such as Blackwater.

The Pentagon allocated a total of 750 million dollars in 2008 for recruitment bonuses, and plans to spend the same amount next year.

But many parents and other adults take a dim view of military service as a career path for young men and women, according to Chu.

"We would like more older Americans to be supportive of a military service choice by young people, because they do listen to them.

"Today, only about a third of adults, when we do our surveys, older adults, will say, yes, I'd recommend military service. Now, the good news is two-thirds or so will say I'll support it if someone chooses that.

"To me, the unhappy situation is a third or so aren't very supportive, even when the young person has made that choice," Chu said.

The military acknowledges granting waivers to new recruits with health and legal problems or a history of drug use.

But, Smith said, the number of waivers issued by the army to recruits with felonies on the record fell this year from 511 in 2007 to 372.