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Aircraft Carrier Trolls for Future Navy Recruits

Military: A cruise for high schoolers aims to boost enlistments. Manpower shortages are making the armed services work hard to attract young people.

May 21, 2000|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ABOARD THE CONSTELLATION — In a few months, this mammoth aircraft carrier will be back in the Persian Gulf, keeping the lid on a region with potential for explosive conflict.

But on Friday the "Connie" and its warplanes were deployed off San Diego on a difficult and important mission of a different sort: trolling for new sailors.

With the economy good, and no enemy on the horizon to stir patriotic fervor, these are trying times for military recruiters.

All four military branches are pulling out their big guns to impress potential recruits. And there is no bigger gun than a U.S. aircraft carrier, the largest and most feared warship afloat.

Hoping to impress potential enlistees with a display of power and panache, Navy recruiters from three states brought 1,400 teenage prospects to the Constellation for a daylong cruise.

Before daylight, students arrived at the North Island Naval Air Station in Coronado in a fleet of school buses from Las Vegas, Phoenix and throughout Southern California.

From the flight deck, the teenagers watched as Constellation crew members not much older than themselves helped launch and retrieve F/A-18 Hornets. In the hangar bay below there were recruiting stations, a demonstration by Navy SEALs, a Navy rock band and enough food for several dozen senior picnics.

"Awesome, man," said Alexandra Jagsch, 17, of Azusa as a Hornet screamed off the deck.

Peter Toth, 17, of Hollywood High School said he was impressed with what he learned about Navy life. "Train hard and play hard--that's me," he said.

Other branches of the military may lack an 88,000-ton, 1,047-foot aircraft carrier.

But the Army is showing off its Humvees and artillery, and the Air Force is parking F-16 Fighting Falcons and flight simulators outside high schools and at shopping malls.

A Navy minesweeper is patrolling the Mississippi River, docking periodically to assist local recruiting efforts. A frigate is doing similar duty in the Great Lakes.

Defense Secretary William Cohen, in the kind of patriotic pitch not heard in Hollywood since World War II, has appealed to Harrison Ford, Julia Roberts, Robert De Niro and other stars for help in selling the concept of military service.

All branches of the service are offering bonuses of as much as $5,000 to sign up for four-year hitches. A recruit can receive $50,000 for college.

No branch knows better the value of glitter than the Navy, which saw a meteoric rise in enlistments after Tom Cruise and the F-14 Tomcat starred in the 1986 movie "Top Gun."

Basketball star and Naval Academy graduate David Robinson has done a go-Navy commercial to be shown in movie theaters. Recruiters are being stationed in lobbies of theaters showing action films such as "Mission Impossible 2," "U-571" and "Gladiator."

"Recruiting is intense work," said Cmdr. William R. Edwards, chief recruiter for San Diego and Orange counties. "It's seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Recruiting is all I think about, morning, noon and night."

The Navy failed to meet its recruiting goal in 1998 and succeeded in 1999 only by doubling the percentage of high school dropouts it would accept. The Navy was also helped by snazzy new TV commercials directed by Spike Lee.

The Army has failed for two years running to meet its recruitment goal. The Air Force last year missed its goal for the first time in 20 years.

Only the Marine Corps, with its only-the-toughest-need-apply approach, seems to have no trouble finding enough volunteers. As the smallest branch of the service, the Marines can afford to be selective.

With 1.4 million active-duty personnel, the military needs about 200,000 recruits a year, about 40% of those for the Army.

Recruiting problems are coupled with problems in getting soldiers, sailors and airmen to reenlist, particularly those with skills highly prized in the private economy.

Although Cohen and senior military officials disagree, some defense analysts and politicians have questioned whether the U.S. military has sufficient manpower to fight and win a prolonged conflict or two smaller simultaneous conflicts.

It is axiomatic that recruiting is tough when private-sector jobs are plentiful. But Edwards and other recruiters feel there is another problem: Three decades after the end of the draft, there is little dinner-table discussion in most American homes about military service as a noble and beneficial experience.

To bring the military closer to civilians, more recruiters have been assigned and more recruitment offices opened. The Navy for the first time is also doing commercials in Spanish.

Whether the carrier trip will motivate any of the 1,400 to enlist won't be known for months, but Navy officials said the cruise may become an annual event.

"A carrier at sea, with planes being launched," said Cmdr. Jeff Gideon. "If this doesn't convince them about the Navy, nothing will. It doesn't get any better than this."

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