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Posted: 9/29/2004 8:42:51 AM EDT
Issue Date: October 04, 2004

New recruiting challenge
Bigger goal comes as war dissuades some from enlisting

By Gordon Lubold
Times staff writer

Recruiters have reached their enlistment goals for each of the last nine years, but in the “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately?” world of the Marine recruiter, their work has only just begun.

Marine Corps Recruiting Command is about to close the books on the fiscal 2004 recruiting year after enlisting the 30,608 individuals to hit its goal. But next year’s mission may be a harder climb.

The fiscal 2005 goal is 33,387 new recruits, a 9 percent increase over last year. Although that total is on par with goals for the last 10 years, the increase means a bigger challenge for the recruiters canvassing malls and high schools.

“We’re in tune to the challenges maybe a bit more this year,” said Maj. Mark Ramirez, recruiting operations action officer for Recruiting Command at Quantico, Va.

Though many agree it will be tough, Ramirez said the command expects to make mission again this year. The last time recruiters fell short was in June 1995.

But this year offers additional challenges beyond the bigger goal.

Last year, recruiters could point to the dramatic toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq as they smooth-talked high school students around the country.

This year, the reality of the long haul in Iraq has set in. The news is less positive. The job is more dangerous. And recruiters are having a tougher time getting their foot in the door and keeping it open.

That’s evident in a trend that has emerged in recent months: recruiters getting more questions from parents. When recruiters attempt to sign up a 17-year-old who needs parental consent, recruiters are finding they must make more visits with the parents to get them on board.

“I’ve heard that the recruiters on the street seeking parental consent have to speak to the realities of the world and answer as best as possible all the questions and concerns that these people have,” said Capt. John Caldwell, a spokesman for 1st Marine Corps District in Garden City, N.Y. “When you’re engaged on a global war on terrorism, and the stabilization of Iraq, the parents have many.”

The sentiment has been echoed by other Corps leaders, including Sgt. Maj. John Estrada, sergeant major of the Marine Corps, who was the top enlisted Marine for a recruiting station in Sacramento, Calif., from 1998 to 2000.

“Moms and dads are asking tougher questions,” he said in a Sept. 23 interview at his Pentagon office.

Monitoring a change

Another challenge lies in the enlistment entrance exam. In July, the Defense Department modified the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, changing the test’s grading scale to reflect the fact that teenagers are, on average, better educated and more technologically savvy than when the exam was last revised in the 1980s.

Recruiting officials said the changes could disqualify as much as 10 percent of their pool of potential recruits. While teens may be more educated, it doesn’t mean they’ll test at the new standard, recruiting commanders said earlier this year.

The exam is administered at Military Entrance Processing Stations and is used to help determine the aptitude of the candidates recruiters are attempting to sign up.

Changing the ASVAB grading scale means more candidates’ scores likely will fall below the mark, forcing recruiters to look harder to find high-quality enlistees.

Although it may take more than a year to determine what the true effect the test changes will have on recruiting, Ramirez said recruiting officials should have an initial sense of its effect this fall.

Add the improving economy to the list, too. Always a natural enemy of the recruiter, the more stable economic outlook may help dissuade high school students from joining the military.

Maj. Dave Griesmer, a Recruiting Command spokesman, said that since the Marine Corps occupies a slightly different market in the military recruiting marketplace, the effect of the economy won’t be as strong as it might for the Army, Air Force or Navy.

There’s one more challenge this year. Operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere have limited the pool of Marines available to go to recruiting school. Recruiting officials are working to find about 180 recruiters willing to voluntarily extend their tours between three and 12 months.

The recruiter shortfall has not affected the command’s ability to meet its recruiting goals and officials expect to find enough recruiters willing to extend, Griesmer said.

“We are confident there will be enough volunteers to cover this temporary shortfall.”

These challenges come as a new general settles in as the head of Recruiting Command.

Brig. Gen. Walter Gaskin took over as commanding general in September, replacing Maj. Gen. Christopher Cortez, who retired as the highest-ranking Hispanic officer in the Corps.

Gaskin, who is up before the major general officer board this year, oversees the Corps’ Eastern and Western Recruiting regions, both commanded by one-star generals.

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