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'Army Values' Concept Sells in Tough Recruiting Environment

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

NEW YORK, July 6, 2005 – It was an exciting afternoon at the Times Plaza Recruiting Station here in downtown Brooklyn, as three newly recruited soldiers stopped by the station one last time before shipping off for training.

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Army Staff Sgt. Lavone Anderson (standing), commander of the Times Plaza Recruiting Station in Brooklyn, N.Y., discusses the training and opportunities ahead for two new recruits. Photo by Donna Miles

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Four recruiters gathered around the three young women -- two headed to basic training and one to advanced individual training. Amid a flurry of congratulations and farewells, the recruiters rattled off a few more tidbits of last-minute advice as the new recruits prepared to begin their service.

"That's beautiful," said Army Staff Sgt. Marc Pierre, as he watched the new soldiers file out of the station, bags in hand. But as a five-year recruiter working in a tough recruiting market in a difficult recruiting environment nationwide, Pierre also acknowledged, "That's work, and that's time."

No sooner was the celebration over than it was time for the recruiters to get back to work, pulling another 12- to 14-hour day manning the phones and pounding the pavement in search of qualified recruits to fill the Army's ranks.

Army Staff Sgt. Lavone Anderson, commander of the Times Plaza Recruiting Station, can't remember a more challenging time to carry out that mission.

Her first recruiting stint, five years ago, was in Columbia, S.C., a typically pro-military Southern community with Fort Jackson at its doorstep. A plaque hanging in Anderson's office acknowledges the 16 months straight when her recruiting station reached its recruiting goal, or "mission" in Army-speak.

But here in the Northeast and at a different time, it's a far different -- and more challenging-- recruiting environment, she said. There's a large high-school dropout rate here, and many would-be recruits have had run-ins with the law that disqualify them from military service. The economy is on the upswing, so civilian jobs are more plentiful.

And perhaps most significantly, there's concern about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Anderson was recruiting in Florence, N.C., on Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists launched attacks against the World Trade Center, just across the Manhattan Bridge from her current recruiting station. She watched the influx of people suddenly wanting to join the military. Some who'd already signed up and were waiting for the airports to reopen so they could ship off to basic training expressed interest in changing their job classifications to infantry.

"People wanted to join left and right," agreed Pierre, who watched the same phenomenon here in New York.

Some, who'd previously been turned away because they didn't meet the Army's standards, tried to enlist again, expecting that the standards had dropped. "They were surprised that the standards hadn't changed," Pierre said.

But the initial fervor didn't last, and interest in joining the Army remains lukewarm here, as reflected on a board on Anderson's wall that tracks recruits. "Last year at this point, we had almost double what we have now," she said.

The global war on terror poses challenges to Anderson and her fellow recruiters, she acknowledged. "I don't like to use the war as an excuse, but rather, as an explanation," she said.

In response, Anderson said she and her staff have learned to adapt and to use creative new techniques to attract recruits.

They man the phones for hours a day, using lists of high school students to plant the idea of joining the Army and, hopefully, to set up an appointment to meet face-to-face to talk about it.

They "blitz" particular neighborhoods when they see the numbers start to dip there, handing out "Army of One" business cards and flyers about the Army. They participate in local Chamber of Commerce activities. They set up tables at job and college fairs, anywhere they can get the Army's name out there and meet potential recruits. They set up basketball championships and give away free Army T-shirts to the winners. Sometimes they'll bring a Humvee into a special venue and blast hip-hop music to draw a crowd.

"We do this kind of thing all the time. It gets us seen in the community and creates a positive image," she said. "And the key (to recruiting) is to be seen in the community."

Yet for all their effort, the New York recruiters often fall short of their recruiting mission -- one that's actually increased while interest has waned. The last time the station met its quarterly mission for both the active and reserve components was March 2004, Anderson said.

This past quarter, the office exceeded its mission of recruiting seven reserve-component soldiers by one, but reached only 44 percent of its active-duty goal. Instead of getting 11 active-duty recruits, they wrote contracts for seven.

That puts a lot of pressure on Anderson and her staff, who run one of the biggest stations within the New York City Recruiting Battalion. "If this station doesn't do well, the whole battalion is short," she said.

That can be particularly tough on recruiters, who were selected for the job because they were top performers in other Army specialties.

"All these recruiters are professionals who excelled before they got here, and they want to continue to succeed," Anderson said. Keeping them motivated takes training, mentoring and coaching. "You have to build a team to keep them going," she said.

One of their biggest obstacles, Anderson and her fellow recruiters agree, is getting parents, church members, guidance counselors and other adults who influence a young person's decision to join the military to support the idea. Their biggest misgiving, she acknowledged, is that their loved one or friend will be sent off to war.

Anderson said she understands their concerns and explains to them that while joining the Army can indeed mean a young soldier will go into harm's way, it doesn't guarantee it. She checks troop deployment numbers regularly and shares the numbers with potential recruits, putting them into context of the total number of soldiers in the force.

"People think that as soon as you put on the uniform, you're going to Iraq," said Pierre. "When they ask, 'Am I going to war?' I tell them that it's a possibility, yes. You have to be straight on, because if you're not straight on, you send up a red flag."

"But the bottom line," Pierre said, "is that this is not the Boy Scouts or the Girl Scouts. It's the United States of America's Army. And our primary goal is to defend the country."

Anderson said the best approach for recruiters to reach their audience -- potential recruits and influencers alike -- is to be honest and upfront and share their personal Army experiences. "You have to sell yourself and tell your story," she said. "They can sense the genuine integrity in the person."

But while selling the Army, Anderson is quick to point out that military service is not for everyone. "It's a huge, life-altering decision" to join, she said, and one she encourages potential recruits not to take lightly.

While encouraging a thoughtful decision to enlist, recruiters are using a whole new approach to recruiting, she said. Army recruiters used to pitch tangible things like pay, bonuses, the Army College Fund and the opportunity to travel.

Anderson said this focus caused potential recruits to lose sight of why they were joining the Army and, in some cases, to get disillusioned by what they found. "But we don't do that anymore," she said.

Since last March, the focus has turned to selling Army values -- attributes like loyalty, duty, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage.

Anderson said that message is resonating with a lot of potential recruits. "The idea of values, traditions and service to country works," she said.

Lauren Sylvester, an 18-year-old soldier headed to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, to complete her advanced individual training, said that message convinced her to follow in her mother's footsteps and join the military.

"The way the world is right now, you can die at a party or go to a club and get killed," she said. "If I die for my country, there's a lot more honor and respect in dying for a cause."

Emily Ballesteros, a 19-year-old headed to Fort Jackson for basic training, said her friends were "shocked" at her decision to join the Army, but supported her nonetheless.

"I knew in the back of my mind that I could end up in Iraq, but there wasn't really a question of that affecting my decision to join," she said. "I've wanted to join the military for a long time, and I want to be able to serve my country."

Anderson said these are exactly the types of recruits today's Army needs.

"What we're getting kids to see is that soldiers aren't just ordinary people," she said. "They're extraordinary people."

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