Crisis In Uniformed Ranks

Amid the pomp and pageantry of West Point cadets in full dress parade, itÂ's hard to imagine that thereÂ's a big problem recruiting future officers.

But ever since the draft was abolished in 1973, the military has had to beat the bushes hard to find enough volunteers. And as CBS News Sunday Morning Corespondent Rita Braver reports, for many officers, the search for recruits is a full-time job.

Staff Sgt. Swaine Thompson is quite familiar with declining armed forces enrollment. He tries to find volunteers in the Chicago area.

"I look for target spots," he says. "A lot of time[s] people say no, because this is the first immediate reaction when they see the uniform."

"What I need to do is get beyond the no, and just continue talking with them and spend about three or five minutes and let them know something about the Army that they didnÂ't know," he says.

Staff Sgt. Swaine Thompson talks up the Army's educational benefits in a Chicago high school classroom

This 12-year career Army man spends a lot of time in Chicago high schools, where he hammers home the educational benefits of military enrollment. On the average, he recruits about two kids a month.

Among the many paybacks: College is fully financed, and recruits receive up to $50,000 in benefits for a five-year tour of duty.

Take a look at the Web site for the United Armed Forces Association.
Recruiting has become even tougher in todayÂ's economy with good jobs so plentiful. And every service, except the Marines, is having trouble making recruitment goals. This year, the Navy squeaked by. But the Air Force was down by about 1,700; the Army, by about 6,300.

This is a story Sgt. Thompson has heard too often.

"[The] economic boom, the MTV, give it to me now. Pepsi...all these fancy commercials, designers' clothes - IÂ'm fighting all that," Thompson says.

But Thompson does get through to a few kids, like Erick Rodriguez, who plans to join the Reserve Officer Corps.

"It helps me shoot towardÂ…my dream of being, well, all I could be," says Erick. "I donÂ't just want to be a nobody. I want to be a somebody."

But there are a lot more youngsters like Mine Barin.

"ItÂ's not very appealing to me," Barin explains. "I take orders from my parents and stuffÂ….But donÂ'tÂ…like to take orders."

"If you join the Army,Â…you might have to fight," says Brandon Coleman. "And I donÂ't want to have to fightÂ…any wars or anything."

In reality, while operations like Desert Storm, and those in Bosnia and Kosovo get most of the attention, unless a recruit signs up for a fighting job, thereÂ's little chance of seeing combat.

But, with the end of the draft, many young Americans simply donÂ't know anything about the military or anyone whoÂ's been in it. Even West Point, which always fills its ranks, encounters the problem.

"It's not unusual for me to go into a candidate meeting with parents and children, traveling the country and to have none of the sets of parents have any uniformed experience in the armed service, either active duty, National Guard or reserve," says Col. Michael Jones, West PointÂ's director of admissions.

Secretary of Defense William Cohen agrees that the PentagonÂ's message is not getting out. Both he and his wife, Janet Langhart Cohen, whoÂ's become a major advocate for the armed services, say that the military is just not on most Americans' radar screens in times of relative peace.

"TheyÂ're so busy enjoying this great economy," Janet Cohen explains. "They're so busy being on the Internet and surfing remote controls and driving their cars and taking their kids to ball games and going to the mall - all the great things that our men and women make possible for them to do."

"ItÂ's human nature to say unless thereÂ's a conflictÂ…or a threat to the homeland, we donÂ't think about it. ThatÂ's normal. ThatÂ's why our job isÂ…kind of hard in a way," she says.

If rounding up new recruits is a tough job, thereÂ's also another one: convincing experienced soldiers to re-enroll.

Sgt. William Sires tells CBS News Correspondent Rita Braver he can't afford to stay in the service.

After eight years in the service, Sgt. William Sires just canÂ't afford to stay, on about $400 a week, he says.

"If I was the only one supporting the family, I would go on food stamps. And thatÂ's something that I donÂ't believe should ever happen," he says. SiresÂ' wife helps support the family, which includes their newborn baby.

"The opportunities out on the civilian side are just too good to pass up," Sires continues. "The economyÂ's good....The pay is good. The benefits are good."

President Clinton has just signed a 4.8 percent military pay raise, the largest since 1981. While that has kept some people in uniform - retention rates are up his year - Sgt. Sires still isnÂ't impressed.

"Four percent," he says. "If I were to give you a dollar and say, 'HereÂ's a 4 percent raise,' thatÂ's only four cents. That doesnÂ't make even a dent on the things that you need to carry on the daily life."

Starting in July, there will be new promotion bonuses. And to boost their ranks, both the Army and Navy have relaxed requirements, accepting more recruits without traditional high school diplomas.

"IÂ'm very fearful now that weÂ're going to hear more and more rationalizations of dropping quality. We should look up the educational ladder, not down," says Charles Moskos, a military sociologist at Northwestern University. The military needs to change its strategy to go after more college students, he says.

"I think we need a new option, which is a short enlistment, say 15 months, in which a young person after graduating from college would train for several months and then go overseas to places like Bosnia, Korea, Germany - the equivalent of the junior year abroad," Moskos says.

Defense Secretary William Cohen questions the economics of that proposal.

"If you have too much turnover with shorter and shorter periods of service, then you have more and more people coming in," he says. "You have tremendous expense involved."

"I donÂ't think its realistic [to bring back the draft]. And I donÂ't think itÂ's necessary," William Cohen continues. "We have to be better able to identify those types of message[s] that will appeal to our young people, to inspire them,Â…to really appeal to their sense of patriotism."

So the armed forces are stepping up their advertising campaigns. But so far, recruiters like Army Sgt. Swaine Thompson are finding it a tough sell.