Across the country, the U.S. military is failing to meet its recruitment goals. To address this problem, the Pentagon has been rapidly expanding its programs designed to entice young people to enlist. It is now spending $3.4 billion dollars annually, an average of $14,000 per new recruit. Using flashy marketing campaigns, television spots, and even developing its own videogames, the Army is bombarding young people with images that glorify guns and violence. Recruiters use elaborate PR strategies: they set up shop at malls, movie theaters, sporting events, and concerts, and they cruise around town in decked-out Humvees that blast music popular among teenagers.
The military presence in our nation’s public schools is growing at an alarming rate. Educational institutions in working-class areas are prime targets of military recruiters, who particularly stalk the corridors of vocational schools. The military considers students to be easy targets who can be manipulated into signing up by promising them career training, money for college, free travel, and adventure. Recruiters are PR experts; like drug dealers and tobacco company representatives, they market a dangerous product with side effects they don’t want their potential customers to know about.
While recruiters tell students that they can receive $70,000 for college through the Montgomery GI Bill, the average payout to veterans is only $2,151. To be eligible for educational benefits, soldiers must commit to serving three years on active duty and must also pay a nonrefundable “deposit” to the military of $100 a month for a year. Considering that only 43% of the soldiers who sign up for the program receive any money, the majority who seek financial assistance through the GI Bill actually end up paying the military $1,200 and get nothing in return. And a soldier who does get the average payment of $2,151 actually receives only $951 beyond his or her own contribution. Only 15% of all recruits graduate with a four-year degree.
The skills learned in the military are often nontransferable to civilian employment, and many people find themselves in need of retraining after leaving the armed services. Veterans in the 20-34 age bracket have a higher unemployment rate than non-veterans and those who are employed typically earn 12% to 15% less. Most people would be surprised to learn that veterans make up one-third of all homeless people and half of all homeless men. While in the military, 65% of enlistees state that they are not satisfied with their current jobs.
There is a variety of other less-than-flattering statistics about the military that recruiters fail to mention. People of color represent 1/3 of all enlisted personnel but only 1/8 of the officers. Nearly 90% of women in the military report being sexually harassed, and 1/3 report being raped. In addition to the more than 3,500 US men and women who have died in the current war in Iraq, tens of thousands have been wounded and are returning home with traumatic brain injuries, loss of limbs, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and other serious illnesses related to exposure to the depleted uranium used in US munitions.
Recruiters are under enormous pressure to meet their quota of two recruits a month, which requires them to contact an average of 120 potential enlistees over that time. Since fewer than 10% of all recruits seek out military employment on their own, recruiters face the daunting task of finding the large majority of new military recruits. Thus it’s no surprise that a central recruiting tactic is a combination of deception and omission. One recruiter recently interviewed in The Boston Globe characterized his work: “You have to convince those little punks to do something…I figure if I can sell this, I can sell anything.” By the Army’s own count, there were 320 substantiated cases of what it calls recruitment improprieties in 2004, up from 199 in 1999, and 213 in 2002. The offenses varied from threats and coercion to false promises that applicants would not be sent to Iraq. The number of those investigated rose to 1,118 in 2004, or nearly one in five of all recruiters, up from 913 in 2002, or one in eight. A recruiter interviewed by the New York Times said it best, “The problem is that no one wants to join [and] we have to play fast and loose with the rules to get by.”