To replenish the ranks of the nation’s military, armed services recruiters in Ventura County are working harder to sell parents of potential enlistees on the merits of a life in uniform.
That’s partly because parents are refusing in growing numbers to let their 17-year-old children sign up now to enter the service after high school graduation.
“The parents are the ones who are objecting and don’t want their kids to go through another Vietnam,” said Army Sgt. 1st Class Stan Basurto, who runs the Ventura recruitment office. “We go out and talk to them, but not too many will let us in the yard.”
For recruiters, whose motto is “Provide the strength,” drumming up candidates for basic training in the coming year has become a test of salesmanship since U.S. forces landed in Saudi Arabia to confront Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Nationwide, the Army fell 20% short of its recruiting goal over the last three months, despite an increase in bonuses for infantry and tank personnel from $4,000 to $6,000 in early November.
The Navy came up 9% shy of its enlistment target for September and October, even with a looming recession, during which enlistment applications traditionally increase as employment options dwindle.
Several recruiters contacted at storefront centers in Oxnard, Simi Valley, Thousand Oaks and Ventura said they recently have been meeting their “missions” despite a wariness among some potential recruits. Missions are monthly quotas set by recruiting headquarters to maintain the standing volunteer military authorized by Congress.
“Almost everyone who comes in here asks about Desert Shield,” said Staff Sgt. William Smith, an Air Force recruiter in Simi Valley who has met his mission of two recruits in each of the last four months.
But others acknowledged difficulty in landing recruits who are weighing the military’s educational and career opportunities against an imminent call to arms.
“We haven’t experienced the burst of patriotism like they might in the Midwest,” said Marine Sgt. Bret Smith, who works in an Oxnard office. “There’s no line in front of our door.”
In terms of compensation, none of the military’s four branches offers more than the others. All four provide a $697.20 monthly basic training salary, room and board, free dental and medical, $50,000 life insurance for $4 per month, and educational and mortgage assistance benefits.
And recruiters continue to draw the same type of applicants that they have in the past, said Postal Clerk 1st Class Bill Dorsey, a Navy recruiter in Ventura.
“They’re kids who want to get away from their parents, can’t afford college, are looking for training and job experience or want to travel,” he said.
Michael Guastella, 19, of Fillmore spoke with Dorsey last week about Navy training in meteorology. Guastella, a Ventura Community College student, said he was contacted by an Army recruiter in August and is now checking other branches.
As for the Middle East crisis, Guastella said, “I’m not all that sure something is going to happen. People are starting to talk more rationally and I think the deadline will help,” he said, referring to the United Nations’ Jan. 15 deadline for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait.
In an Army recruitment office next door, Russ Merrick, 18, had just completed an entrance exam that he said he decided to take three weeks ago because his parents were harping about his working 28 hours a week as a gas station attendant.
“I don’t think about dying. I’ll keep it in the back of my mind,” said Merrick, a Buena High School graduate who attended Oxnard College over the summer.
Sgt. 1st Class Dave Eisenbarth, an Army recruiter in Simi Valley, said he has taken to courting potential recruits at shopping malls rather than relying on cold calls from his office, a standard exercise for military recruiters.
Eisenbarth has also been scheduling initial interviews with high school seniors--the largest pool for recruits--in their homes rather than his office to meet simultaneously with parents. Many parents who would have given in to their children’s ambitions to enlist before August are exercising veto power and refusing to sign consent forms for their juvenile offspring, he said.
Smith likewise has taken to selling parents, although some insist on waiting for an outcome in the Persian Gulf crisis before honoring their children’s wishes.
“Once you sit down with them, you can explain that little Johnny is only a senior in high school, he’s not going to get out until June, not going to go to recruit training until September, and wouldn’t be going into active duty until at least March of 1992,” Smith said.
The earliest any new recruit could be deployed for combat duty would be five months, given minimum basic and skills training, said Smith, adding that the time lag quells the reticence of most serious candidates.
The one sales pitch that recruiters said they are not employing is “Beat the draft.” If questioned about mandatory conscription, recruiters said they simply respond that, if the draft is reinstituted, inductees would have no choice in their assignments.
“The biggest question we hear is ‘Are we going to war?’ ” Smith said. “I just tell them, we’ll see on Jan. 15.”