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Recruiters Report Mixed Response in War's 1st Week : Armed forces: In Los Angeles, there's a 50% decline, but parts of Orange County are seeing a significant increase.

January 23, 1991|EDWARD J. BOYER and DEAN E. MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Gabriela Zavala, 18, stepped on a scale in the Army's Hollywood recruiting office Tuesday, a tiny initial step in a process that could take her to the Persian Gulf and war.

"I know it is not a game out there," she said. "I know it is a war. I know I could die out there. But I would die doing something for my country."

Across the room, a 23-year-old new enlistee who had signed up a week before war broke out was saying that he has no desire to be sent to Saudi Arabia.

"If I die over there, it is fate," said the young man, who identified himself only as Mike. "But I would rather die someplace where it is worth dying for. This is not a U.S. war. It is somebody else's war."

From this outpost of enlistment and others across the country, the early returns on the impact of the new war on recruitment efforts are decidedly mixed. Spot checks nationally found that activity has varied from recruiting station to recruiting station, from city to city, and no comprehensive national figures are available as yet, officials said.

"I look across the board and in some places it's down and in some places it's up," said Lt. Cmdr. Alan Goldstein, a Navy spokesman in Chicago. "I can't quantify any effect of Desert Storm. This is not like World War II where there were lines, but they're not staying away in droves either."

In Los Angeles, military recruiters report a 50% decline in new recruits this month, but parts of Orange County are seeing "a significant increase." Recruiting stations in Houston report no real change since the war began, but Marine Corps recruiting in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., is up about 15%. In Chicago, Air Force recruiting is about the same, but the Army is "getting quite a bit more traffic than normal."

Recruiters from Illinois to the Pacific Northwest found a near doubling of calls from former servicemen and women who want to re-enlist and "get to the action" in the gulf.

And in Chicago, recruiters said they are seeing an upsurge of applicants who are not qualified for enlistment.

"They don't have high school diplomas or (equivalency certificates)," said Army Staff Sgt. Robert D. Carswell. "And quite a few have prior service but aren't eligible to re-enlist. The Army hasn't lowered its standards."

In the recruiting stations themselves--typically storefront operations in the midst of commercial strips--the mood hardly seems normal. While there is the usual talk of the benefits of enlistment, it is clear that the much-advertised notion of signing up only to develop a marketable skill like electronics is no longer current.

"I don't think you can escape what's going on right now," said 1st Sgt. Frank Pumphrey, who supervises seven recruiting stations in southeast Los Angeles County.

Some would-be GIs such as Zavala would have it no other way, while others who had been leaning toward enlistment have instead adopted a wait-and-see attitude since the hostilities began. Still others who had been rejected earlier now see the Gulf War as improving their chances.

"People want to get involved with the effort over there," said Staff Sgt. Dave Smith, a Marine recruiter in Houston, adding that his office is getting between 50 and 60 calls a week from former Leathernecks looking to rejoin the corps.

"It's very difficult for an ex-Marine to come back in," said Maj. Michael Clark, commander of the Marines' recruiting office in Ft. Lauderdale. "He has to have a critical skill. Since mid-December, it can be a skill that's not that critical, but that can be used."

Some Marine recruiters said their service has been attracting plenty of fresh recruits after the war started. "The phone was ringing off the hook," said Sgt. Joe Steele, spokesman for Marine Corps recruiters in San Diego County. "It was crazy."

In Los Angeles, however, military recruiters are meeting only 50% of their quotas, a spokesman said, adding that much of the drop is directly attributable to the war.

Recruiters said that sometimes the problem is not the potential volunteers, but their parents--whose signatures are necessary before members of the most promising age group, 17-year-olds, can sign up.

"Parents may feel like they don't want their son or daughter to be involved because of the current times," said Sgt. Clemon S. Segura Jr., an Army recruiter in Hawthorne.

Officials point out, however, that recruits would have to undergo months of training before being sent to a war zone--longer than most observers feel the Gulf War will last.

Jason Russo, 17, was in the Hawthorne recruiting office completing the paperwork that will enlist him as soon as he graduates from Leuzinger High School in Lawndale.

"My friends think I'm crazy," he said. "They think it's not right to die for oil. . . . It's not just for oil. It's to stop this guy"--this Saddam Hussein.

At the Army recruiting station in El Monte, Neli Caceres, 27, a medical clerk at Downey Community Hospital, said friends were amazed at her decision to enlist. "There's not a single person who doesn't tell me I'm crazy," she said. "I just say, 'I want to go.' "

While the war's effect on recruitment remains unclear, recruiters occasionally have become targets of more than just new enlistees.

Sgt. Carolyn Engler, a recruiter in Glendale, said someone threw a trash barrel at a car driven by a fellow recruiter over the weekend, and other recruiters said they have been cursed or shouted at as they worked the streets.

Engler said: "I wore my blue-jean jacket over my uniform when I came to the office because I am afraid of these 'peaceful' demonstrators."

Times staff writers Paul Lieberman and Edmund Newton contributed to this report, along with staff members in various bureaus.

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