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Low enlistment numbers has the Army rethinking their tactics to attract new recruits


The Army is struggling to fill its ranks. Last year, it was 15,000 soldiers short. This year is better, but the Army is still expected to fall short of its recruiting goal. Two big reasons - the Army is in a war for talent with a strong economy offering good jobs and good benefits, and COVID kept recruiters out of high schools, prime scouting locations. NPR's Tom Bowman and producer Lauren Hodges traveled to the Minnesota State Fair, where amid those hawking corndogs, fried pickles and cheese curds, the Army is trying to sell itself.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Staff Sergeant Joshua Spearman grips the metal bench and eyes the crowd through his dark, wraparound sunglasses. He's a brawny soldier in a black T-shirt, his left arm covered in tattoos. There's an endless flow - families with strollers, couples with just-won stuffed animals, elderly fairgoers in motorized wheelchairs. Soon he eyes his prey - a cluster of young men.

JOSHUA SPEARMAN: You know what's good? Eating all the fair snacks. Come work it off. I'm so serious. Do the deadlift challenge.


SPEARMAN: No pull-ups, nothing?


SPEARMAN: Win your girl a T-shirt, man. It's like the ultimate fair story.

BOWMAN: Behind him, a small grass lot with a few pop-up canopy tents, a pull-up bar, some weights for deadlifts, a Humvee with its door open, all designed to lure in prospects.


BOWMAN: One of the college students, Andrew Magneson, takes the bait. He's a hulking guy with a Minnesota T-shirt and a crown of reddish curls. He nails the deadlift...

SPEARMAN: Two more - 19.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Twenty, there you go. Good job. You get yourself a T-shirt.

BOWMAN: ...And gets an Army T-shirt. But the Army doesn't get him.

ANDREW MAGNESON: It's not for me. I know that much.

BOWMAN: How come?

MAGNESON: I don't know. I don't like fighting.

BOWMAN: And his friends - they're not buying it, either.

ROBERT PEDERON: So have you guys ever thought about the Army?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Not particularly.

PEDERON: When someone says Army, what's the first thing that popped in your head?



BOWMAN: Sergeant Robert Pederon (ph) tries his best to make it sound like something they can fit into their lives with ease.

PEDERON: There's a part-time option where you only do the Army one weekend a month, two weeks during the summer. But we'll pay for your college.

BOWMAN: But even with the financial incentives, it doesn't stick.

PEDERON: That sound like something you guys would like to get a little bit more information about?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: I might pass for now, but we might be back around. We'll see.

PEDERON: OK. What about you?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: I'll probably pass.

BOWMAN: What they're saying is echoed in Army surveys. The Army found that many don't want to join because they fear getting wounded or killed, even though the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are long over. Or they just don't want to leave home. So the Army has come up with a new marketing technique with an old slogan.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: Be all you can be.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: Be all you can be.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: Be all you can be.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: Be all you can be.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #13: Be all you can be.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #14: Be all you can be.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: Be all you can be.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #16: Be all you can be.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #17: Be all you can be.

BOWMAN: Be all you can be. The Army is pushing personal development and a general sense of service to the nation, like helping the victims of floods or wildfires.

SPEARMAN: As of right now, we're not at war with anyone. Military doesn't mean war. It's great benefits. You get health insurance, dental insurance. So you just got to sit down and explain it to the younger generation.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #18: Would you ever join?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #19: I'm actually thinking about it, actually.



BOWMAN: The recruiter's ears perk up, and he calls over someone to take her information.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #20: Thinking about joining?


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #20: That would be awesome. Hey.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #20: So she's thinking about joining.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #21: Oh, you're thinking about joining, huh?


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #21: Oh. How old are you?


BOWMAN: One senior officer tells NPR the Army is embarking on a high school blitz to find more recruits now that the pandemic is over. Still, officials expect the lagging recruiting climate will continue for some time. As a result, the Army will likely have to trim its forces in bases around the country.

Not all those here are ready to join. That's because they're at least a decade away from recruiting age. A young boy works a handheld remote under the guidance of a recruiter. He maneuvers a small tracked Army robot around a series of plastic highway cones, using a monitor to simulate what it's like to control these in the field. The boy is already a pro because it's basically a video game.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #22: He'll stay with me all day. No, he'll be here all day. Yes.

BOWMAN: But even if you want to join the Army, you might not make the cut. A recent Pentagon study found less than one-quarter of America's youth would qualify for military service without a waiver because they're overweight, have criminal records or mental or physical health problems. So how are they trying to make up for those lost numbers? The Army is increasingly turning to those who recently arrived in the United States. The Army is also hiring more immigrant recruits like Sergeant 1st Class Nouella Lacson, whose family came from the Philippines. She's standing at a card table covered with brochures, lanyards and dog tags.

NOUELLA LACSON: Most of my applicants are immigrants 'cause I kind of relate to them, you know - a lot of them.

BOWMAN: She'll tell them her own story to put them at ease. Also helpful - that she's a woman.

LACSON: Majority of my applicants are females. I tell them, like, are you going to have people tell you what can you do or cannot do?

BOWMAN: About 16% of the Army is now female, a number that keeps edging up. Women tend to be higher quality recruits, score higher on tests and have fewer brushes with the law. And now all ground combat jobs are open to women, so the Army is pushing that in some of its ads, including a woman spotting a target inside an Abrams tank.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #23: Final adjustment.




BOWMAN: But all that leads to another hurdle to recruiting. Army surveys showed some 20% of women questioned were wary of joining, saying they'll be discriminated against. Beyond that, sexual harassment and assault are still a persistent problem. Last year, the Army saw a 9% drop in reports of sexual assault, though the year earlier, there was a 26% increase in reports involving soldiers. But Lieutenant Colonel Kristen Grace, who commands all the recruiters, played that down.

KRISTEN GRACE: I've never experienced anything like that. I've been fortunate, you know, not to experience anything like that.

BOWMAN: And Sergeant 1st Class Lacson says she never had a problem.

LACSON: For me personally, I've never experienced it.

BOWMAN: But it is a concern. One possible recruit, Harmony Cook, says her friends are worried about it when she talks about joining the military.

HARMONY COOK: They say, like, I'm going to be treated more differently from the guys or, like, the guys are going to be intimidating and everything and that I might not be able to stand a chance.

BOWMAN: But she wants to become a medic and get a $50,000 bonus. So far, Harmony is one of some 25 potential recruits here who have requested a formal interview. Another 750 have asked for more information. And while the Army is playing down combat to attract female recruits, that tough guy approach isn't totally going away. It just depends who's listening.

SPEARMAN: Bro, ever thought about joining, man?

BOWMAN: Landon Arends is a college student from Iowa who said he's not interested in joining right now.

LANDON ARENDS: Not at the moment. I'm in college.

BOWMAN: But Spearman reels him back in.

SPEARMAN: I'm gonna show you what, bro. Come back.

ARENDS: I do. Yup.

SPEARMAN: You got your phone on you?


SPEARMAN: Here. Pull it out, man.

BOWMAN: Arends wrestles at school and is pretty set on staying there. Spearman has an answer for that.

ARENDS: I wrestle at Wartburg College, so...

SPEARMAN: But they don't pay you to wrestle, though, right?

ARENDS: Yeah, pretty much student loans.

SPEARMAN: That sucks, man.


SPEARMAN: That sucks real bad.

ARENDS: Yeah. But...

SPEARMAN: I wrote a $214,000 check to a high school girl last year to go to Gustavus.

BOWMAN: Unlike the college kids we heard from earlier, Arends wants to see some action on the battlefield. But when he thinks combat, he thinks the Marine Corps. Spearman brushes that aside.

SPEARMAN: I've got three deployments with the Special Forces group. I've never seen a Marine out there fighting, man.

ARENDS: Really?

SPEARMAN: Yeah. They're a big force on force conflict type people, right?


SPEARMAN: You want to be in the fight, man? Our Green Berets are out there in the fight. Our Army Rangers are out there in the fight.

BOWMAN: To seal the deal, Spearman pulls in a fellow recruiter.

SPEARMAN: Right there.


SPEARMAN: Captain Owen (ph). Captain Owen is actually Ranger Tab. He is Ranger-qualified for the Ranger Assessment Selection Program. And on top of being Ranger-qualified, he's also a paratrooper like myself. And he's an infantryman, right? So this could be your goal.

BOWMAN: In less than five minutes, Sergeant Spearman seems to have landed at least one more recruit.

SPEARMAN: I got you on Instagram, bro?


SPEARMAN: You got my number, man? Reach out, man. For real. Let's make a difference, all right?

ARENDS: All right.

SPEARMAN: Take it easy, man.

ARENDS: You guys have a good one.

SPEARMAN: You, too - had to flex that [expletive] Ranger Tab off you real quick, sir.

BOWMAN: Tom Bowman, NPR News, at the Minnesota State Fair. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.