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The hollowing of America's military

Shifting values of Net generation and strong economy create the worst personnel crisis since '70s.

When Felix Martinez joined the Navy 19 years ago, he saw it as a way to make a comfortable living and serve his adopted country.

To this day, the immigrant from the Dominican Republic wears his Navy blue-and-whites with pride and exudes unabashed patriotism. He even says, "I'm willing to die for my country" with a conviction that makes you believe it isn't a line from a recruiter's handbook.

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But there is one thing Mr. Martinez won't do. "I will not recommend the military to my son," says the petty officer 1st class, who counsels sailors on their careers at the Mayport Naval Station here.

The reason: The military doesn't take care of its people the way it used to - too many hours, too few benefits, too much time away from home.

Martinez's concerns help explain why the United States - the world's lone superpower - is facing one of its biggest military manpower crises since the Vietnam War more than a quarter century ago.

From boot camps in South Carolina to Naval bases in Guam, there are signs that the military's ranks are becoming perilously thin. Far too few people are joining the all-volunteer military and far too many are leaving it.

The reasons vary, from the booming economy that offers platinum salaries in place of a career snapping salutes to the shifting values of the "Net generation."

But they all add up to one thing for the Pentagon: Short of dramatic action, the US may not be able to meet its military obligations in the 21st century.

At the least, the present trends could lead to a smaller military, a less-educated military, or perhaps both.

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"These problems are not going to go away," says David Segal, a military sociologist at the University of Maryland in College Park. "The nation is going to have to think about what sort of military force it wants and how it's going to get it."

The statistics are sobering. In the past year, every service except the Marine Corps has suffered a shortage of recruits and troops.

*The Army expects to miss its year-end recruiting goal of 74,500 by about 7,000 to 8,000 - nearly the equivalent of a "light" infantry division.

Next year could be worse, Army commanders admit privately. The shortfall, some suggest, could force the Army to shut down one, or perhaps two, of its 10 active divisions. The Army is now losing 37 percent of all soldiers before they complete their first enlistments.

*The Navy isn't doing much better, with retention rates for officers at 11 to 14 percent below what's needed. It is also experiencing an exodus of enlisted sailors.

To maintain the fleet, the Navy needs 38 percent of all new sailors to stay for a second enlistment, but only 28 percent are doing so. Perhaps most disturbing is that only 47 percent of third-term sailors are choosing the Navy as a career, well under the 62 percent needed.

*The Air Force, also suffering a rapid exodus of skilled workers to the private sector, is airing television commercials seeking recruits for the first time ever. It is so short of air-traffic controllers that it has cut flight hours at a number of US bases.

Despite its recent decision to spend more than $50 million on the TV spots this year and next, the Air Force is in danger of not meeting its enlisted recruiting goal for the first time in 20 years.

Historically, no service has been more successful selling its jobs to young Americans. Yet in a nation of 270 million, the Air Force may not be able to reach its recruiting goal of 33,000 enlistees this year.

Breaking the cycle

The downward spiral seems resistant to traditional solutions. The services must recruit increasing numbers of uninterested prospects who leave at a higher-than-normal rate. The result is an ever-increasing workload for career-military people that is reminiscent of the "hollow" military right after Vietnam.

"We don't know how to break the cycle," says Lt. Col. Jim Helis, an Army recruiting commander.

It is common to walk onto most military bases today and find a veteran soldier or sailor attempting the work of two or three people. A downsized military can't maintain that kind of workload.

One Army officer who's served 20 years puts it this way: "I can't believe the military leadership thinks we can do what we do around the world with this size force."

Behind the military's growing estrangement from the public are causes both predictable and unexpected.

Some are subtle, such as the fact that there are no contemporary icons like George Patton, Douglas MacArthur, or Dwight Eisenhower. "The missions in Somalia and Bosnia have not produced any heroes," says Colonel Helis.

Flower-power redux

Other reasons are more blatant. Baby boomers raised on Vietnam feel little affinity with the military and thus are not encouraging their children to sign up. Neither are military retirees, angry over cuts in veterans' health benefits. Even some who remain strong supporters of the military don't want their children to join unless recruiters promise they won't be sent to "Third World" countries.

Probably the biggest villain, though, is the surging economy. So many jobs are being created in the 1990s that virtually anybody who wants to work can - including former criminals.

"We're dealing with a smaller work force than we've had in decades," says James Fromstein, a senior vice president with Manpower Inc. in Milwaukee. "There aren't enough people to fill the ranks of the private sector and the military together."

Today, the US has about 10 million males ages 17 to 21, up from about 9 million in 1994. Even though those numbers will rise steadily for the next 15 years, right now they cannot sustain a full-employment economy.

The four services need about 200,000 new recruits each year. While that may seem small in a pool of 10 million young men, Army officials note that only about 1.4 million of those are interested in, or even qualify for, most military jobs.

The worker shortage is forcing many companies to recruit bright kids out of high school and create instant apprenticeship programs.

"The military comes in and says, 'We'll teach you electronics.' But that's four to five years away," says Mr. Fromstein. "The young high school grads don't find it necessary to put in that waiting period anymore."

Combine this new economy with surging college attendance and another strain is put on an already tight recruit pool.

Since the early 1980s, the difference in the earning power of a college-educated worker has doubled compared with a high school graduate. That is spurring many teenagers to choose Birkenstocks over combat boots.

"The competition for skilled labor is more intense than it has been since the 1960s," says Tony Carnevale, an economist who tracks college attendance for the Educational Testing Service. "The military is not competitive."

In 1982, during the post-Vietnam renaissance, 65 percent of high school graduates attended some form of college within two years of receiving their degrees. Today, that number has grown to 75 percent.

But the military's biggest obstacle to recruiting - and hardest to overcome - may be the changing values of today's young people.

Few in leadership positions are more optimistic about the military's ability to survive and compete than Maj. Gen. John Van Alstyne. But as commander of the Army's largest basic-training site at Fort Jackson, S.C., he is seeing a troubling shift in attitudes.

"The more you understand about the emerging generation - the folks from diapers to 20 years old - the more concerned you should be about the propensity for military service," says General Van Alstyne, whose base comes in contact with more young people than virtually anywhere else in the United States.

"The emphasis is on personal freedoms," he says. "It's 'I want to work hard, but on my schedule, on my computer. I want to do something exciting, but I want to do it on my terms.' "

The military has never been about "my terms." But because of this emerging attitude and the increasing desperation of the Army and Navy, the military is beginning to study the Net generation.

What's with Web surfers?

In doing so, they'll have to learn new phrases and buzzwords.

"The influence of digital technology, particularly the Internet, is to remind kids of what a varied and opportunity-filled world we live in," says Don Tapscott, author of "Growing Up Digital."

"These technologies expand horizons. And by comparison, I think the military is seen as offering too little in value in exchange for the demands it makes," he says.

The Army already has found that the characteristics of today's young adults don't mesh with military life.

"There has been a real shift in their attitudes about where they can get the skills, the personal assets they need to succeed in life," says Maj. Rick Ayer, who heads Army Recruiting Command's research at Fort Knox, Ky. "It's a shift toward civilian industries, jobs, and education as the place to get those skills."

Major Ayer's job is to find how today's military fits into the culture and values of young Americans. The answer right now: not well.

To make his point he cites this statistic: In 1976, almost 40 percent of young Americans surveyed said they definitely would not enter the military. That survey was taken a year after the United States withdrew from Vietnam, its most unpopular war.

The University of Michigan asked that same question two years ago. This time, almost 63 percent of young Americans said they definitely would not enlist.

The discouraging news for the Pentagon is that it is not just kids who are losing interest. It is guidance counselors, teachers, and even coaches.

"We have a mentoring culture that no longer sees the military as something they would like their sons and daughters to go into," says Jim Martin, a retired Army colonel who now studies military culture at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. "The military is way down on the bottom of the list."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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