November 2, 2007 Some creative methods devised to achieve quotas
By Dane Schiller, Houston Chronicle
Passing out gimme caps, pounding sweltering Wal-Mart parking lots, even stuffing business cards into the pockets of new jeans still on the racks at stores, there is no doubt military recruiters get creative to carry out one of the national defense's most challenging missions: finding new enlistees.
"You had to do what you had to do," recalled Paul Johnson, who said that for three years he was a Navy recruiter in Alvin. "Did it result in stuff? I got a couple of calls."
As the Army announced Wednesday that it began the recruiting year Oct. 1 with a record low number of pledges, the Marine Corps acknowledged it punished nine Houston-area recruiters who used fraudulent stand-ins to take a military entrance exam for potential recruits who might not otherwise make the grade.
Of the 510,000 people who took the crucial test — the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude and Battery — 265,000 reported for basic training to enter the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines or Coast Guard during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, according to the federal government.
That is to say recruiters got more than half a million people to take the three-hour written test, but nearly half of them remained civilians for reasons ranging from a lack of interest to medical problems, insufficient test scores, drug use or criminal records.
Even previously smoking one marijuana cigarette can mean a prospective recruit needs a special waiver for enlistment.
"When you have a population that only about three out of 10 qualify to enlist, that is tough, that is just tough," said Department of Defense spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Withington.
"We are going after the high performer, the same high performer, the best and brightest any employer or college would go after," he said. "It is a tough recruiting environment without question."
Making it even more difficult is the ongoing fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, Withington and other officials said. War overseas a factor
From parents to teachers to coaches, with war raging, people seem less likely to recommend young adults consider enlisting.
"The war is a factor," he said. "There is a very strong economy, there is low unemployment, so the youth today have many opportunities."
Johnson said that as a recruiter he had to put in as many as 15 hours a day to find a minimum of 18 recruits a year who would enter the military and make it through basic training. Not doing so, he said, could result in disciplinary action that had as much impact on a career as failing to perform at other military duties.
"Whether a kid scores a 32 on the (entrance exam) or a 98, you still have to have a warm body you are putting in the military," he said.
To reach recruiting goals the services deploy small armies of recruiters that fan out over the nation.
On any given day, the Army has about 6,439 recruiters; the Marine Corps, 2,783; the Navy, 3,501; and the Air Force, 1,312, according to the Department of Defense. Highly demanding job
Gunnery Sgt. Pauline Franklin, a spokeswoman for the Marine Corps Recruiting Command headquarters, said it takes certain skills to be a solid recruiter and it is not for everyone.
"Marines view their monthly goals as missions," she said. "I will tell you straight out, Marines don't like to fail at anything."
The Houston recruiting scandal, which was made public Wednesday, was unraveled last April, when officials at Houston's Military Entrance Processing Station, known as MEPS, noticed the signature on a recruit's test form did not match the signature on other recruiting documents.
An investigation resulted in the Marine Corps punishing nine recruiters, including discharging one.
Eight were given military discipline and allowed to stay in the Corps, but taken off recruitment duties.
Officials have said they don't know how many recruits may have fraudulently enlisted in the Houston area or when the scam began, but at least 15 cases were confirmed by military investigators.
Donald Hill, the national chief of testing for MEPS, said cheating has gone on periodically for years, but that it is not widespread.
"At various times, every service has had it come up and dealt with it," he said. "I can't say it happens with one service more than another." Various scams emerge
Military officials declined to release statistics on fraudulent testing and enlistment, including the use of so-called test-taking "ringers."
Hill said among the scams pulled over the years are twins taking the test, with the smarter twin sitting in for the slower one, and recruiters even having a test taker leave the testing room for a bathroom break, only to be replaced by a fraudulent test taker who is wearing similar clothes and has a similar haircut.
"The pressures of recruiting sometimes get folks to do things they shouldn't," Hill said. "I would not condone it, but things have been done to get the numbers so to speak," he continued. "People do things they should not and then come to regret it later."
Johnson said he never crossed any such lines, but can now grin when he looks back at his time in the military, which wrapped up in 2000.
"I got kicked out of Walgreens," he said, "put my business cards in all the Mother's Day cards."