WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army faces particularly unique recruiting challenges in the state of Iowa these days, so much so that the past image of an eager, young, would-be soldier walking into a recruiting office is fast becoming just that — a thing of the past.
It is a situation created partly by the Army’s own choices. The service has raised its standards for new recruits at the same time it is trying to change perceptions of the military and manage the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Other factors unique to Iowa are bedeviling efforts as well, such as the state’s traditionally low unemployment rate — 4.3 percent as of April, compared to the national rate of 6.3 percent. That means fewer people are having to turn to the military as a career option.
In Iowa, the combined effect means that recruiting is now only at about 50 percent of the Army’s goal for the state. While in the past, roughly one in four recruits were deemed qualified, officials say now only about one in five make it in.
“It’s becoming tougher to join the Army, whether it’s because of tests or physical reasons or other reasons,” said Lt. Col. John Reinert, commander of the Recruiting Battalion 3rd Brigade in Minneapolis, which supervises Army recruiting efforts in several states including Iowa.
“And the real gist of our challenge in these (Midwest) states is that it is one of the areas of least propensity, as well as one of the lowest unemployment rates ... . Iowa just has more other factors than other areas.
“We’re competing against many other options people have.”
Iowa’s difficult recruiting situation becomes more clear when considering the national picture, in which branches such as the Army report robust recruiting and retention figures. According to the Defense Department, the Army reported 27,886 recruits in the current fiscal year as of March, while the Navy said it had 15,699, the Marine Corps counted 10,571 and the Air Force reported 12,982.
All four branches met or exceeded their goals as set by the Defense Department, and numbers are similarly strong for the branches’ reserve components as well as the National Guard.
In the Army, while some requirements haven’t changed — recruits must be between 17 and 35 years old, although some exceptions are possible for older men or women — officials have cracked down in several other categories of enlistee requirements.
A loophole has been closed that allowed waivers for certain felonies, for example, such as possession of illicit substances (including marijuana). Mental health issues are now red-flagged.
And even fewer tattoos are allowed — an area in which the service used to be fairly tolerant.
At the same time, Reinert and Command Sergeant Major Gregory S. McNeill said some aspects of Iowa make it easier for recruiting. They point to a relatively high appreciation for the military among Iowans compared to other parts of the country, as well as a better-educated pool of potential recruits.
All of which means that although recruiters have to work harder in Iowa than in other states, the job of persuasion is often easier.
“It’s a paradox almost because the state of Iowa has probably the most patriotic, veteran-heavy populations of anywhere,” McNeill said.
On the front lines, the task of dealing with the new realities with Iowa’s other factors falls to people such as Sgt. First Class Jim O’Dea of the U.S. Army Reserves, who is based in Davenport but this spring began recruiting efforts in Muscatine County.
O’Dea has been recruiting for the Army for three years in Iowa, after four years in his native Washington state.
Compared to Washington, O’Dea said Iowa’s less diverse population means he often tailors his approach when recruiting in small towns, where potential recruits have often had fewer experiences in life.
“I tend to press them to get out and experience the world, whereas if I’m talking to someone in Washington maybe travel is not as big of a deal to them,” he said.
Other factors weigh in as well, such as the difficult and violent nature of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and misperceptions of the military created by TV shows and the media, O’Dea said.
To counter that, O’Dea said he tries to emphasize the career opportunities that the Army provides, with less of an emphasis on the battlefield.
“I try to point out that there’s massive opportunities to serve your country,” he said. “Maybe in a local community there’s not much (career) opportunities for someone, but there is so much you can do in the armed services.”
In Minneapolis, Reinert and McNeill said they emphasize the same approach.
“If all young people think about the Army is war and all that stuff, they’re not taking into account the whole career they can have in the Army,” Reinert said.