DoD seeks congressional support in influencing influencers

30 Jun 2005 | - Army Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample

President Bush made the plea to the American public during his address to the nation June 28, and now Defense Department leaders are asking Congress to go out and do the same.

That is to ask Americans, especially those of enlistment age, to step up and serve their country.

During testimony today before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker urged the committee to use its influence to explain to the American people "and to those who are influencers the importance for young people to serve the nation at a time like this."

"I know you have been doing this, and I encourage you to continue to help lead our people in that direction," he said.

Other leaders before the committee echoed the general's call.

David S.C. Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, asked Congress to "speak out about the values of military service and the values that young men and women will bring back from military service to their civil communities."

Chu's principal deputy, Charles Abell, also told the senators they could be helpful in influencing decisions to serve.

"Like the president the other night," Abell said, "we need you and your colleagues to appeal to the American people and have them understand that service is a good thing. Our youth have a propensity to service; they want to join." However, he added, "they need to hear from national and community leaders that military service is a noble undertaking and that we appreciate and respect those who serve."

Today's petition to Congress comes during a time when military leaders, while satisfied with retention numbers among the services, have serious concerns about recruiting.

"I don't think any of us have the answers," said Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, responding to questions from the committee on the challenging recruiting environment.

"My understanding is that there is a little more hesitancy on those who might recommend a military career -- from teachers to high school counselors, aunts and uncles -- probably given with what's going on in the world today," the general said, "and the fact that the military is on the front line of protecting this country."

Though the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps are ahead of year-to-date goals for enlistments, the Army today announced that for the time this fiscal year it had met its quarterly quota, exceeding the number by more than 500 enlistments.

That figure surprised one senator, who questioned if the Army had "lowered its standards."

Schoomaker dismissed the notion.

He said DoD standards for recruiting are that less than 4 percent can be in the lowest acceptable aptitude category, that more than 60 percent must be in the upper level, and that more than 90 percent have to be high school graduates. "We are far exceeding our standards right now," he explained.

Marine Commandant Gen. Michael W. Hagee noted the quality of Marines staying in the service has been higher than in previous years. "And we are retaining Marines with families at a higher rate," he added. "All this indicates to me that these Marines feel very confident in what they are doing, how they are trained, how they are led and the quality of life that we provide to them."

The Army, meanwhile, is considering new recruiting incentives to get young people to join, Schoomaker said.

They include new authorities that will allow the Army to pay a reserve affiliation bonus to active duty servicemembers to join select reserve units, a critical skills retention bonus for reservists, and an increase in hardship duty pay.

Already before Congress is a proposed authorization to increase the top enlistment bonus to $30,000 from the current cap of $20,000, and to provide more money for education.

However, the Army also is considering new, innovative programs such as one that pays referral bonuses for enlistments and provides mortgage assistance to new recruits.

Chu acknowledged that the department has noticed a downward trend in enlistments for some time.

"We have been working hard to explain to various media, including advertising to influencers, the value of military service," he said. "Our challenge is to get that word out and to make that case to parents so that they see military service as an attractive choice for young people."

Hagee pointed out that even before 9/11, the propensity for individuals to join the armed forces was headed down, telling the committee that a recruiter today spends about 12 hours talking with individual recruits, compared to just four hours per recruit before Sept. 11, 2001.

"I think that is primarily because parents, even grandparents today, are not that familiar with the armed forces," he said. "In many cases, young Americans don't even consider joining. So it's up to all of us to talk about the ideal of service."

Myers also told the committee that the military is entering a crucial stage in what he termed a "long struggle." And he said that current requirements of the military are not likely to decrease in the near term.

Schoomaker noted that it is important to remember the challenges the military faces should not be borne alone. "They are America's challenges," he said. "And we will not succeed without congressional support and the support of the American people."

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