Arizona Daily Star (Tucson)
October 12, 2008
By Carol Ann Alaimo, Arizona Daily Star
If Mama's not happy, nobody's happy.
That old Southern truism about family life is being embraced by the U.S. military in efforts to attract recruits.
The Army was the first to target parents with recruiting ads. Now the Navy is a following suit with a Web-based campaign aimed specifically at mothers — an idea so innovative experts predict it will one day be copied by other branches of the military.
About a dozen Tucson moms are in on the ground floor of the new Navy effort, navyformoms.com — a sort of MySpace for military matriarchs.
The site was launched in response to research that showed mothers were more likely to believe other mothers than recruiters, a Navy official said.
In Tucson and around the country, moms are linking up on the interactive site for information and moral support before and after their offspring enlist. They post photos, empathize, compare notes — and sometimes brag — about their sons and daughters.
East Side resident Melissa Murray said the site helped ease the angst of sending her son off to boot camp.
"I felt like I was giving him away to people I didn't even know. I dropped him off and cried all the way home," said Murray, 54.
"No matter how old they get, they're still your babies. Nobody understands that like another mom."
Her son, Matthew Murray, is a 2001 graduate of Sahuaro High School. The 26-year-old left Monday for his first wartime deployment — a six-month stint on a guided missile destroyer in the Persian Gulf.
Initially, Melissa Murray said, she wasn't keen on the the idea.
"Being of the Vietnam generation, I never wanted my son to join the military because I saw how badly those veterans were treated when they came home. I was one of those people who said I'd send my son to Canada before I'd turn him over to the military," she said.
Chatting online with other Navy moms helped put her anxieties in perspective, she said.
For example, she said, the mothers often talk online of increased maturity they've noticed in children who enlist. And the moms constantly remind one another that America's military is well-trained to cope with danger — though in today's wars, most sailors don't face anywhere near the risks that soldiers or Marines do.
Joyce Slabaugh, 50, of the Northwest Side, stumbled upon the new Navy Web site shortly after her son enlisted. Bryan Slabaugh, 19, a 2007 graduate of Flowing Wells High School, is in training to become a gunner's mate.
"All of a sudden I'm seeing these conversations between mothers whose children are in boot camp or getting ready to go to boot camp. And it was like, 'Oh my God, these are people I can connect with,' " Joyce Slabaugh said.
"Whenever I had questions, I could ask other moms instead of feeling like you're up against some huge bureaucracy."
Recently, she arranged a weekend gathering in Tucson for about a dozen moms from different states who had all met online through the Navy site.
Lee Buchschacher a spokesman for Navy recruiting headquarters in Tennessee, said NavyforMoms was launched in February in response to research that showed moms with questions about enlistment put more stock in advice they received from other moms than in what recruiters said.
Within a few months, Buchschacher said, demand exploded through word of mouth. More than 5,000 mothers are registered users, and thousands more people are unregistered users. The Navy has hired a public-relations firm to run the site and monitor postings so officials can act quickly to counter misinformation, he said.
The Navy plans to launch a national TV advertising campaign this week to promote the Web site.
Recruiting expert David Slotwinski, a former chief of staff for the Army Recruiting Command, said the Navy's new tack is ingenious and unrivaled among the services.
A major benefit, he said, is that it creates transparency in the recruiting process.
Any promises recruiters make, for example, instantly can be cross-checked with other Navy families, which should discourage what's known in recruiting circles as "overselling" — promising more than the military can deliver.
Harnessing the energies of military moms has enormous potential, said Slotwinski, a retired Army colonel with a leadership-consulting firm in Olympia, Wash.
"What the Navy has done here is, they've built a huge recruiting network in the hinterlands of America simply by using the connectivity of the Internet.
"Those 5,000 mothers are going to tell 5,000 others, and they will go out and tell 5,000 more, and pretty soon you've got 25,000 moms out there spreading the Navy message. The Navy can't buy that kind of advertising.
"It's a great idea, and I believe it will be copied," Slotwinski said. "If I was still the chief of Army Recruiting Command, I would be asking, 'When are we going to do something like this, and how can we make it even better?'
"Actually, I'm surprised the Navy beat the Army to the go on this," he added.
The importance of reaching out to parents is more crucial now than in peacetime, Slotwinski said. Parents tend to become more involved with enlistment decisions when their offspring face the prospect of going to war, he said.
Recruiting expert David Segal agrees.
"In the past, parents were not much of an obstacle," said Segal, a sociology professor and director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland, who has spent years studying military recruiting trends.
"Since the advent of the current wars, parents have been much more active in not letting recruiters through the front door or hanging up the phone when the recruiter calls," Segal said.
From a military standpoint, the NavyforMoms site is "a marvelous idea," he said.
That's true from a mom's standpoint, too, said Joan Brooks, 44, of Tucson's Northwest Side.
Her 19-year-old son, Bryan Siwick, a 2006 graduate of Flowing Wells High School, finished Navy boot camp in July and is training to become an air-and-sea rescuer.
"I have a lot of mixed feelings," Joan Brooks said of her son's decision to enlist in wartime. "It's one of those things that keeps you up at night sometimes."
To cope, she said she tries to focus on the positive — "the fact that I'm proud of him for serving his country" — and the kinship she has found with other Navy moms.
"I think the Web site is great," she said. "It's a support system that a lot of us need."