WATERTOWN -- Sergeant Jake Kingsbury, a 24-year-old veteran of the Iraq war, is patrolling the sun-seared streets of this bustling suburb, searching in full uniform for Army recruits in pizza shops, fitness centers, and music stores.
But today, potential soldiers are as scarce as a cooling breeze. A polite 20-year-old hospital worker says he isn't interested. A laundromat patron says she doubts her cab-driving boyfriend, who has diabetes, would enlist. And a teenage prospect on the other side of a CDK -- a ``cold door-knock" -- happens to be in Florida with his family.
For recruiters, anyone of military age is a prospect, said Kingsbury, who did maintenance work on helicopters for the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq. But the numbers show that, despite efforts to increase visibility where young people congregate, the Army is having an increasingly difficult time meeting its recruiting goals in metropolitan Boston.
According to Major Mark Spear, who commands 44 Army recruiters covering more than 50 communities north and west of Boston, the urge to serve has waned since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. After 101 percent of his area's enlistment goal was reached in fiscal 2003, the numbers dipped to 84.4 percent in 2004, fell to 55.7 percent in 2005, and stand at 45.2 percent for the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
Making the job tougher for recruiters is an increased demand for soldiers since the war began, with enlistment goals rising nationwide from 73,800 in fiscal 2003 to 80,000 this year.
Recruiters in the city of Boston and its southern suburbs also have struggled to meet their targets. Enlistment numbers reached 123 percent of the goal in fiscal 2003, and then fell to 90.1 percent and 55.8 percent in the next two years. For fiscal 2006, according to the latest data, enlistments stood at 39.7 percent of the goal.
For Kingsbury, the goal is about two recruits per month. But spending time with the sergeant shows that achieving even that figure can be daunting.
After taping a flier to a pole, just above a notice for a peace rally, Kingsbury spots a young man hurrying along Mount Auburn Street. ``What are you up to today," Kingsbury asks, jocular and smiling.
``Going to the bank," replies Harout Bedrossin, 20, a 2006 graduate of Middlesex Community College. Bedrossin adds that he's working at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge as a driver to gain experience.
``If you're looking for experience, there's no better place than the Army," Kingsbury says.
Bedrossin listens respectfully and even asks for a business card. But after Kingsbury has moved on, Bedrossin says he has no interest in joining the Army ``anytime soon," and that he has reservations about the war. ``It hasn't brought anybody anywhere," Bedrossin says.
Along the same sidewalk, Kingsbury detects a flicker of interest in Finshley Fanor, a 27-year-old native of Haiti who moved to Milton recently and has two children in Miami. Leaning against a pole with a cellphone in one hand and a soft drink in another, Fanor, who works in security, tells Kingsbury he wants to be a mechanic.
Fanor says he failed the Army's pre-enlistment test four years ago, but that he's willing to try again. The pair set up an interview for a week later at Kingsbury's office in Waltham.
A half-hour later, in a small Watertown laundromat, Kingsbury asks Melissa Allison, 32, if she knows anyone who would join. Allison responds that her boyfriend, who is not with her at the time, is probably not Army material. ``Tell him to get a real job" in the Army, Kingsbury answers with a smile.
As difficult as the recruiter's job is on the streets, military officials say that convincing the parents of potential soldiers is often tougher.
``In the minds of parents, their son and daughter will deploy to Iraq and be a statistic," said Spear, who served in Iraq for six months until mid-2004 as a transportation coordinator. ``Quite frankly, I don't blame them, because that's what splashed on the front page or the screen. . . . That 60-second flash of news is nothing but death and destruction, and it equates to failure, failure, failure."
As a result, Spear said, parents have become increasingly reluctant to support their children's interest in the Army.
``The parents are afraid of Iraq," Spear said. ``Not the kids."
Parental wariness can explode into hostility, Kingsbury said. Fathers and mothers sometimes scream at him during a cold call, said Kingsbury, who often uses a telephone number that often comes from lists of high-school students provided to recruiters as part of the No Child Left Behind Act.
The sergeant also notices the nervousness when people spot his camouflage colors, sand-colored boots, and tight-fitting beret and cross the street to avoid him.
``They see the uniform and assume you're up to no good," Kingsbury said. ``They're expecting you to lie to them the whole time."
Because of such skepticism, Spear said, recruiters are spending more time trying to persuade the ``influencers" -- parents, teachers, guidance counselors, and coaches -- that the military life remains a good career choice despite the probability of deployment to the Middle East.
Recruiters also are facing opposition from so-called counter-recruiters, who are demanding equal access to schools and public buildings when the military's salespeople show up. ``We want to put our brochures next to recruiters' brochures," said Sam Diener, co-editor of Peacework, a monthly magazine published by the New England office of the American Friends Service Committee. ``If recruiters show up for career days, if they're speaking to classes, we want to be there as well. . . . Most schools do not let us do that."
Nationally, the Army's active-duty enlistments in fiscal 2005 dropped to 73,373 soldiers, 8 percent short of its goal of 80,000 recruits following five consecutive years of exceeding its target. As of May 26, the Army had enlisted 42,859 soldiers for 2006, which appears well short of the number required to meet this year's goal of 80,000.
And nowhere in the country seems more difficult for recruiters than the Northeast, said Spear, a New England native.
The Massachusetts National Guard also is coping with a sharp decline in its numbers, with 5,552 soldiers in its ranks in fiscal 2005, compared with 7,419 in fiscal 2002. Massachusetts National Guard Major Winfield Danielson said officials are not sure why the ranks have dwindled. However, he said, the Guard since October has averaged 127 recruits per month after three years of averaging 95 recruits out of a monthly goal of 120.
Spear and Kingsbury said truth-in-advertising is critical to their sales success. Army recruiters under his command, Spear said, are trained to provide unvarnished information to a market of 200,000 potential soldiers stretching from Framingham north and east to the New Hampshire border and Cape Ann.
Diener, however, argued that recruiters nationwide routinely mislead prospects and then bully recruits if they want to change their minds. Diener said he could not recall any specific complaints about Spear's unit.
Spear, who vigorously defended the war as an inevitable confrontation against evil, said he expects to reach about 75 percent of his goal this year. Recruiters, he said, will ``continue to be honest and truthful" with prospects and their parents.
``We're all about giving them as much information as we can before they make a decision," Spear said. If recruiters gloss over the danger, he said, ``it all comes back to us. If little Johnny or Suzie gets killed, we've got to look Mom and Dad in the eye."