WASHINGTON — Pentagon officials say it's not a crisis, but it is a major concern — a battle here at home to win the hearts and minds of potential new recruits.
After more than three years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the all-volunteer military is facing its toughest test yet.
In April, the Army missed its recruiting goal for the third month in a row, short by nearly 2,800 recruits, or 42 percent off its target.
And for the first time in 10 years, the Marine Corps missed its recruiting goal for the last four months.
"Because the Army and Marines are too small and we're employing them in constant operations, our recruiting posture is now coming apart," says retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, an NBC News analyst.
Cash incentives increased
In a desperate attempt to recruit volunteers, the Army has increased cash incentives. Signing bonuses are up from $8,000 to $10,000. College scholarships have been raised from $50,000 to $70,000.
But it's an uphill battle. A decent economy is steering many potential volunteers into private sector jobs. And concerned parents who don't want their sons and daughters going to war are convincing them to not sign up.
In fact, new recruiting commercials are aimed not at recruits, but at their parents.
But the current problem with recruiting could have long-term ramifications on America's ability to take on other potential conflicts.
"This raises questions about whether the all-volunteer force can really cope with a long war," says military analyst Loren Thompson.
Appeal to 'sense of duty'
In an appeal to the nation's patriotism, the Army's vice chief of staff, Gen. Richard Cody, warns this issue is about far more than military service alone.
"This recruiting problem is not just an Army problems, this is America's problem," he said. "And what we have to really do is talk about service to this nation — and a sense of duty to this nation.")
Military officials remain cautiously optimistic that they will meet their recruiting goals by the end of the year, but until the war in Iraq eases, and large numbers of American troops start coming home, it will remain a tough sell.
More than 40 percent of the ground troops in Iraq have been from the Army's National Guard or Reserve — and Guard officials warn that by the end of this year they're going to run out of additional troops with the right skills to send to Iraq.
Recruiting alone is not going to fill that need so the regular Army, already stretched thin, is going to have to come up with the numbers.
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