Huge majority turning deaf ear to military recruiting pitches

In the midst of a war half the country opposes, he's trying to get people to join the Army. Ninety-five percent of them want no part of what he's selling, making Finney about as welcome as a telemarketing call during dinner.

His workdays often start at 6 a.m. and don't end until 8 p.m. He spends the hours haunting high schools, sniffing around sporting events or glad-handing at street fairs and rock concerts.

But most days, no matter what he does, there aren't enough takers.

In Tucson, and nationwide, the largest branch of the military recently has missed its recruiting targets, fueling fears that America may not be able to sustain its all-volunteer military.

At the halfway point of the 2005 fiscal year, Tucson-area recruiters for the active duty Army and Army Reserve were short a total of 93 bodies.

Arizona also was feeling the pinch, 389 soldiers short in a state regarded as a recruiting hotbed. The state's National Guard is the only Army entity still able to meet its goals.

Nationally, the Army is down 5,355 recruits for the same period - a dip being attributed to the war in Iraq, to higher recruiting targets and to a strong economy that gives young people more job options.

Behind those numbers are people like Finney. Some days, he said, the biggest challenge is keeping up his own spirits.

"If you talk to 100 people and 99 tell you no, you're going to get down sometimes," said Finney, 30, who works as a military air-traffic controller when he isn't on recruiting detail.

"What keeps me going is I really believe in what I'm doing. I believe I'm helping people."

That's because the Army has done wonders for him, he said.

"As a kid, I used to pick lettuce to make money," said Finney, a Las Vegas native. "Now I have a bachelor's degree and two brand-new cars."

Finney is one of 40 Army recruiters - active-duty and reserve - in an area that covers Tucson, Sierra Vista and most of southern Arizona.

In military circles, recruiters are known as "prospectors," a nickname recalling frontier days when grizzled men searched out mother lodes of precious metals.

Finney does his prospecting in a dress uniform trimmed with gold braid and gleaming brass buttons - an outfit aimed at making him stand out.

Finney is 6 feet 3 inches tall. Fellow recruiter Staff Sgt. Joel Grogan stands 6 feet, 4 inches in his Army dress duds. Together, they call themselves the "Twin Towers."

"We walk around here and I guarantee you heads will turn," said Grogan, 38, as he and Finney recently worked the crowd at a job fair at the Tucson Convention Center.

When a strapping youth approached their booth, Grogan twirled this way and that, showing off his dress uniform from different angles.

"C'mon baby, look how good I look! Girls love a tall guy in a uniform," Grogan told the young prospect.

Defense analyst Lawrence Korb, an assistant defense secretary in the Reagan era, sees several factors behind the current Army recruiting crunch.

One is "public frustration" with the Iraq war, said Korb, now with the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C., a think tank pushing to reform the military and other institutions.

Another factor is the heavy use of National Guard and reserve troops in Iraq, he said. In the past, regular Army members leaving the service often joined the Guard or reserves. Now they don't for fear of being sent right back to war.

With fewer seasoned soldiers coming in, Guard and reserve recruiters are signing more civilians - putting them in competition with the regular Army for the same pool of potential recruits, Korb said.

Other factors include the current strong economy, and the fact Congress approved an additional 30,000 troops last year - an order that now has trickled down to recruiters in the form of higher quotas.

Yet, even in tough times there are still some takers.

Raymond Gallardo, 20, who recently attended the job fair at the Tucson Convention Center, is a Pima College student from California who wants to be a firefighter. The field is hard to break into, he said, so he's considering a stint as an Army firefighter to give himself an edge.

Martha Garcia, 37, a Tucson resident, also recently stopped by the job-fair booth looking for enlistment information for her 17-year-old son.

Garcia knows there's a chance he could be sent to war, "but I'm not scared," she said. Several other relatives were in the military and returned safely from deployments, she said.

As a parent willing to send her offspring to combat, Garcia is unusual. Local recruiters say parents often try to discourage their children from enlisting.

"Parents tell me, 'I don't want my kid to die,' " Finney said. He tries to ease their fears by talking about modern training and protective gear, and by stressing that most troops are in support roles rather than combat.

He also talks up the financial perks. A two-year stint means up to $29,000 in tuition money - and more for longer tours.

Defense analyst Korb said the future of the all-volunteer military depends to some degree on the success of recruiters.

If they don't succeed, it could force Congress to reconsider a draft, something no one, least of all the military, wants, he said.

The breaking point could come next year, Korb said, if troop levels in Iraq stay around 150,000 and there isn't enough new blood in the Army pipeline.

Existing soldiers might then be forced back to Iraq a third time, historically the point at which troops start to get fed up and refuse to re-enlist, he said.

Tucson's recruiters say they will do their best to keep the volunteer system working.

Though their mission may be tougher than before, "You can't ever tell yourself it's impossible," Finney said.

©Casa Grande Valley Newspapers Inc. 2005
By CAROL ANN ALAIMO, Arizona Daily Star

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