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More Youths Tell Uncle Sam: 'I Don't Want You'

Army recruitment drops, forcing Sergeant Soto to go door to door

Julio Soto and Randy Bailey stride into Eckerd's drug store here and start their pitch.

Sergeant Soto asks the young woman behind the counter if she'd like to join the Army. "It's too late for me," she says. "I'm in college."

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Sergeant Bailey enters the fray, asking if she would join a firm that would agree to pay for college before even giving her a business card.

For the two Army staff sergeants, the stop is part of a familiar routine. Armed only with the powers of persuasion, they and the Army's 5,200 other recruiters - dubbed "79 Romeos" in military jargon - beat the bushes of America's cities and towns looking for new soldiers.

But their task is becoming ever tougher. Driven by everything from high-profile sexual-harassment scandals to concerns about Gulf war syndrome, the quantity and quality of recruits are slipping. It's a trend that, if unchecked, could blunt America's future military prowess.

And now the top brass has upped recruiting quotas - from 70,000 last year to 90,000 this year.

So although Soto and Bailey's recruiting battalion is a group of top-flight Romeos, last month it missed its goal of 270 enlistees. It got 170.

But now Uncle Sam is marching double time. Among other things, the Army boosted its tuition pledge from $30,000 to $40,000.

The recruiting command at Fort Knox, Ky., has also added several hundred new recruiters and extended the duty of current recruiters past their regular three-year tours.

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The moves come on the heels of disappointing first-quarter results. According to Pentagon figures, the percentage of Army recruits with high school diplomas dropped to 88 percent, 7 points below the service's goals.

If the numbers don't improve by the end of the year, it will mark the first time since 1986 that any service has fallen below 90 percent for high school grads.

It's a number that matters more than ever in today's high-tech military. For everything from laser-guided missiles to remote-control tanks, the military needs smart, well-educated soldiers.

In the military, few jobs are as important as the recruiter's. In the Army, 60 percent of all recruiters are pulled in mid-career from other jobs.

After a six-week crash course in sales techniques at Fort Jackson, S.C., they are shipped to storefront offices around the country and expected to meet a series of monthly quotas.

Sgt. 1st Class Barry Bragg, commander of the Dentsville, S.C., station, has been a full-time recruiter for 10 years. He began his career as a tank driver, but says that can't compare with the mental pressures facing guys like Soto and Bailey.

"The difference in this job is the mission never ends," Sergeant Bragg says. "In the regular Army, it's take this hill, take that valley. When you're done, it's over with. But this war never ends."

Soto, a rising star, was a supply specialist in his previous Army life. Bragg would like to talk him into "converting" into a permanent recruiter - a real "79 Romeo." But talking anyone into the job this year might be difficult.

Compounding a decreasing interest in the military among young adults are the major sex scandal at the Aberdeen, Md., proving grounds, continuing negative publicity from the Gulf war syndrome, and a spate of new missions from Somalia to Bosnia that keep many military people constantly away from home.

But even the good recruiters, in a good year, can be burned by factors beyond their control, Bragg says. Aside from drug use and criminal behavior, a list of seemingly innocuous physical conditions - including flat feet - can keep kids out of the Army. He's seen hundreds who'd already been logged in by recruiters fail to make it to basic training.

The slope to a single recruit is slippery and steep. The Army estimates its takes 140 conversations or interviews - known as "contacts" - to get one enlistee. Ever mindful of the challenge, recruiters develop their own tricks of the trade.

Bailey, a former infantryman, sometimes walks into bookstores and inserts his business card into study guides for the military entrance test.

Soto, who is fluent in English and Spanish, has recruited a group of "informants" in local high schools who tell him about others who might be interested in the military.

Every day, their time is strictly managed to ensure they reach the numbers necessary to meet their quotas. At the Dentsville station, they are required to personally recruit two to three new soldiers a month, something that is increasingly hard in the current climate.

Soto, who put five soldiers in the Army in January, belly-flopped in February: He got one.

Bailey didn't fare much better.

"It gets draining," Soto explains, "but you can't let your emotions get involved.

"You're getting shot down every day. Nine out of 10 will shoot you down."

The challenge, despite the long hours and the pressure, can be strangely appealing. Bailey is leaning toward becoming a full-time recruiter.

And Soto, characterized by a former boss as "the master of face-to-face prospecting," might one day consider it. To do this job, Bailey says, "You've got to have the eye of the tiger."

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