For Army Recruiters, a Hard Toll From a Hard Sell
By DAMIEN CAVE
Published: March 27, 2005
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The Army's recruiters are being challenged with one of the hardest selling
jobs the military has asked of them in American history, and many say the
demands are taking a toll.
A recruiter in New York said pressure from the Army to meet his recruiting
goals during a time of war has given him stomach problems and searing back
pain. Suffering from bouts of depression, he said he has considered suicide.
Another, in Texas, said he had volunteered many times to go to Iraq rather
than face ridicule, rejection and the Army's wrath.
An Army chaplain said he had counseled nearly a dozen recruiters in the past
18 months to help them cope with marital troubles and job-related stress.
"There were a couple of recruiters that felt they were having nervous
breakdowns, literally," said Maj. Stephen Nagler, a chaplain who retired in
March after serving at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, where the New York City
recruiting battalion is based.
Two dozen recruiters nationwide were interviewed about their experiences
over four months. Ten spoke with The New York Times even after an Army
official sent an e-mail message advising all recruiters not to speak to this
reporter, who was named. Most asked for anonymity to avoid being
A handful who spoke said they were satisfied with their jobs. They said they
took pride in seeing awkward, unfocused teenagers transform into confident
soldiers and relished an opportunity to contribute to the Army effort.
But most told similar tales: of loving the military, of working hard to
complete a seemingly impossible task, of struggling to carry the nation's
burden at a time of anxiety and stress.
The careers and self-esteem of recruiters rise and fall on their ability to
fulfill a mission, said current and former Army officials and military
experts who were also interviewed.
Recruiters said falling short often generates a barrage of angry
correspondence, formal reprimands, threats or even demotion.
"The recruiter is stuck in the situation where you're not going to make
mission, it just won't happen," the New York recruiter said. "And you're
getting chewed out every day for it. It's horrible." He said the assignment
was more strenuous than the time he was shot at while deployed in Africa.
At least 37 members of the Army Recruiting Command, which oversees
enlistment, have gone AWOL since October 2002, Army figures show. And, in
what recruiters consider another sign of stress, the number of improprieties
committed - signing up unqualified people to meet quotas or giving bonuses
or other enlistment benefits to recruits not eligible for them - has
increased, Army documents show.
"They don't necessarily have real bullets flying at them," said Major Nagler.
"But there are different kind of bullets they need to contend with - the
bullets of not producing numbers, of having a station commander shoot them
The Army is seeking 101,200 new active-duty Army and Reserve soldiers this
year alone to replenish the ranks in Iraq and Afghanistan, elsewhere around
the world and at home. That means each of the Army's 7,500 recruiters faces
the grind of an unyielding human math, a quota of two new recruits a month,
at a time of extended war without a draft.
The mission puts them in a different kind of cross-fire: On one side, the
military's requirement that new soldiers be found. On the other, resistance
by many parents to Army careers for their children in wartime.
Maj. Gen. Michael D. Rochelle, commander of the Army Recruiting Command,
acknowledged it is a stressful time for recruiters, who face "the toughest
challenge to the all-volunteer Army" since it began in 1973.
"I do not deny being demanding," said General Rochelle, leader of the
command since 2002. "We have a vitally important mission in terms of
providing volunteers for an army that is at war and that is growing."
He said the Army has already added recruiters and taken measures to expand
the pool of potential soldiers, by accepting older recruits and more people
without high school diplomas. Other changes are being considered, he said.
But many recruiters said the Army continues to minimize how difficult it has
become to find qualified volunteers during a war and in a growing economy.
For the first time in nearly five years, the Army missed its active-duty
recruiting goal in February. The Reserve has missed its monthly quota since
October. Army officials said the goals would most likely be missed the next
two months as well.
Gen. Richard A. Cody, Army vice chief of staff, told Congress on March 16
that he is concerned about whether the Army can continue to provide the
troops the nation needs.
"What keeps me awake at night," he said, "is what will this all-volunteer
force look like in 2007?"
The Marines also missed monthly recruiting goals in January, for the first
time in a decade. The Navy and Air Force, which provide fewer people for the
war, are on track to meet their quotas.
Trying to refill the ranks solely through recruitment in wartime is rare.
Historians say the Spanish-American War, Mexican-American War and Gulf war
were the only major conflicts since 1775 that did not rely, in part, on
Since 1973, the Army has usually maintained an all-volunteer force of a
million active-duty, Reserve and National Guard soldiers, primarily through
a marketing campaign that promoted opportunities for adventure, new skills,
college money and other personal goals - enticements that, in wartime, often
do not outweigh fear of combat and death, Army surveys show.
While some in Congress have raised the specter of a draft, the Bush
administration has rejected that idea, saying higher skilled soldiers are
needed in a high-tech age, and are best found through recruitment.
But several senior officers interviewed, including Col. Greg Parlier,
retired, who until 2002 headed the research and strategy arm of the Army
Recruiting Command, said the pressure on recruiters shows the policy should
be re-examined, and initiatives like national service should be considered.
Courting Mom and Dad
The Army is the nation's largest military branch, comprising 80 percent of
the 150,000 troops in Iraq. Its recruiters are among its best soldiers. Most
are sergeants with 5 to 15 years of experience, pulled randomly from the top
10 percent of their specialty, as defined by their commanding officers. More
than 70 percent did not volunteer for the job.
Some soldiers are better suited to the task than others. Staff Sgt. Jose E.
Zayas, 42, is outgoing, bilingual and embraces his mission. Recently,
canvassing in the Bronx, he had little trouble persuading a couple from
Massachusetts to accept a few pamphlets.
But for every Sergeant Zayas, there is a recruiter like Sgt. Joshua Harris,
29, a former personnel administrator in a New Jersey recruiting station, who
struggles when talking to strangers. Seven weeks of instruction in
approaching prospects helped him, he said. But many recruiters said few
soldiers possess the skills they need.
Recruiters are paid about $30,000 a year, plus housing and other allowances,
including $450 a month in special-duty pay for recruiting. They live where
they recruit, often hundreds of miles from a base.
These men, and occasionally women, spend several hours a day cold-calling
high school students, whose phone numbers are provided by schools under the
No Child Left Behind Law. They also must "prospect" at malls, at high
schools, colleges and wherever else young people gather.
The follow-up process often takes months. Though parents do not have to sign
off on the decision to join, recruiters said it is virtually impossible to
enlist a new recruit without their approval. Over dinners and on the phone,
they make the Army's case over and over to win parents' support.
If they succeed, they are responsible for bringing the recruit in for 5:30
a.m. processing , organizing physical fitness training or, in the case of
one California recruiter, taking 3 a.m. phone calls to comfort a recruit
crying over a breakup with her boyfriend.
The whims are many from the young, restless and uncertain, experts said.
Recruiters have "the only military occupation that deals with the civilian
world entirely," said Charles Moskos, a military sociologist at Northwestern
Even before the war, recruiters contacted on average of 120 people before
landing an active-duty recruit, Army data showed. That number is growing,
One recruiter in the New York area said that when he steps outside his
office for a cigarette, he often is barraged with epithets from passers-by
angry about the war.
In January, the brother-in-law of a prospective recruit lashed into him. "He
swore at me," the recruiter said, "and said that he would rather have his
brother-in-law in jail for selling crack than in the Army."
The recruiter said, when out of uniform, he often lies about his profession.
"I tell them I work in human resources," he said.
Still, they must sign up two recruits a month. Anyone with outstanding
criminal cases, health problems or poor test scores is disqualified. Most
months, at least one must have a high school diploma and score in the top 50
percent of an aptitude test.
Lt. Col. William F. Adams, a psychologist at the United States Military
Academy who has counseled recruiters, empathized with the pressure but said
it came with the job. Of the recruiting goal, he said, "It is not a goal or
a target; it is a mission. If you don't do it, you're a failure."
A December report from the commanding officers overseeing about 40
recruiters in West Houston reflects the mission-driven culture of
recruitment. Sent by e-mail to station commanders, it started by declaring,
"We can sum up the month of Dec with one word - Unprofessional!"
The document noted that in a month's-end drive to meet quota, seven recruits
had appeared for processing. Of those, two did not meet weight requirements
and needed a waiver, while two others lacked paperwork.
"We are processing crap," the report stated, "double and triple waivers,
waivers which get approved and the applicant refuses to enlist (two this
month), waivers on people with more than 20 charges, etc. We are putting
these people in our Army!"
The cause, it said, was a lack of leadership: "I challenged you to fix your
stations. No one has stepped forward."
Asked to respond to the document, the Houston recruiting battalion declined.
The report was followed on Jan. 6 by an e-mail message from Command Sgt.
Maj. Frank Norris, the second in command of 212 recruiters in and around
Houston, threatening to deny all requests for leave.
"There are no excuses and I am tired of entertaining such lack of discipline
and focus," he said in the e-mail message forwarded to The Times by a
recruiter who received it. "Let this serve notice that any station commander
that is holding this great battalion back will not be a station commander in
this battalion very much longer."
Neither document contained any mention of the war, nor other possible
obstacles. Sergeant Major Norris declined through an Army spokesman to be
interviewed. General Rochelle said most battalions do not resort to such
Brawling Over Prospects
The recruiter in New York who had considered suicide said he has seen at
least four marriages break up among the 9 or 10 recruiters in his area since
2002. He said he has been subjected to threats of discharge and "zero-roller
training," when superiors comb through recruiters' phone logs and other
materials, then lambaste them for failing to enlist anyone.
After more than a decade in the military, he said he still loves the Army.
"It's just this detail," he said. "This is hell."
A Texas recruiter - a gruff man whose home is decorated with military
commendations - said that he suffers from severe headaches lasting up to six
hours. "I never had them until I got out here," he said. "They're from
He and other recruiters said they sometimes feel angry enough to hit
someone. Two years ago, he said, two recruiters in his office brawled over
who should get credit for a new recruit. "We call this the pressure plate,
like on a land mine," he said, pointing to the recruiter patch on his
uniform. "If you push it too hard, we'll explode."
His wife, like spouses in California and elsewhere, is furious at what she
sees as the Army's lack of support. "What we are doing is good; recruiting
is good and important work," she said. "But the fact of the matter is that
it's killing our soldiers."
Many of the recruiters said they have asked for other assignments. One of
them is Sgt. Latrail Hayes. Now 27, Sergeant Hayes enlisted in the Army 10
years ago, out of high school in Virginia Beach, continuing a family
tradition of military service. He volunteered to be a recruiter in 2000,
after 52 jumps as a paratrooper, and at first his easy charm, appeals to
patriotism and offers of Army benefits enticed dozens of recruits.
But Sergeant Hayes said he started rethinking his assignment as the war went
on. Mothers required months, not weeks, of persuasion. And stories he heard
from some of his recruits who had gone to Iraq and Afghanistan made him
reluctant to pursue prospects by emphasizing the Army's benefits. When his
cousin, whom he had recruited, returned from Iraq with psychological trauma,
he filed for conscientious objector status in June, to get a new assignment.
The application was rejected in November. Now, instead of serving 20 years
in the Army, he intends to leave in December, when his tour ends. "There's a
deep human connection when you try to persuade someone to do something
you've done," he said. "So when it turns into something else - maybe even
the opposite - it's difficult."
Some recruiters said they witnessed more "improprieties," which the Army
defines as any grossly negligent or intentional act or omission used to
enlist unqualified applicants or grant benefits to those who are ineligible.
They said recruiters falsified documents and told prospects to lie about
medical conditions or police records.
An analysis of Army records shows that the number of impropriety allegations
doubled to 1,023 in 2004 from 490 in 2000. Initial investigations
substantiated 459 violations of Army enlistment standards in 2004, up from
186 in 2000. In 135 cases, recruiters - often more than one - were judged to
have committed improprieties, up from 113 in 2000. The rest were defined as
General Rochelle acknowledged that the impropriety figures "may be a
reflection of some of the pressure that is perceived at the lower levels."
He also said that the increase could partly be explained by improvements in
"We hold every recruiter responsible for being a living and breathing
example of Army values," he said.
The quotas will remain unchanged, General Rochelle said. But the commanders
should be held responsible for finding ways to meet their goals. "It does no
good to pass the heat, as it were, or the correction down to the individual
soldier," he said.
The Army announced in September that it would add about 1,200 active-duty
and Reserve recruiters to the field. It has also more than doubled bonuses
for three-year enlistments to $15,000 and increased its advertising budget.
For the first time since 1998, the Army has lowered its standards, last week
increasing its age limit for Reserve and National Guard recruits to 39. Last
year, it agreed to accept thousands more recruits without high school
In a small concession to recruiters, Army brass announced in February that
they can trade the green slacks and shirts that they said made them feel and
look like security guards for battle fatigues.
General Rochelle said the uniform swap was part of a new recruiting strategy
to stress patriotism over salesmanship and enlist veterans to help make the
Army's pitch. "It's less materialistic, in terms of the focus, once we get a
recruiter face to face with a young American," he said.
The recruiter in Texas, for one, said the changes are too little too late.
He said he would prefer to be in Iraq.
"I'd rather be getting shot at, because at least I'd be with my guys," he
said. "I'm infantry. That's what I'm trained to do."
Margot Williams contributed reporting for this article.