WASHINGTON – The Army is getting a refresher course in ethics amid charges that recruiters have been deceptive, withheld information, encouraged potential recruits to lie on applications and in one case threatened a man with arrest.
The military branch on Friday suspended recruitment operations to focus on just that.
"We’re going to be re-evaluating in a way," said Army spokesman Doug Smith after announcing the recap of ethics and standards. Smith said Army values will be emphasized, as well as the recruiters’ commitment to being "open and factual" with potential military recruits (search) and their families.
"We’re going to show that we are serving our country as recruiters," he added, "We’re going to refresh ourselves with what it is we do and how we are supposed to do it."
The stand down affects approximately 7,545 recruiters and thousands of support staff countrywide, Smith said.
The Army and Marines, as well as the Reserve and National Guard components, have been missing their recruiting goals for the last four months. Analysts said an uncertain end to ongoing operations in Iraq (search) and Afghanistan (search), coupled with news of violence and long deployments, have hurt recruiting and put recruiters under serious pressure to meet goals.
"I think it is simply a product of the massive pressure the recruiters are under," said Charles Sheehan-Miles, a Persian Gulf War (search) veteran and executive director of Veterans for Common Sense. "You have a war bringing down the recruitment numbers, but the requirements are staying the same."
The Internet is flooded with un-corroborated tales of over-zealous recruiters who supposedly lie and tell their prospects to lie in order to seal an enlistment. But the Army acknowledges that a few recent headlines have prompted investigations and led in part to Friday’s halt on recruitment efforts.
Among the charges of misconduct confronting the Army:
— In Houston, a recruiter allegedly left an answering machine message for a would-be recruit, threatening him with arrest if he didn’t show up at the recruitment station.
— In Colorado, Army officials are investigating a case in which a high school student, who went undercover as a potential recruit, reported that his recruiter told him how to obtain a fake high school diploma and flush out marijuana from his system before taking the required drug tests.
"Frankly, there are some incidents that have occurred across the country," said Smith, who insisted the commanding general was thinking about requiring the refresher in recruitment standards even before the stories emerged.
Since Oct. 1, the Army has received 450 complaints of recruiter impropriety, Smith said. Of those, 302 have been investigated and closed out. Of that number, eight recruiters have been relieved of their jobs, 98 admonished, and 59 were found to have made honest mistakes.
In 2004, the Army received 957 such complaints, compared with 473 in 2000. In 2004, the Army recruited 77,587 individuals and 21,278 for the reserves.
Recruitment officials at the state level don’t downplay the problems, or the challenges, but believe the percentage of complaints are small in comparison with the amount of positive work they do all year.
"We have not experienced any of the violations that I have noted in the news from other states," said George Noirot, spokesman for the U.S Army Recruiting Battalion in Great Lakes, Mich.
He said May has been "one of the more successful months we’ve had in two years," pulling in more than 250 recruits, though it was still short of their goal.
"Our recruiters are working very hard," he said. "It’s no secret that it’s falling short of goals, and it’s challenging, every day is challenging, but here in Michigan, we’re doing a lot of great things, and the media, the employers and the local as well as state government give us the assistance -- they are behind us."
But Paul Rieckoff, who served in the Army in Iraq and is now a lieutenant in the New York Army National Guard and director of Operation Truth, an organization for veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq, said "part of its the salesmanship and part of it's the salesman."
Rieckoff added that in this case, "fundamentally, they are selling a product that has the problem right now. Recruits don’t know what they are signing up for."
Recruiters are not being transparent about the responsibilities and the commitments, Rieckoff charged. For example, the Army offers new shortened 15-month commitments to new recruits but does not emphasize that they will be required to spend two years in the reserve or National Guard and up to eight additional years in the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR). Plus, the Army may subject them to rules that prevent them from leaving the military at all.
"Let’s be honest with what people are signing up for and then maybe they’ll sign up," said Rieckoff. "Standing down for a day and telling recruiters not to push drug tricks is not going to be enough."
Lt. Col. Mike Jones, deputy division chief for recruiting and retention for the Army National Guard, said the Guard has a "zero tolerance" policy for inappropriate recruitment tactics. He said the Guard insists that recruiters are honest with families and prospects, because they will also be responsible for their retention and re-enlistment.
"When you are talking across a kitchen table with a mom and dad and prospect in a time of war, it can be pretty intense," he said. "They are taking your words very seriously."
He said it is emphasized to recruiters that standards and making "the mission" are not mutually exclusive. "There is too much at stake," he said, noting that a bad reputation could be lethal. "If you break that bond that’s going to take a generation to get back.
"Recruiters are good people and they can succumb to pressure, and what we try to do is never put a solider in a position where getting the [recruit] is more valuable than the ethics," he said.
But critics insist that forcing impossible goals on recruiters will just exacerbate bad practices.
"As long as we expect too much out of the armed services without a clear plan, the recruitment numbers are going to stay down," said Sheehan-Miles.