CBSN

Polishing the Military's Image

Every day across the United States, new military recruits are making the biggest commitment of their lives.

CBS News Correspondent Sharyl Attkisson reports that their choices have as much to do with economics as with patriotism. Asked about his reasons for enlisting, one recruit reeled off several of the enticements - "Pay for education; a place to live and eat for a couple of years."

But on the 25th anniversary of the volunteer military, the Pentagon is seeing signs that it may have to do better if it wants to compete with industry for a few good men and women.

Without the draft, the armed forces finds itself scrambling to fill the ranks. For the first time this year, the Navy came up 13,000 recruits short.

"When we had conscription," said Larry Korb, former Pentagon official, "what we literally did was pay people subsistence wages for two years. You can't do that any more because you've got to out and compete in the market."

Today, beginning privates make $11,000 a year, far below the starting wages in many other fields. Many new recruits even qualify for food stamps.

With salaries and benefits that can't compare with private industry, the armed forces are luck that it, like corporate America, is in the midst of a 1990s downsizing. For example, the size of the army has shrunk from 780,000 in 1990 to 495,000 today.

This worries some in Congress. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott complained last week to the White House that the smaller force is inadequate for the security demands of the future.

The Army's top brass disagrees.

" The world's finest Army," says Lt. Gen. Frederick Vollrath. "Ready to go anywhere in the world; to do whatever America needs to have done to protect its national interests. And Americans can count on it."

The United States has been counting on the volunteer military more often in recent years. In the past six years, the Army has been deployed 25 times, more than twice as often as in the previous four decades.

If the trend continues, recruiting methods - and their success - could become even more important.