February 3, 2005

Marines Miss January Goal for Recruits

By ERIC SCHMITT

New York Times

WASHINGTON, Feb. 2 - For the first time in nearly a decade, the Marine Corps in January missed its monthly recruiting goal, in what military officials said was the latest troubling indicator of the Iraq war's impact on the armed services.

The struggles of the Army, the Army Reserve and the Army National Guard to recruit and retain soldiers have received national attention in recent months. But the recent failure of the Marines, who historically have had the luxury of turning away willing recruits, is a potential problem for the service.

The Marines missed their January goal of 3,270 recruits by 84 people, or less than 3 percent. The Marines last missed a monthly goal in July 1995, and 1995 was also the last full year in which the corps fell short of its annual recruiting quota, said Maj. Dave Griesmer, a spokesman for the Marine Corps Recruiting Command.

Richard H. Kohn, a military historian at the University of North Carolina, said, "It's most troubling because the Marines tend to attract people who are the most macho, seek the most danger and are attracted by the service most likely to put them into combat."

Senior Marine personnel officials say that one month is hardly a trend, that the Marine Corps is slightly ahead of pace for the fiscal year beginning last October and that they fully expect to meet their overall goal for the year. But senior officers acknowledge that the drop in January - and close calls in November and December - could be linked to the widely publicized risks in Iraq.

"Do Iraq and Afghanistan have an impact? Yes," Brig. Gen. Walter E. Gaskin, the head of the Marine Corps Recruiting Command, said in a telephone interview. "But I am very optimistic we will meet our goal over all."

On Capitol Hill on Wednesday, senior Army officers warned of worrisome recruiting trends and told of steps they were taking to address them. Lt. Gen. Roger C. Schultz, the chief of the Army National Guard, told the House Armed Services Committee that the Guard was retaining many of its top soldiers but failing to meet goals for recruits. In January, he said, the Guard met only 56 percent of its quota. Both the National Guard and the Army Reserve are increasing the number of recruiters in the field, officers said.

In a reflection of the difficult market for Marine recruiters, the service offers bonuses of up to $30,000 to retain combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than relying mainly on replenishing its infantry with troops fresh from boot camp. About 75 percent of enlisted marines leave the service after their first tour, requiring a steady stream of recruits moving through training centers in San Diego and Parris Island, S.C.

Even as the Marine Corps strains to meet its recruiting targets, the Air Force and Navy are flush with recruits and are actually shrinking their overall ranks. Military personnel experts say there are indications that young people interested in joining the military may be turning to the Air Force and Navy, which have suffered relatively few casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. In contrast, the Marines make up about 21 percent of the fighting force in Iraq now but have suffered 31 percent of the military deaths there, according to Pentagon statistics.

"It's not surprising that the Navy and Air Force would be doing just fine," said Professor Kohn. "Kids getting a start in the military will migrate to the physically safer services, and it seems to them that they'll get more technical training there."

General Gaskin said that despite missing January's goal, which was first reported by ABC News on Tuesday night, the Marine Corps was in no danger of running out of recruits for boot camp. Because of strong recruiting last year, the Marines entered the current fiscal year having already signed up 52 percent of their 2005 quota, he said. Typically, a recruit is sent to boot camp several months after signing an enlistment contract.

The Marines are devising recruiting strategies and offering signing bonuses of $2,000 to $5,000 for specialized jobs, like linguists and avionics technicians.

Sgt. Kimberly Leone, a marketing and public affairs representative at the Marine recruiting station in Chicago, said one new recruiting strategy would involve sending the Marine Corps Band from San Diego to high schools across the country.

Thom Shanker contributed reporting from Washington for this article, and Gretchen Ruethling from Chicago.