NEW YORK – Public relations firms couldn't buy the kind of positive publicity the U.S. military gained from the images of jubilant Iraqis celebrating the fall of Saddam Hussein.
But have the non-stop sights and sounds of liberation produced a stateside rush among Americans to sign up and be all they can be?
"Interest in the military is always high during times of patriotism," said Marine Sgt. Jimmie Perkins. "But numbers don't go up or down during a time of crisis like the current operation."
"It's a big decision," added Perkins, who noted there was not a dramatic jump in Marine enlistment following the Sept. 11 attacks. "People who choose to serve do it for more than just patriotism."
Overall enlistment numbers may not have fluctuated markedly due to war, but the attitudes of the latest recruits certainly have.
"The reason they are coming in to join has changed from wanting adventure or money to wanting to go over and kick butt," said Sgt. Philip Hilton, an Army field recruiter in Kansas City, Kan. "They have more direction. They are more dedicated to what they want to do and want to help out a cause."
While they are pleased by the enthusiastic response, recruiters agreed they wouldn't be able to accommodate an extraordinary number of volunteers coming through their doors.
Each branch is allotted a certain number of recruits per month and has been meeting these goals for several years now. And that's simply all they can take.
"If tomorrow, 10,000 people went downtown to the recruiting station and signed up and were qualified, we wouldn't ship them out," said Marine Maj. Dave Griesmer. "What we call 'even flow' is very important. We limit the number so everyone goes through training in an orderly fashion. If the flow is jerky, it's disruptive and expensive."
The war in Iraq sparked two extreme responses in recruiting, said Navy Commander Steve Lowry.
"Some people and their parents were saying, 'This is war, my child could get hurt or killed and I don't want any part of that so they aren't enlisting,'" he said. "On the other extreme are people who feel their country is doing something important, and the Navy is doing the country's bidding, 'so get me in now.' They are in a hurry to join."
Lowry said he sees nothing wrong with today's gung-ho attitudes, but noted many recruits may never have to fight. "We prepare day in and day out for the possibility, hoping we never have to use those skills."
Today's enlistee will also have to be a patient one. "If someone walked into a recruiting station today, they probably wouldn't get to their first ship for a year," he said.
The Navy has to meet a recruiting goal of 41,772 this fiscal year, said Lowry. "It's against the law for us to be below that number, so there's a lot of pressure to keep that goal."
The Marines have consistently met their recruiting goal since July 1995, with the help of some high-profile advertising. A $50 million marketing budget aimed at recruiting 38,914 new Marines in 2003 recently funded a commercial that launched around the time the Iraq operation began.
"We've always had a commercial we run during times of conflict, when the mood of the country is more serious," Griesmer said. "For Country" is composed of footage shot by journalists in the Marines during several recent operations including Afghanistan.
The Navy decided not to add anything to its current "Accelerate Your Life," campaign, a loud, flashy effort that unabashedly targets the MTV set.
"We made the decision that we wouldn't take advantage of this conflict by showing action-packed missiles going off, or anything we don't do day in and day out," Lowry said.
Officers in all four branches also lauded the rising ability to recruit online through their Web sites. "That's where our target audience is, on the computer," said Lowry.
"It's a non-threatening environment for perspective recruits to ask questions of people who used to be recruiters themselves and now work in marketing," added Air Force Second Lt. Jason McCree.
The Army's recruitment mission for this year is approximately 100,000 new signups, including reserves. The most recent change to its campaign was back in 1999, when the iconic slogan "Be All You Can Be" was changed to "An Army of One."
"Ever since we changed that message, we've been meeting our recruitment mission," said Army Capt. Tom Alexander. He emphasized that no drastic alterations have been made in the Army's marketing strategy as a result of the war in Iraq.
The top reason people enlist in the Air Force remains to continue their education, McCree said, "regardless of whether we are at war or if their dad is in the Air Force." It has met its yearly enlistment goal of about 37,000 recruits for four consecutive years.
Officers in all four branches agreed the pride many felt watching Saddam's regime crumble may result in some Americans translating Operation Iraqi Freedom into Operation Enlistment.
"Any time we are successful in the military and are portrayed as being successful there is a natural tendency to want to be a part of it," said Lowry. "That's like asking if a high-schooler who sees a college team win wants to be a part of that."