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Greg Carlson of Kingston (L) and Bobby Klucevsek of Plymouth, at Independence Mall, had no interest in enlisting.
Greg Carlson of Kingston (L) and Bobby Klucevsek of Plymouth, at Independence Mall, had no interest in enlisting. (Globe Staff Photo / Bill Greene)

Military recruiters find the war a difficult sell

Youths shy away from future in Iraq

KINGSTON -- When military recruiters came to Marshfield High School last year, Joe Satterthwaite and Luke Auen were intrigued. The 16-year-olds both needed money to pay for college. Both had relatives who had served their country and who were urging them on, for Satterthwaite his father and for Auen his grandfather.

But sitting in the food court of a shopping mall eating McDonald's fries this week, near a store selling T-shirts with American flag decals, the teens said the bloom was off the idea.

''It doesn't seem fun or interesting to be going over to Iraq to fight people and kill them," Satterthwaite said. ''And the whole thought of dying when you're 18 sounds pretty bad."

Auen nodded and added: ''My grandpa says all our generation cares about is ourselves. I guess it's kind of true."

While some wars have spurred men and women to sign up in ever-higher numbers, this one has not.

The Army, trying to lure enough people to make up a recruiting deficit of about 8,000 this fiscal year, is talking less about patriotism and duty and more about $20,000 bonuses and shorter enlistments.

The missing attraction seems to be the Iraq war itself.

''It's not enough to say 'We need you,' you have to explain why," said retired General George Joulwan, a former NATO commander.

''For those of us who've had the privilege of leading soldiers, it's always an important question," Joulwan said. ''What we need is clarity on our goals and objectives from our elected leaders. I think that's really important."

President Bush, in a speech last week that was aimed at shoring up support for the war in Iraq, went to the extraordinary length of exhorting people to enlist in the military, saying there is no ''higher calling," although he didn't link it specifically to Iraq or even the larger war on terrorism.

At Independence Mall in Kingston and on the streets of Plymouth center a few miles away, teens offered a decidedly dim view of military life. Gone was the sense of adventure and glory that many said their relatives had sought when they enlisted. Instead, the teens said they viewed the military as a practical but grim and increasingly unappealing option.

''I still think the soldiers are the bravest people on the planet," said Dan Carlson, 18, of Kingston, with his brother Greg at the mall. ''But you watch TV and you see that war is very vicious, and you see the destruction up close. So, to me, there's less glory and more death and destruction."

A friend, Bobby Klucevsek, 18, of Plymouth, nodded and said, ''I respect what the military does, but I don't think I am the one to do it."

Even before Bush's comments June 28, which struck some military observers as a sign of increased official concerns about maintaining a sufficiently large fighting force, retired military officers knowledgeable about recruitment had been sounding the alarm. A retired general, Barry McCaffrey, wrote in The Wall Street Journal about a ''race against time," and declared that the armed services were ''starting to unravel."

Many others, while voicing concern, did not seem as worried as McCaffrey. They all brought up and dismissed the notion of a draft. But they differed on the best ways to attract more young people.

Retired General Thomas McInerney, a contributor to Fox News, said in an interview that media reports are painting an unnecessarily grim picture of the Iraq war, scaring off potential recruits. But he praised the Army for responding by cutting the length of initial tours of duty and by offering potential enlistees an early chance to go home if the going is tough.

''There's no question that we face a recruiting challenge with the global war on terror going on," McInerney said. ''The fact is it's going to take longer, and there are no shortcuts. But the Army's doing some smart things, like shortening tours. Re-enlistment rates are sky high."

''So," he added, ''you get them to come in for a short tour, train them, and they'll decide to stay."

Alan Gropman, a retired Air Force colonel and a professor at National Defense University in Washington, said he worries about what parents are telling their children about the military.

At many times in recent history, parents have wanted to see their children in uniform. Fear of them being killed in Iraq may be changing some parents' thinking, he said.

Chris Foley, for one, said his mother had explicitly warned him against enlisting.

''My mom said I am not allowed," said the 19-year-old student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst who noted that his father had served.

Last month, a Gallup poll suggested that a ''bare majority" of those Americans surveyed, 52 percent, said they would support a child's decision to enter the military, down from 66 percent in 1999.

Still, Gropman said he believes the best way to get young men and women to go to war is to raise pay and bonuses. He proposed increasing the bonus to $50,000, at the end of a long enlistment, in addition to $20,000 upfront.

''What is it they said in that Kevin Costner movie? Build it and they will come?" Gropman said. ''If you offer the right incentives and pay, they will come."

It was that logic that helped convince Lee Nguyen, 15, of Plymouth, of the benefits of joining the military when he comes of age.

A friend, Sean Fitzpatrick, 16, also of Plymouth, who is set on joining the Marines, had offered this word in a pitch to his friend about the military: tuition.

''The way I figure it, I want to go to college, and if they pay for it, that's great," Fitzpatrick said, noting that generations in his family before him had been Marines.

Nguyen said he was sold. ''I don't have the money to pay for college," he said. ''And it will be good exercise."

As for patriotism, specialists said it should be highlighted, but only among other factors in pitching the military to young people. Adventure and a chance to build a lasting career can be, depending on the recruit, more important than serving one's country, these specialists said.

Andrew Derderian, 18, of Pembroke said he had considered the military, but then figured he'd have more opportunities outside the service -- perhaps less glorious, but probably more lucrative.

''If had to go to Iraq, I would," said the recent high school graduate, who will attend Northeastern University. ''I thought maybe it would be fun. But I want a career."

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