Big Cities Challenge Service Recruiters
By Master Sgt. Stephen Barrett, USA
American Forces Press Service
PHILADELPHIA, Aug. 27, 1996 Army Staff Sgt. Veronica Kelly is a Persian Gulf War veteran. As a tracked vehicle mechanic, her expertise helped armored units blaze through the desert to defeat Saddam Hussein.
Today, Kelly is blazing her way through another tough area of the world -- the city streets of North Philadelphia. Here, she doesn't have an Abrams tank or Bradley fighting vehicle to repair for battle. Instead, she sifts through applicants for recruits with the right stuff to serve in the Army.
For Kelly and her DoD counterparts, recruiting here -- and in other big cities -- involves personal sacrifice, a bit of danger and a lot of persistence. Often, recruiters do not reach mission requirements despite a large pool of potential recruits.
Overall, the department is meeting recruiting goals. Recent figures show DoD is well on its way to meeting its fiscal 1996 recruiting goal of nearly 200,000 new service members.
However, recruiters face an audience less willing to serve in the military than in the past. According to DoD's recent Youth Attitude Tracking Study, potential recruits -- influenced by parents and high school guidance counselors -- make their plans toward college in an attempt to land the best job possible after graduation. Many of these prospects see the military as a dangerous job that will only delay their career plans.
Most recruiters here agree with the study's findings, but they say there is much more involved in getting a big city recruit into uniform. "It's funny," said Army Sgt. 1st Class Zeebedee Spruill. "A lot of these guys who walk the streets and give this tough-guy impression are actually afraid of the unknown. They don't want to leave the neighborhood."
Kelly said city prospects are comfortable with their friends out on the street and don't want to test the waters outside the city. "They play a con game with you and say they'll stop by the office," she said.
The attitude is common throughout the city. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Saul Lowery gets the same impression at his Broad Street Recruiting Office. He said family still has a major influence toward a kid and a military career.
"We see how parents affect a kid's decision toward joining the military -- we've seen it for years," said Lowery. "But here, in a city that finds a lot of independent kids on the street, you find that when it comes to leaving town, they won't do a thing unless their parents agree."
The art of recruiting these young men and women here is no different from other areas of the country. Recruiters hit the shopping malls and plazas, attend festivals and parades, construct displays, show videos and answer initial questions about serving in the armed forces. They also visit schools, coordinating with guidance counselors before meeting potential candidates.
Unlike other recruiting stations, however, most recruiters in Philadelphia say they must take to the streets. "We recruit in a poverty-level area, and people move all the time," said Sgt. 1st Class Reuben Perez, the North Philadelphia station commander. "You find people without phones because they can't afford to keep one. Phone numbers change constantly. You have to go out and knock on doors."
Walking the streets and visiting housing projects may be daunting at first, but most recruiters get used to doing it. "You go out in pairs and you see these boarded up windows, street gangs hanging out on the corners and alleys and homes filled with dirt and garbage," said Staff Sgt. Ervin Kelly, who also recruits Army prospects in North Philadelphia. "It's not a pretty sight, and you wonder what you're getting yourself into."
However, Kelly, originally from Jackson, Miss., now enjoys hitting the streets and being a visible part of his community. "I meet prospects and their parents in those neighborhoods. They know I'm trying to recruit someone, and they respect me for trying to do my job," she said.
Lowery said the Navy also goes into the neighborhoods, although he limits his neighborhood ventures to certain areas. "You want to talk to people in public areas with some sort of security," he said. "Often I meet with kids at recreation centers. There are cases when a grocer will give me a referral and I'll speak with a prospect right there in the store."
Not all recruiters hit the streets. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Baron Young said the Air Force presence in Philadelphia isn't as large as the Army's and Navy's.
Young said technology is the Air Force's biggest selling point in the city. "A lot of people here want to work 'high-tech' but can't afford the tuition to go to high-tech schools," he said. "You tell people to remember the CNN coverage of the Gulf War and then ask them what they saw. Chances are they remember the U.S. technology that helped win the war."
Still, Young said he could use help -- hinting he would like to see some airmen from McGuire Air Force Base, N.J., come to Philadelphia. "It would increase the Air Force presence here and give prospects a chance to talk to other airmen about life in the Air Force." He said it would help recruiting in the city and help community relations for the base, located 50 miles from the city.
While all the services market technology, benefits, education and travel, recruiters face a reality of modern inner-city life. "For some kids in this city, college is just not a viable option," said Lowery. "There's either no money to go to college or the person's not educated enough to attend." Some of those young people get into trouble. Lowery said recruiters find up to 90 percent of their applicants can't enlist because they have criminal records. The charges range from minor to felonies -- "drugs, assault, grand theft," said Lowery.
Lowery said in most cases, the services have a no-tolerance policy when it comes to criminal records -- if you have one, the interview's over.
It's hard to find high-quality recruits, and that makes every one who joins all the more satisfying. Lowery recalled a woman he enlisted a few years ago.
"She had nothing but a child and was in need of help when she came to the Navy," he said. "We looked and found something she was interested in, then enlisted her." That woman, now a petty officer third class, has become a friend of Lowery's and often visits when their paths cross.
"That's the satisfaction you get -- when you get feedback from the ones you enlist, calling you to thank you for opening their eyes and starting their lives," he said. "All of us have success stories, and it's those stories that keep us doing what we do."