WASHINGTON - Staff Sgt. Richard Guzman is on the front lines of one of the U.S. Army's toughest battles in years, and he's not in Iraq.
He's an Army recruiter trying to coax young men and women into volunteering to serve at a time when U.S. ground forces are engaged in a bloody guerrilla war halfway around the world.
"To me, recruiting used to be easy. Right now, you really have to hunt for those ones who really want to do it (Army service)," said Guzman, who recruits in New York City's Harlem section.
Nearly two years into an Iraq war that has left more than 1,500 U.S. troops dead and another 11,200 wounded, recruiters like Guzman are having to work hard as the Army strives to sign up 80,000 recruits this year to replace soldiers leaving the service.
The Army in February, for the first time in nearly five years, failed to achieve its monthly recruiting goal. It is in danger of missing its annual recruiting target for the first time since 1999.
Recruiting for the Army's reserve component -- the National Guard and Army Reserve -- is suffering even more as the Pentagon relies heavily on these part-time soldiers to maintain troop levels in Iraq. The regular Army is 6 percent behind its year-to-date recruiting target, the Reserve is 10 percent behind, and the Guard is 26 percent short.
The Marine Corps, the other service providing ground forces in Iraq, has its own difficulties.
In January and February, the Marines missed their goal for signing up new recruits -- the first such shortfall in nearly a decade -- but remained a bit ahead of their target for shipping recruits into boot camp.
Iraq marks the first protracted conflict for U.S. forces since the end of the draft in 1973, which ushered in the era of the all-volunteer military.
If the military fails to attract enough recruits and America maintains a large commitment in Iraq, the nation may have to consider some form of conscription, said Cato Institute defense analyst Charles Pena. "This is getting dicey," said Pena.
PARENTS, AUNTS AND UNCLES
Lt. Col. John Gillette, who commands the Army recruiting battalion in New York City, said young people and their families are asking questions about the war.
"Instead of just talking specifically to the applicant, we're talking to the applicant's parents, and, in some cases, extended family -- aunts, uncles -- just to answer their questions and concerns as well," Gillette said.
Guzman said he reassures families that a recruit will get the normal nine weeks of basic training and further individual training and not just be shoved in a uniform and sent into combat. "They think that after two weeks in basic training, they will be deployed overseas," Guzman said.
Army Recruiting Command spokesman Douglas Smith said recruiters do everything they can to allay the apprehension of recruits and families. "But there are certain things that we just can't talk our way through or give a hard answer to, like, 'Will I be deployed?' That's just not something a recruiter can predict."
The improving economy and civilian job opportunities also are factors in recruiting, Smith said.
Army Secretary Francis Harvey said the active-duty and reserve components have added 3,000 recruiters since last year and increased enlistment bonuses to try to lure new soldiers.
"So we've got a challenge, but we're certainly not going to give up," Harvey told a congressional panel.
Defense analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute said there has been a migration of recruits away from the ground forces toward services less likely to be in harm's way in Iraq -- the Navy and Air Force.
"There's a bottom line to the recruiting debate. People don't want to die," Thompson said.
The problem is even more dire than it appears because the Army, through "stop-loss" orders, has forced thousands of soldiers designated for duty in Iraq and Afghanistan to remain in uniform when their volunteer service commitment ends, thus keeping recruiting needs artificially low, Pena said.
Some of these soldiers may remain in the Army involuntarily for up to 18 months beyond when they were scheduled to leave.
"The military can hold things together on a relatively short-term basis through some fairly extreme measures like 'stop-loss' and making much greater use of Reserve and Guard units to fill the requirements in Iraq," Pena said.
"But you cannot do this indefinitely. At some point, you break the force. And the question is: how close are we to that breaking point?"
© Copyright 2005 Reuters Ltd