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Army wants more from L.A.

Staff Sgt. Don Jung sized up the young immigrant shifting nervously before him in a busy office, tucked inside a shopping mall near the USC campus.

“If you join the Army, you can get your citizenship in one year,” Jung told the 24-year-old from Bangladesh. “You can continue your education while in the service too. The Army will pay for your college course. If you do that, what kind of job do you want to get?”

The man, who moved to Los Angeles with his family three years ago, stared back blankly. Jung pulled out a glossy pamphlet listing more than 150 Army jobs.

“How about financial management?” he asked. The man, who gave his name only as Rashid, did not look impressed. Jung changed tacks. “If you play guitar,” he said, “the U.S. Army Band is also a job. We have various jobs, not just combat jobs.”

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Until this month, Army recruiters working in Greater Los Angeles had missed their goals for enlisting new soldiers every quarter since nine months after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Jung, a 17-year veteran born in Korea, is one of the Army’s top recruiters here. In two years, he has signed up more than 30 soldiers, many of them immigrants like himself. But the Los Angeles Recruiting Battalion to which he belongs has met its annual recruiting goals only two times since 1997.

Major urban areas are tough for military recruiters; young people in rural parts of the country often have fewer opportunities and fewer impediments to service.

Los Angeles, with its many immigrants and poorly performing public schools, is especially challenging. Most people considering the Army, Jung said, don’t pass muster.

In a 12-month period ending in September, his battalion signed up 1,407 recruits, far short of its 2,245 target. Before shipping out to boot camp, 140 changed their minds.

Now the Army is asking civilian leaders to help open doors for its recruiters in a city where opposition to the war is widespread and the few qualified are more likely to consider the Marine Corps or the Navy, which both have a bigger presence in California.

At a recent lunch at Dodger Stadium hosted by former Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda, Army recruiters made their pitch to more than 100 civic and business leaders, educators and entertainment figures who they hope will join a grass-roots advisory board set to launch next month.

“This is the first time in our nation’s history that we are recruiting an all-volunteer force during a time of protracted conflict,” said Lt. Col. Miguel Howe, commander of the Army’s Southern California Recruiting Battalion. “It’s not just the soldiers’ responsibility to maintain this national treasure, but it’s both a national and a local responsibility as well.”

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The advisory board, one of six planned across the U.S., is the latest in a battery of efforts to drum up interest in military service. The Army offers cash bonuses of up to $40,000 and matches recruits with companies willing to guarantee them a job interview upon completion of service. In addition, some candidates who do not meet standards are cleared to serve through a waiver process.

Earlier this month, Department of Defense officials announced they would start enlisting some foreigners who lack green cards but have been in the country legally for at least two years. The one-year pilot is limited to 1,000 recruits across all branches and is aimed at helping the military address a critical shortage of medical personnel and foreign-language specialists.

If expanded, such a policy shift would greatly increase the pool of qualified recruits in Los Angeles. Jung said he regularly receives calls from foreigners here on student visas or temporary work permits who want to know if they can extend their stay by serving. Until now, only permanent residents qualified for service.

Hard economic times may provide another opening. Recruiters have noticed an increase in queries from people in their late 30s and early 40s. The Army has raised its maximum enlistment age to 42. The declining job market probably helped the Los Angeles battalion sign up 588 soldiers, six more than its target, in the most recent recruiting quarter, which ended in mid-December. A drop in casualties in Iraq and the reduction of combat tours from 15 to 12 months also encouraged candidates, who are likely to be sent to Iraq or Afghanistan, recruiters say.

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But the challenges remain daunting. The Army estimates that fewer than three in 10 Americans ages 17 to 24 -- the group targeted for recruitment -- meet its standards. Of those who qualify, one in 10 is interested in serving.

The demands placed on Army recruiters are not expected to decrease with a new administration in Washington.

Despite President-elect Barack Obama’s plans to reduce the number of troops in Iraq, the Army is increasing its commitment in Afghanistan and wants to give soldiers more time at home between deployments.

A year ago, Army leaders announced plans to meet their goal of adding 74,000 soldiers by 2010, two years faster than initially proposed. The additions will bring the number of active-duty soldiers to 547,000, up from 482,000 before the two wars.

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In the most recent recruiting year, because of strong numbers in the South and other less urban areas, the Army exceeded its national goal of enlisting 106,500 soldiers by 962.

But commanders say the job has gotten tougher with each passing year of the war in Iraq. A recent CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll found that 64% of Americans oppose the war. Last month, voters in the Northern California cities of Arcata and Eureka approved ballot measures barring military recruiters from initiating contact with anyone under 18.

Staff Sgt. Jose Gomez, who immigrated to West Covina from Mexico City when he was 13, said he expected to easily strike a rapport with the many Spanish speakers in Los Angeles. The recruiter was stunned by the hostility he felt from schools and media outlets catering to Latinos. Gomez said many people he encounters believe the Army is targeting poor Latinos and blacks over wealthier and better educated whites.

In 2008, the Army’s Los Angeles recruits ages 17 to 24 were 38.7% Hispanic, 33.3% white, 14.9% Asian, 12.5% black and 0.6% Native American, percentages that vary only slightly from the population at large.

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“Most people don’t want to listen,” Gomez said.

Finding qualified candidates is even harder, he said. On a recent afternoon, Los Angeles recruiters fielded inquiries from a diverse group ranging in age from 17 to over 40. They included men and women; immigrants and citizens of all races; students and professionals; and at least one former gang member.

But when the recruiters asked them to do a sample aptitude test, not one managed to score the minimum 31 of a possible 99 points. Rashid scored 11 because he is not fluent in English.

Recruits are required to have at least a high school-level education, but at least a third of the students in the Los Angeles Unified School District fail to graduate on time, according to figures published in July by the California Department of Education.

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The Army says it can help by providing recruits with mentoring, tuition assistance, vocational training and payment of student loans. It also offers a free Internet-based course that any student can use without obligation to improve scores on standardized tests.

But recruiters say they struggle for access to many Los Angeles high schools and colleges. Although schools that receive federal funding are required by law to provide Army recruiters the same level of access granted to other prospective employers, they can restrict visits to as few as one a semester.

“They are probably thinking I’m going in there to take their kids away from college,” said Lt. Col. Somport Jongwatana, commander of the Los Angeles Recruiting Battalion. But he said, “My job is to keep kids in school, to be qualified.”

Critics of military recruiting on high school campuses, including some faculty and parents, argue that the students are too young to deal with what can be an aggressive military sales pitch and should not be required at that age to make decisions that could cost them their lives.

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Janice Davis, director of high school programs for the Los Angeles Unified School District, acknowledged the resistance of some principals and teachers but said she thought recruiters were getting plenty of access.

“The military would probably like more access, but they do have just as much as college recruiters,” Davis said.

Other problems cited by recruiters include the level of obesity among young people and the number with criminal records, also grounds for disqualification.

Waivers were issued for more than 18% of the 1,546 Los Angeles recruits -- some of whom had enlisted earlier -- who left for boot camp in the most recent recruiting year, a slight increase over the previous year but in line with the national average.

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Eighteen were issued for drug and alcohol abuse, 138 for physical and mental problems and 142 for crimes and other misconduct, with some recruits getting multiple waivers. Commanders said all applicants had to demonstrate they had overcome the problems.

“I am not a rehab center,” said Col. Patrick Walsh, who commands the 6th Recruiting Brigade, which includes the Los Angeles and Southern California battalions. “I’m not bringing someone in here to get their life right.”

It remains to be seen whether local community leaders will help attract more and better qualified recruits. A pilot advisory board set up in Dallas last year introduced the Army to district supervisors who could open up schools to recruiters and sent overweight applicants to train with the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders. Similar boards are planned in Philadelphia, Miami, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

Ted Lieu, a Democratic state Assembly member from Torrance, who has agreed to help run the Los Angeles board, said he has asked the Army for a list of the least cooperative schools in the area. An Air Force reservist, he would like to see more people setting aside politics to support the Army -- or at least listen to what it has to offer.

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“We can’t keep relying on the military to fill an all-volunteer Army,” he said.

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alexandra.zavis @latimes.com


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