WASHINGTON – Need a down-payment for your home? Seed money to start a business? The Army wants to help -- if you're willing to join up.
Despite spending nearly $1 billion last year on recruiting bonuses and ads, Army leaders say an even bolder approach is needed to fill wartime ranks.
Under a new proposal, men and women who enlist could pick from a "buffet" of incentives, including up to $45,000 tax-free that they accrue during their career to help buy a home or build a business. Other options would include money for college and to pay off student loans.
An Associated Press review of the increasingly aggressive recruiting offerings found the Army is not only dangling more sign-up rewards -- it's loosening rules on age and weight limits, education and drug and criminal records.
It's all part of an Army effort to fill its ranks even as the percentage of young people who say they plan to join the military has hit a historic low -- 16 percent by the Pentagon's own surveying -- in the fifth year of the Iraq war.
In June, the Army failed to meet its recruitment target for the second month in a row, although it apparently met its goal to recruit 9,750 troops in July and is on target for 80,000 for the year that ends Sept. 30.
As part of a push to make its 2007 goals, the Army is boosting the size of its 8,000-member recruiting force with 1,000 to 2,000 assistants -- including some former recruiters.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates wants to increase the size of the active-duty Army by 65,000 to a total of 547,000 within five years. In part, that's to ease the wartime strain on the Army, which is the largest branch of the military.
"Recruiting next year and beyond will remain challenging and will ... require additional innovative approaches," said Lt. Col. Michael Rochelle, the Pentagon's deputy chief of staff for personnel. He asked lawmakers last week on Capitol Hill for money to pay for the new program.
Rochelle described the latest offering as an updated version of the Army's college fund, a popular program started in 1982 to help soldiers pay for college.
The Army would like to start a pilot program targeting 500 people who might not otherwise considering joining. In the pilot, the takers who complete a 4-year enlistment would be eligible for up to $30,000 in incentives -- including money for a home loan or business. Eventually, the Army wants to offer up to $45,000.
Beyond the Iraq war, the military says other factors have affected its ability to recruit. More high school graduates are going to college, and the economy is strong, providing lots of civilian jobs. At the same time, only three of 10 people between 17 and 24 fully meet the military's standards.
Less obvious factors have also decreased the recruitment pool. They include higher obesity rates, more people diagnosed with mental health conditions such as attention-deficit disorder, more criminal citations due to the increase of the drinking age from 18 to 21.
"The numbers of people who meet our enlistment standards is astonishingly low," said Michael Dominguez, principal deputy undersecretary of defense.
Among the changes that have helped attract more recruits:
-- Increasing to $20,000 the bonus for troops who join by Sept. 30 and leave for boot camp within a month.
-- Raising the enlistment age to 42.
-- Allowing recruits to come in with non-offensive tattoos on their hands and neck.
-- Offering a $2,000 bonus to Army soldiers who refer a new recruit.
-- Enlisting recruits who don't meet weight standards and must trim down their first year.
-- Advertising that targets potential recruits' parents.
-- Increasing the number of recruits with general education diplomas rather than regular high school diplomas.
-- Creating a more pleasant boot camp environment.
-- Sending "gung-ho" soldiers fresh from boot camp or war zones back to their hometowns to visit old friends and schoolmates to promote the Army.
-- Increasing to more than 15 percent the number of Army and Army Reserve troops given waivers for medical and moral reasons or for positive drug and alcohol screen tests.
Tyka Pettey, 21, of Philadelphia, said she was fully aware of the risks when she signed up in late July for a six-year stint in the Army Reserve. Doing so will help her pay to go to college in a medical field. With her $20,000 bonus, she plans to buy a car and pay off debt.
She said she had been thinking about joining for more than a year. Once she made the decision, she said she was impressed with how much the recruiters in Upper Darby, Pa., were able to help her.
"You really have to want to do something like that. You're really taking a major step from your civilian life ... but I just decided to go for it," said Pettey, who leaves in about a week for boot camp.
The Army spent $353 million last year on enlistment bonuses, $583 million on recruiting and advertising and $700 million on pay and benefits for recruiters, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said her organization is concerned that low-income young people and minorities are targeted by recruiters and lured with promises into making decisions they would not otherwise have made.
"I think as the incentives increase, the potential for misrepresentation and abuse increases," Lieberman said.
Irene Fiala, a sociology professor at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania who has researched recruiting trends, said the military is attempting to change with society because the days are over when it was an American virtue to join and it was expected that all young men would do so.
"Uncle Sam pointing his finger at you saying, 'We want you,' isn't cutting it for today's kids," Fiala said. "Today's kids are saying, 'Yeah, you want me and so does GE and so does MIT, so what else are you going to offer me?"'
It's not just the attitudes of young people that have seemingly shifted. In 2005, statistical surveys revealed that because of the Iraq war, adults who work with students were less likely to suggest joining the military.
"The willingness of coaches, teachers, counselors and parents to commend military service to America's youth is lower than is good for our nation and our military," said Dominguez, the Defense Department official.