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Writer Details New Efforts to Fill Army’s Ranks

June 6, 2007 at 6:40 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: The United States is now fighting two wars with an all-volunteer military force, and some troops are on their third tour of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. To ease the burden, the Army and Marine Corps will be expanding over the next five years.

An article in the latest Atlantic Magazine looks at how the Army is recruiting and training new soldiers. The author is freelance journalist Brian Mockenhaupt. He also served in the Army as an enlisted man from 2002 to 2005, including two tours in Iraq.

Welcome to you.

BRIAN MOCKENHAUPT, Journalist: Thank you. Nice to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Early in your article, you quote a top Army general who testified to Congress that, quote, “The confluences of challenges in recruiting, training and retaining soldiers is unparalleled in the history of the volunteer force.” Explain the dilemma for us.

BRIAN MOCKENHAUPT: Well, with the wars going on in Afghanistan and Iraq, they’re back to fighting insurgencies as they were in Vietnam. It’s a new way of fighting for a lot of people who have been in the Army, having to go back to these old tactics and relearning them.

So they’ve had to make a lot of changes in the way that they’re training soldiers, reacting to IEDs, convoy operations, that sort of thing. At the same time, the people that are the base of the populations that they’re recruiting from has changed a lot in recent years, too. And you have these societal changes that new recruits are fatter, they’re weaker, and in a lot of ways they’re less willing to serve. So they’re…

Recruiting soldiers

JEFFREY BROWN: Fatter, weaker, and less -- I mean, you write -- it's interesting about the demographic changes here, because you would think that the military has a large enough pool to draw on, but you say, in reality, the numbers game is stacked against recruiters. Explain that.

BRIAN MOCKENHAUPT: Well, yes, since the Army has gone to an all-volunteer force, the size of the country's population has increased, and there are many jobs that have been opened up to women. So you would think that they wouldn't have as much of a problem recruiting as they do, but you have, you know, young people who exercise less.

You know, 30 years ago, 40 percent of high school seniors said they definitely wouldn't join the military, and today that's 60 percent. So the pool keeps getting smaller and smaller.

So they've done some things. They've increased the maximum enlistment age from 34 to 42. They've increased maximum bonuses to $40,000. They have increased the number of waivers that they give for some things, criminal misconduct and some medical conditions. And they've lowered some of the enlistment standards, all to get at more of the people who are out there who, you know, want to serve but wouldn't have been able to under some of the old criteria.

Changes to basic training

JEFFREY BROWN: They've also, according to your article, changed some of the ways they do training. Now, you watch basic training at Fort Benning, where you yourself trained, I gather. What did you see? What was different?

BRIAN MOCKENHAUPT: The changes really get divided into two groups. One has been in response to battlefield lessons, lessons learned, as the military calls it. And so now you have troops, recruits that carry around rifles from the first days of training so they become more comfortable with them. They wear their body armor around everywhere.

The second set of changes really targets attrition, and they were looking at the number of soldiers that they were losing in the first six months, their first six months in the Army. And in 2005, that had been about 18 percent. And now I think it's at about 6 percent, so we've cut it significantly.

And that's where you see the shift to what some people call the kinder and gentler basic training. Now, the Army describes it a little bit differently. They say, you know, they want drill sergeants to be teachers, coaches and mentors. They say they recognize that young people -- they know what they've gotten themselves into. They're joining the military at a time of war, so they should show some respect for that, acknowledge that, and sort of bring them onto the team.

Some of the critics of that say that military culture is so different, especially today, from the world that a lot of young people grow up in that you really need to sort of use some shock therapy to say, "This is not the world you lived in before. Welcome to the military." You know, it's a more disciplined environment, and you'll be treated with respect, once you learn the ropes and once you've earned that respect.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, give us an example. And you describe in your article the two styles here of the shock that we're all kind of familiar with, either from experience or from movies, and this kinder, gentler approach that you're describing. What is that like? What's an example?

BRIAN MOCKENHAUPT: Well, a lot of that, like you said, does come from the movies. You know, it's the "Full Metal Jacket" scenes of the drill sergeant screaming in someone's face. And, you know, so they've cut down on that.

They've reined drill sergeants in on use of vulgar language, being in recruits' face so much. So now they try to sort of understand them a little bit more, you know, talk to them, bring them on board, instead of saying, you know, it's sort of out with the idea of, "It's my way or the highway."

Preparing troops for deployment

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, in terms of results, what did the military people that you talked to, what did they say about the type of soldier that comes out of this -- call it the kinder, gentler training?

BRIAN MOCKENHAUPT: Well, they say the soldiers that are coming out are much better prepared for deployments. You know, they've gone through more first aid training. They've gone through more weapons training. They've gone through how to react to IEDs and move through towns and villages and mock urban environments.

But, you know, when you talk to the people who are on the receiving end of this...

JEFFREY BROWN: Receiving end, I'm sorry. You mean the...

BRIAN MOCKENHAUPT: Right, the units that...

JEFFREY BROWN: The units that are getting these new recruits? And what were they saying?

BRIAN MOCKENHAUPT: Well, a lot of them said the same thing. They said, you know, the young recruits that they're getting are -- they're smart, and they're eager, but sometimes they lack some intensity and some discipline, and, also, that some of them aren't at the standard they would want them to be at, that they feel they should be at when they come out of basic training, for being able to perform a certain number of push-ups and sit-ups, you know, things like that.

And the Army has always been good at bringing up to standard. You know, the question is, should this be done at basic training or should the unit be responsible for it? Some people I talked to said they felt like too much was being pushed off on them when they're trying to prepare for deployment.

So the potential problem you run into is that, when you get a couple months away from a deployment, you're spending most of your time on, say, collective tasks, how a platoon is going to move through a city, respond to an IED, conduct convoy operations. You don't have as much time to sort of bring up the weaker soldiers. And when you have to focus on individuals, that's less time that you're spending on honing the skills of the group.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Brian Mockenhaupt, thanks very much.