GI Bill attracting quality recruits

By Tom Philpott: Military Update

Military recruiting commands report “some all-time highs” in the quality of recruits who enlisted in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. Acknowledging that the dismal job market is a factor, and that the Post-9/11 GI Bill is becoming a great tool to draw volunteers, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps announced Tuesday they had met or exceeded their recruit targets at levels not seen since the Cold War ended.

But recruit command leaders also struck a cautionary tone on challenges ahead as the economy improves, as budgets tighten, and as the proportion of youth who can serve continues to slide as youth obesity rises. Clifford Stanley, under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, unveiled the outstanding recruiting results for fiscal 2010 at a Pentagon press conference, with service recruiting chiefs at his side. He did so against a backdrop of a force under enormous strain and some disturbing recruiting patterns, described by his boss, Defense Secretary Roberts Gates, in a very candid lecture two weeks ago at Duke University. Gates noted that “no major war in our history has been fought with a smaller percentage” of citizens in uniform, just 2.4 million active and reserve members out of a country of more than 300 million, or less than one percent.

So few have been fighting for so long, Gates said, that it brings “dilemmas and consequences.” The strain on them and on their families is causing more anxiety and distress for their children, more domestic strife, higher divorce rates “and, most tragically, a rising number of suicides.” While noting that all services are meeting recruiting and retention goals, Gates said that four decades of an all-volunteer force “has reinforced” demographic and cultural shifts affecting “who is most likely to serve and from where.” Citing studies recruiting officials don’t usually discuss publicly, Gates said the biggest factor affecting propensity to serve is “growing up near those who have or are serving. In this country, that propensity to serve is most pronounced in the South and the Mountain West, and in rural areas and small towns nationwide…(T)he percentage of the force from the Northeast, the West Coast and major cities continues to decline.”

Military basing and recruiting patterns have reinforced this “growing concentration” or imbalance among certain regions and families, Gate said.

The recruit benchmark on test scores is at least 60 percent scoring above the 50th percentile for youth nationwide. All services exceeded that goal. The Air Force led with 90 percent of new recruits scoring at or above average versus 83 percent for Navy, 72 for Marines and 64 percent for Army.

The recruiting service commanders all agreed the new GI Bill, which doubles the value of veterans’ education benefits and drops a $1200 contribution requirement, has helped pull in more quality for recruiters. Rear Adm. Craig S. Faller, head of Navy recruiting, called it “one of the most positive things that I’ve seen for in my time in service…It really has helped us attract higher quality recruits.” His counterpart, Maj. Gen. Donald M. Campbell, said the Post-9/11 GI Bill “has made a big difference” in Army recruiting.

The new GI Bill “is certainly compelling” to prospective recruits, agreed Brig. Gen. Balan Ayyar, Air Force Recruiting Service commander. But the effect it is having on retaining careerists, given the option to transfer benefits to a spouse or to children, “is really just remarkable,” he said.

Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at: milupdate@aol.com