Army Recruiters Say They Feel Pressure to Bend Rules
It was late September when the 21-year-old man, fresh from a three-week commitment in a psychiatric ward, showed up at an Army recruiting station in southern Ohio. The two recruiters there wasted no time signing him up, and even after the man’s parents told them he had bipolar disorder – a diagnosis that would disqualify him – he was all set to be shipped to boot camp, and perhaps Iraq after that, before senior officers found out and canceled the enlistment. Despite an Army investigation, the recruiters were not punished and were still working in the area late last month.
Two hundred miles away, in northern Ohio, another recruiter said the incident hardly surprised him. He has been bending or breaking enlistment rules for months, he said, hiding police records and medical histories of potential recruits. His commanders have encouraged such deception, he said, because they know there is no other way to meet the Army’s stiff recruitment quotas. “The problem is that no one wants to join,” the recruiter said. “We have to play fast and loose with the rules just to get by.”
These two cases in a single state – one centered on a recruit, the other on a recruiter – may lie at the outer limits of the fudging and finagling that are occurring in enlistment offices as the Army tries to maintain its all-volunteer force in a time of war. But that cheating, evidenced by Army statistics that show an increase in cases against recruiters, is disturbing many of the men and women charged with the uphill task of refilling the ranks.
Interviews with more than two dozen recruiters in 10 states hint at the extent of their concern, if not the exact scope of the transgressions. Several spoke of concealing mental-health histories and police records. They described falsified documents, wallet-size cheat sheets slipped to applicants before the military’s aptitude test and commanding officers who look the other way. And they voiced doubts about the quality of some troops destined for the front lines. The recruiters insisted on anonymity to avoid being disciplined, but their accounts were consistent, and the specifics were verified in several cases by documents and interviews with military officials and applicants’ families.
Yesterday, the issue drew national attention as CBS News reported that a high-school student outside Denver recorded two recruiters as they advised him how to cheat. The student, David McSwane, said one recruiter had told him how to create a diploma from a nonexistent school, while the other had helped him buy a product to cleanse traces of marijuana and psychedelic mushrooms from his body. The Army said the recruiters had been suspended while it investigated.
By the Army’s own count, there were 320 substantiated cases of what it calls recruitment improprieties in 2004, up from 199 in 1999, the last year it missed its active-duty recruitment goal, and 213 in 2002, the year before the war in Iraq started. The offenses varied from threats and coercion to false promises that applicants would not be sent to Iraq. Many incidents involved more than one recruiter, and the number of those investigated rose to 1,118 last year, or nearly one in five of all recruiters, up from 913 in 2002, or one in eight.
This is unsurprising, really. As I’ve noted before, many of the NCOs assigned recruiting duty lack the natural talent for salemanship and it is certainly a high pressure job.
That said, it’s not at all clear that this is a major scandal. There are roughly 500,000 soldiers on active duty in the Army, not counting mobilized Reservists. The Army enlists tens of thousands of new soldiers every year.
Now that we’re at war, it’s tougher to recruit and there is almost certainly more impropriety on the part of recruiters. There are undoubtedly more reports of impropriety, too, leading to more investigations. So, 320 “substantiated cases” — probably 300 of which are much less aggregious than those in the opening paragraph — and a slight increase in reports is not that big a deal.