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Fantasy Island

J. D. Pendry

We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. - Attributed to Albert Einstein

If you have been around long enough you can recall an Army where filling the ranks of the new all volunteer force with quality recruits was difficult. The approach taken in those days (1970's) was built around the recruiting theme The Army Wants To Join You. Think for a minute what that theme implies. It implies that the Army will do what is necessary to accommodate recruits and persuade them into letting us join them. In other words we would meet them at their level instead of insisting that they come up to ours. We went about doing that, for example, with the VOLAR (Volunteer Army) program. There was VOLAR furniture placed in the barracks - desks, rugs, lamps, etc. Even in basic training barracks. Some standards were relaxed; for example, recruits were only required to get regulation haircuts. The traditional trainee buzz-cut was encouraged, but not enforced. (Seek out some 1970's vintage pictures of the Army and you'll see) Basic training was on a five and a half-day per week schedule and in some units, recruits wore civilian clothes on weekends. Training was still tough, but we softened the approach enough to convince the flower-child, personal liberties, it's-all-about-me group that we wanted to change so we could join them and they let us. When that group was added to the hangover from McNamara's 100,000, it's not difficult to see why the Army was troubled. Drugs and discipline were atop the list of Army problems - and they were running rampant.

Near the end of the flower-child period, we challenged people to Be All You Can Be. With that recruiting theme, we issued a challenge to America's youth. The challenge was that you can be more than you are and if you join us we will help you become all you can be. They responded. With the ranks filled, we had the best Army in modern history. We didn't coddle, training was tough and the payoff spoke for itself. Those who wanted a challenge excelled and those not up to it we thanked and sent home.

Following our downsizing, we once more had problems filling the ranks. Competing with us was the fastest growing economy and lowest unemployment rate anyone could recall. Youngsters fresh from high school could get jobs and college tuition elsewhere if they searched - and many did. Our approach was to try competing by offering mega bonuses and large college funds to teen-agers fresh off the street. I don't believe I heard any catchy theme for this recruiting approach. Some recruits performed and others muddled through their commitments in order to collect. Others who discovered that some hard work was required on the way to that college money contributed to the high first term attrition rate.

Battling with the attrition rate, we again softened our approach. A number of remedial programs added to basic training aided those who were having troubles or just wanted to quit. Recruits who wanted to quit, for example, went to a think it over program and those with discipline problems went to anger management. At another time, when the ranks were full, they would have gone to the Bus Station Program. There was even talk of sending Drill Sergeants out to recruiting stations to soften their image that's believed to frighten the kiddies away. Again, we were trying to join them.

The only success we enjoyed was when we issued a challenge. These other approaches keep giving us the same results. Accessions are still falling short and the first term attrition rate is as high as ever. So how do we propose to fix the problem? We're going to start recruiting soldiers with a promise of a job with a civilian firm when they leave the service. Somebody please tell me how this differs in approach from what we've already tried? We've been running faster and faster down this same road and the only thing we are gaining is getting farther behind in meeting our accession and retention goals - or more accurately described - our accession and retention needs. There is another quote attributed to Einstein, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result." Aren't we trying the same thing, wrapped in a slightly different package, while hoping for a different result?

I hate to throw negative rocks at every recruiting idea that pops up. I'm actually for anything that works - with one caveat - as they like to say in those death by VGT (Power Point now I guess) meetings. The caveat is that the recruiting plan must bring to the army people who are committed to being soldiers for the time they spend. If the bonuses and college money didn't do those so well, what makes us think that the offer of civilian employment after their service will? We can't fault the recruits. If recruited for college money, then a recruit's commitment is to college money. Why do we expect it to be different if we recruit them to go to work for General Dynamics?

Our latest attempt appeals to the instant gratification sought by many of today's youth by offering them a Yahoo sponsored fantasy career in the military. Be a Golden Knight in your fantasy career. Can I ask an old dumb ass, country boy question? What happens when the recruit discovers that a soldier's life is far from Fantasy Island? What happens when he or she discovers that gratification is not instant in the real world? What happens when he or she discovers that much soldier drudgery and hard work lies between the time the right hand goes up and the day you fly with the Golden Knights? I'm betting when they make those discoveries many will add to that high first term attrition rate.

We need to look toward our own values. We preach selfless-service, yet we recruit on the concept of taking care of your self. We preach duty, but recruit with the promise of a job elsewhere... Until we align our recruiting practices and efforts with our stated values, we will continue to meet Einstein's definition of insanity. Those of you who signed up for the Golden Knight Fantasy please step this way...

© 2000 J. D. Pendry