Army Boosts Efforts to Get New Recruits

Meet Staff Sgt. Chad Cloutier: part counselor, part personal trainer, part teacher's aide. He is an Army (search) recruiter with an arsenal that includes offers of more than $70,000 in college aid and $20,000 in bonus money, a black "Army of One" motorcycle parked outside his office, and a laptop that plays hip recruiting footage in potential recruits' homes.

With its troops stretched thin by the war in Iraq, the Army is rolling out the heavy artillery to sign up recruits.

It has increased the financial incentives to join. It is putting more recruiters on the streets. And it is spending $180 million on promotions that include sponsorship of a rodeo cowboy, ads on ESPN, and a Web site that allows users to chat with recruiters at scheduled times 24 hours a day.

Military observers say the efforts might not be enough.

"It's just not easy to sell more people on the idea of going off to war when it's on their television every day and they hear criticism of how the war is going," said Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, a Washington think tank.

The active Army recruited 77,587 soldiers in fiscal year 2004, surpassing its goal of 77,000, Douglas Smith, spokesman for the Army Recruiting Command based at Fort Knox, Ky., said Wednesday. The Army Reserves brought in 21,278, just over the goal of 21,200.

However, Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau (search), has said the Army National Guard will fall 5,000 soldiers short of its year-end goal of 56,000 recruits. Observers predict the active Army and reserves could meet a similar fate next year when their goals rise to 80,000 and 22,175, respectively.

Recruiters and those in the Army Recruiting Command are reaching out to potential recruits any way they can.

Cloutier, 31, of Boston has helped administer standardized tests at an area high school, exercised with potential and new recruits, and made follow-up calls to struggling college students.

Cloutier's office is like many of the Army's approximately 1,700 recruiting stations: new, strategically placed near a shopping mall, and outfitted with modern furniture. Some potential recruits stop by just to hang out, and the recruiters work to create a welcoming atmosphere.

A bulletin board on the wall showcases the new recruits from the past year — including some who have e-mailed greetings from Iraq.

The efforts drew in Josh Smith, 20, who joined the regular Army recently and hopes to go to Iraq and fly helicopters.

"I can't really picture myself doing anything around here," said Smith, a sophomore at the University of Southern Indiana. "I want some excitement and some direction."

He will get that plus a $4,000 signing bonus and $36,000 to pay for college.

The bonuses and enticements appeal to some parents who cannot afford to pay for their children's education, Cloutier said.

"Back in the Vietnam era, you didn't join the Army, the Army joined you," he said. "They have a bad taste in the mouth about that time. When I talk to parents and explain the options available, a lot of parents wish they could join."

In August, the Army increased the money offered for education from $50,000 to $70,344 by combining the Montgomery GI Bill (search) and the Army College Fund. In 1985, when the Army College Fund started, the maximum offered was $25,200.

The Army also started offering bonuses of up to $8,000 to those with prior military service, along with other cash bonuses up to $20,000. And it initiated a "Blue to Green" campaign that allows the 8,000 Navy sailors and 20,000 Air Force airmen being downsized to switch to the Army without losing rank or having to attend full basic training.

Thompson, the defense analyst, said it will take bigger financial incentives in the future to get recruits in the door.

"The Army offers a career and good benefits, under which people have to take considerable hardships and maybe even risk their lives," Thompson said.

Despite that, Cloutier believes recruits will continue to come forward.

"They're joining now at a time of war, knowing technically they could go there," he said. "They want to do it. They're joining something bigger than themselves."