Recruiting Soldiers During Wartime Difficult

The New York Times has done an investigation and found that, shockingly, Army recruiters are having a rough time of it.

For Army Recruiters, a Hard Toll From a Hard Sell

The Army’s recruiters are being challenged with one of the hardest selling jobs the military has asked of them in American history, and many say the demands are taking a toll. A recruiter in New York said pressure from the Army to meet his recruiting goals during a time of war has given him stomach problems and searing back pain. Suffering from bouts of depression, he said he has considered suicide. Another, in Texas, said he had volunteered many times to go to Iraq rather than face ridicule, rejection and the Army’s wrath.

An Army chaplain said he had counseled nearly a dozen recruiters in the past 18 months to help them cope with marital troubles and job-related stress. “There were a couple of recruiters that felt they were having nervous breakdowns, literally,” said Maj. Stephen Nagler, a chaplain who retired in March after serving at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, where the New York City recruiting battalion is based.

Two dozen recruiters nationwide were interviewed about their experiences over four months. Ten spoke with The New York Times even after an Army official sent an e-mail message advising all recruiters not to speak to this reporter, who was named. Most asked for anonymity to avoid being disciplined. A handful who spoke said they were satisfied with their jobs. They said they took pride in seeing awkward, unfocused teenagers transform into confident soldiers and relished an opportunity to contribute to the Army effort. But most told similar tales: of loving the military, of working hard to complete a seemingly impossible task, of struggling to carry the nation’s burden at a time of anxiety and stress.

The careers and self-esteem of recruiters rise and fall on their ability to fulfill a mission, said current and former Army officials and military experts who were also interviewed. Recruiters said falling short often generates a barrage of angry correspondence, formal reprimands, threats or even demotion. “The recruiter is stuck in the situation where you’re not going to make mission, it just won’t happen,” the New York recruiter said. “And you’re getting chewed out every day for it. It’s horrible.” He said the assignment was more strenuous than the time he was shot at while deployed in Africa.

At least 37 members of the Army Recruiting Command, which oversees enlistment, have gone AWOL since October 2002, Army figures show. And, in what recruiters consider another sign of stress, the number of improprieties committed – signing up unqualified people to meet quotas or giving bonuses or other enlistment benefits to recruits not eligible for them – has increased, Army documents show. “They don’t necessarily have real bullets flying at them,” said Major Nagler. “But there are different kind of bullets they need to contend with – the bullets of not producing numbers, of having a station commander shoot them down.”

One suspects George Patton would slap these guys silly with a glove. We’ve got soldiers in Iraq getting killed by terrorists with IEDs and these guys are having ulcers and going AWOL because they’re getting strongly worded memos?!

There’s no doubt the recruiter’s job is hard, let alone during wartime. Making the transition from soldier to salesman is not easy. And, surely, the leadership should realize this and desist sending threatening letters to recruiters not meeting their arbitrary quotas when it’s an across-the-board problem. But, geez.

Update (1417): Jack Army makes some good points in the comments below and at his own blog.

Cori Dauber wonders the extent to which the anecdotes in the NYT piece translate into data, a point that had occured to me as well.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Just Me says:

    I actually think you hit the nail on the head when you said “transition from soldier to salesman is not easy.”

    There are some soldiers who are great soldiers and great leaders of men, but are crappy salesmen. I know I am entirely too introverted to be a good salesman, and I would take rejection too much too heart.

    I wonder if part of the problem is that some of the soldiers who are going into recruiting may not have been right for the position to begin with. Combine that with the admittedly tough sell during war time, and you probably do have stress in the making. Granted I think their whining about how tough it is, when there are soldiers in combat is nothing more than rediculous.

  2. ken says:

    The whining and going awol to escape from a job that is untolerable is something I can understand and forgive. We’ve all had bosses from hell and, as long was we are in the private sector, we remain free to do something about it. In the military the options are pretty limited so whatever they do seems, if not totally excusable, at least understandable.

    What is absolutely unforgivable however is the use of lies and deceit by recruiters in order to meet their quota. We cannot tolerate a government agent using falsehood to entice a trusting person into a contract that amounts to indentured servatude with no escape clause. From reading the article we see that this is pretty much common practice now. This practice is totally dispicable and must stop. And anyone who claims they were lied to by the recruiter should get an automatic honorable discharge upon request.

  3. Jim Jinkins says:

    This is just another attempt by the Main Stream Media to make up a controversy.

    Military recruiters, like all salesmen, are volunteers. A civilian salesman who can’t make quota has to find another way to make a living. A military recruiter who can’t make quota is assigned to another unit.

    While, I feel sympathy for the military recruiter in a tough, stressful job, I see no reason to feel outrage on his behalf.

  4. Kappiy says:

    Jim Jinkins obviously didn’t read the article. Seventy percent of recruiters DID NOT volunteer for that job. They were assigned to be recruiters by their superiors.

    What is clear here is that the Army is still operating under an antiquated system of recruitment and obviously lacks the creative thinking needed to reform their mechanisms for recruitment.

    A workable solution would be three-fold and would be modeled on successful salesmanship from the private sector:

    1) Give monetary incentives based on meeting particular figures. The article states that recruiters get a measley $30,000 per year. Have them work solely on commisssion where–depending on the quantity and quality of the recruits–you can make serious cash being a good salesman (upwards of $100,000 for the top performers)

    2) Only accept soldiers who volunteer for the position into the recruiting detail. If you have decent incentives there will be more legitimate interest.

    3) Allow non-military, independent sales reps get into the recruiting game. The competition will make sure everyone is on their toes. Forget the bad memos. If you don’t perform, you’re fired.

  5. Jack Army says:

    Having served as an Army recruiter, I feel I have unique qualifications to comment here. So let me address some of your comments.

    1) Army recruiting is breaking away from the “recruiter=salesman” mold. It doesn’t work for two reasons: the youth today do not respond to salesmen and Army sergeants aren’t trained to be salesmen. The new doctrine emphasizes the sergeant’s strength as a leader: training and experience as a counselor, mentor, coach.

    2) It is not excusable to run from one’s obligations. There are no tricks in the enlistment contract. Recruiters, for the most part, do not lie to get someone to enlist. Sure there are those few, but they usually are not successful and the new Soldiers don’t enlist because of the lie, they enlist despite the lie. Remember, the youth today don’t respond to salesmen. Also, assuming that the number of improprieties increasing equals “common practice” is poor logic. The article doesn’t state whether that increase is from 0.4% to 1.0% or if it from 50% to 60%. Very different, the former being more likely and far from common practice.

    3) Not volunteering for recruiting duty does not mean you are not a volunteer. All recruiters are NCO’s (Non-Commissioned Officers) and must meet retention requirements to be assigned to recruiting duty. This means that most either reenlisted or extended. In other words, they volunteered to stay in the Army longer and accepted the assignment.

    4) We are Soldiers not salesmen. I believe that monetary incentives for recruiters will lead more towards improprieties. Besides, recruiters find people to join the Army because they believe in the Army and it’s mission. Second, not enough Soldiers volunteer for recruiting duty so it is necessary to assign some to the duty.

    5) The Army cannot be in the business of letting Soldiers decide what missions they will or won’t do.

    6) There are several recruiting companies that are civilian contracted recruiters, with mixed results from what I hear.

    I don’t mean to come off as confrontational, but there are many, many issues involved in recruiting and the Army, specifically Recruiting Command, is not some juggernaut unable or unwilling to change.

  6. Kappiy says:

    Jack gives interesting perspective, but it is essentially a description of the rationale for current practices. It would be interesting to hear your perspectives on how to improve the system.

    Take a look at some of Jack’s points: “Army recruiting is breaking away from the “recruiter=salesman” mold.” Exactly. And it is also having trouble recruiting. The whole patriotic line might have worked in the months following 9-11, but is it still a viable sales strategy? If not, why not? The “story” recruiters tell about their product needs rethinking. Any good salesman is constantly aware of the appeal of his/her hook and honing it to maximize its effectiveness.

    Another of Jack’s points: “We are Soldiers not salesmen. I believe that monetary incentives for recruiters will lead more towards improprieties.” There is nothing to say that a soldiers can’t be a salesman simultaneously. In fact, the same logic is used in other parts of the service–namely, psy-ops. Why shouldnt it be used in recruitment?

    Jack’s insight: “The Army cannot be in the business of letting Soldiers decide what missions they will or won’t do.” Can’t soldiers currently request certain details? If you make the recruiting detail appealing with monetary incentives, you’ll get good talent that will help the organization. That’s how it works in private business. There’s no reason why it won’t work in this setting.

    Jack: “There are several recruiting companies that are civilian contracted recruiters, with mixed results from what I hear.” Great! So the private sector, in some cases, is doing a good job. Analyze what they’re doing right and improve on it.

    I recognize that it is pretty hard for the military to adopt an entrepreneurial ethic–in fact the military acts entirely the opposite, demanding stifiling conformity–but, at least in the case of recruiting, they might be better served by adopting creative thinking and modern practices.

  7. SFC SKI says:

    The NYT will always slant towards the cloud rather than the silver lining as well. Misinformed or ill-informed, this article generates a lot of heat without light, as usual whenever military matters are written about in the NYT.
    Recruiting Command is made up of a lot of people who are not recruiters, so unless the reporter has specifics, this is just more clouding the issue.
    Considering how few people have actually served in the military, it’s a safe bet very few journalists or their readers have ever talked with recruiters. A good recruiter is going to lay out the options the Army offers, and also get the potential recruit to look at his/her own future with or without military service.

  8. Dave says:

    I had a buddy who was a Marine recruiter in the early 90’s. It was after Gulf War I, so there was certainly a reality of going to war, but the Marines were also downsizing. I don’t think any of this had an effect on the job. All my buddy has to do was enlist two people per month to make mission, but that takes 70-80 per week, which doesn’t include time on the clock for PT or chow that any other Marine would have gotten. It was a difficult and stressful job without a war, and you get shitcanned from the Marines if you fail. The Marine Corps selects its best Marines for drill instructor and recruiting duty — Marines who will have an opportunity to do their 20 and retire. So I understand the extra stress of recruiting duty. Fail at recruiting duty and there goes your career.

  9. dorkafork says:

    Financial incentives aren’t likely to help. The recruiters already have a certain motivation to meet their quotas, which would be avoiding working 10 to 14 hour days every day, being chewed out constantly, etc. And commissions quite obviously would increase the incentive for the improprieties mentioned in the article.

    One problem is that the numbers they’re trying to reach are do or die. It’s my understanding that there is a minimum manpower level (mandated by Congress) each service much reach every fiscal year, and if they don’t get that minimum, their budget gets a big cut. So that’s one reason the leadership comes down hard on the recruiters.

    As far as making a recruiting assignment less taxing, I doubt there are any easy solutions. Increasing the number of recruiters or outsourcing recruitment to civilian companies might help but would also have their own drawbacks. And in the end, you might just have recruiters out there trying to recruit people that won’t join in any case.

  10. joe f. says:

    I think your remark about Patton is an exercise in wishful thinking and therefore shows no intellectual rigor whatsoever.

    First it’s stupid to speculate on what opinions dead people might hold about events that happened after their death. Second, if you do, and in your mind the dead guy says exactly what you’d like to say, then you’re performing ego masturbation by convincing yourself ol’ George would think just like you do, hence you’re a George-equivalent among lesser mortals.

    Personally I have a hard time believing that Patton would be too tough on guys who hate salesman duty and the scorn of comfortably seated higher-ups, and are willing to shoulder a weapon to get away from it. Whaddayathink? Possible?

    I’ve never been a recuriter (probably not considered high-speed enough), but I have worked with former recuriters, had friends go to recruiting and come back, and gone to school with recruiters. More importantly, I sat on promotion boards during which I looked at thousands of records, most of them the records of recuiters. It’s brutal, and the difference between the records of recruiters and the rest of the Army is stark. The term you heard day in and day out was Zero to Hero — guys who were stellar in their MOS, got picked for recruiting because of it, and then proceeded to have their careers go right in the toilet because they weren’t good recruiters.

    Everything revolves around one thing: making mission. You can be an inspirational leader, a fit soldier, a wonderful trainer and physically courageous to a fault. You could save a busload of infants and puppies from a horrible fiery death and lose a limb in the effort, but if you ain’t putting boots on the ground, you’re useless.

    And that, apparently, is the attitude it takes to keep the Army manned. It’s a hell of a paradox, because that kind of salesmanship is no duty for soldiers to have to pull, and the kind of pressure they face is considered poor leadership elsewhere in the Army. At the same time nobody else can do it and nobody seems to know how to do it any better.

    The article in question is a valid piece of the whole situation. Jack Army also makes some good points, though I think he’s a bit too quick to say that reenlisting equals volunteering for anything the Army might throw at you, particularly recruiting duty. It’s true, but it smacks of those suck-it-up-and-drive-on responses that work in the field and that poor leaders transfer to every problem they face. Those kinds of answers won’t get anybody any closer to a solution.