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Rich economy leads to poor recruiting Youth choosing big salaries over military service

STATESBORO, Ga. -- The essence of the military's recruiting problem is penciled in small, neat letters in Army Sgt. Matt Wickham's black book of prospects.

''N.I.'' ''Plan Col.'' That's shorthand for ''not interested'' and ''plans college.''

He could add another: ''$.'' When asked why the Army faces its biggest recruiting shortfall in 20 years or why the Air Force may miss its goal for the first time since 1979, the Pentagon has a standard reply: ''It's the economy.''

Unemployment was at a 29-year low of 4.2% in May. Usually, what's good for the economy is bad for the military. The Army expects to miss its annual recruiting goal by 8% -- the biggest shortfall since 1979. The Air Force also will have its worst recruiting year in 20 years, ending 10% shy of its goal. Only the Marine Corps -- whose elite, gung-ho image has always attracted more than enough recruits -- and the Navy will fill all slots. Last year, the Navy missed its goal by 12%, but it has rebounded because of an aggressive recruiting drive that includes slick new TV ads directed by filmmaker Spike Lee.

Pentagon surveys and interviews with recruiters and young people here reveal a fundamental attitude shift about joining the military. It's a change that a 4.8% military pay raise or even a recession might not alter. Something has seeped into the fabric of small Southern towns like this one, where neighbors in uniform were once as ubiquitous as barbecue and boiled peanuts.

Careers, not country, are what count most to the generation that came of age after the Cold War. Even the NATO campaign against Yugoslavia hasn't sparked a rally to join. Since the Kosovo crisis began, ''We haven't seen an increase in activity, which may show that people have less patriotism than they have had in the past,'' says Stan Squillace of the Army's Southeast recruiting office.

Raised on TV and video games, young people also are more out of shape. Few clamor for the rigors of boot camp or a job where starting pay for a private is $887.70 a month. They'd rather go to college or jump into the hot job market.

In a Pentagon survey of 10,000 16- to 21-year-olds, 26% of young men said they'd consider a military career, down from 34% in 1991 after the Gulf War. Only 13% of young men and 9% of women said duty to country was a reason to enlist. More than half cited money for college and job training.

At a time when companies such as UPS and McDonald's offer tuition, the Army's ''Be all that you can be'' slogan doesn't resonate with youth who want all that they can get. Two-thirds go directly to college after high school, an all-time high. ''I thought college would be a better choice,'' says J.T. Myers, 19, a sophomore at Georgia Southern University here.

Like many others, when he thinks of the military, he thinks ''loss of freedom.'' Not everyone agrees. J.C. Kirkland, 18, planned to join the infantry after graduating June 9 from Statesboro High School. ''Not many of my friends would do it,'' he says. ''They don't want to make the commitment. They don't like the authority over them, any kind of discipline. I'm very unusual.''

Brian Dart, 20, is more typical. ''People don't see (the military) as serving your country,'' says the Georgia Southern student. ''They see it as a job (that) can't compete.''

Robbie Cowart, 20, is studying machine tooling at Ogeechee Technical Institute here. His father is a retired Army master sergeant. ''He made $35,000 after 20 years,'' Cowart says. ''I'll make that next year'' at a private company.

A Pentagon panel headed by former senator Nancy Kassebaum Baker in 1997 urged the services to de-emphasize cash bonuses, money for college and skills training and play up patriotism and personal challenge. While the Army has adjusted its advertising away from monetary rewards, the services also have increased their college tuition programs from $40,000 to $50,000.

Young people ''say, 'What can you offer me that somebody else can't?' '' says Maj. Gen. Evan Gaddis, commander of Army recruiting. It's a question recruiters never used to hear in the South, where a military base is rarely farther than a few hours' drive. Southerners boast a rich military tradition, and Army statistics show that young men here are three times more likely to consider military service than those in the Northeast and twice as likely as youth in the Midwest and West. Which is why the apathy in this town is so striking.

Wickham recently asked a convenience store manager if he could display an Army recruiting sign in her window. She refused. As he walked out, he noted posters for Marlboro cigarettes and Bibles. ''Why not the Army?'' he says. ''If we can advertise for the Lord, why not the government?'' Later, he leaves cards at the homes of high school seniors. Wickham has gone through 7,000 cards in two years. ''I've never gotten a call back on a business card -- not from the qualified ones,'' he says. ''I guess they see 'U.S. Army' and think, 'Oh, stay away.'

The perception is we roll in the mud all the time and shoot each other and go to war all the time. It's just not like that.'' Recruiters tout a high-tech force that uses brains, not just brawn, to win battles. But it's a tough sell to young people who have seen TV footage of soldiers struggling in the mud in Albania.

''We have an image issue,'' Gaddis concedes. ''The youth today still see the Army as three years of basic training with a sergeant yelling in your face.'' ''People are afraid that by joining the Army all they're going to be doing is deploying here and deploying there,'' says Capt. Nestor Colls-Senaha, who oversees six recruiting stations in Georgia and South Carolina.

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