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Looking for a Few -- Actually 200,000 -- Good Men and Women

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Retired Lt. Gen. Robert Springer(Bill Burch/WRAL OnLine)
SOUTHERN PINES — Opportunities abound in America's armed forces today. In spite of these opportunities, however, the services are struggling mightily to find 200,000 interested and qualified young men and women each year to fill the ranks. We should all be concerned.

If America is to remain preeminent in world affairs, if we are to successfully defend our freedoms and our way of life, we absolutely must have a first-rate military force. Second place is not a viable alternative in conflict and war.

A first-rate military force requires high-quality young men and women to serve. Yet there does not seem to be as much interest in serving in the armed forces as there has been in years past. Slightly more than one out of ten males ages 16 to 24 have indicated an interest in serving their nation in uniform. What has changed?

America has been without a draft for over a quarter of a century. Consequently, many teenagers are living with parents who have never served in uniform. The parents' experience with "things military" may be from the movies, books and news reports. Often these are grossly inaccurate, and often not very flattering to the military community. As we move to a smaller and smaller armed force, there are simply fewer parental role models for today's youth.

In the past decade, with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union, America has reduced the number of men and women on active duty by one third, down from 2,100,000 to about 1,350,000. As a consequence, there are fewer veterans returning to our communities today to serve as role models and share their military experiences. We are also witnessing the passing of about 1,000 WW II veterans every day. Again, fewer role models and fewer voices.

The successful completion of the Cold War also triggered the much-needed closing of military bases around the nation and around the world. These closures have created a vacuum in many communities for young men and women to share military experiences with military "brats" and their parents.

Certainly, a very favorable economic climate finds fewer and fewer "recruits" for all walks of life. We are, as a nation, essentially at full employment. The competition to engage these young people is strong. There also is a much greater propensity for high school graduates to continue their education at the college and university level. In fact, about two out of three high school graduates do so.

Virtually every survey taken at the military basic training sites reveals that the top reason for enlisting in the services is "to continue their education while on active duty." In spite of this interest in education, there are about 2,000 high schools in America where two or more services are denied access to directory information on 17- and 18-year-old students. Interestingly, the information is provided to those who sell classbooks, rings, caps, gowns, etc. This lack of access to student information and, in fact, to the students, severely restricts the military recruiting efforts in these communities.

Societal issues also impact heavily on recruiting for the armed forces. All of the services seek young men and women who are high school graduates, physically fit, drug free and without felony charges. Those qualities further limit the pool of eligible recruits.

But what about those opportunities I mentioned at the top of this journal article?

The armed services offer outstanding education and training opportunities along with lifetime skills and knowledge acquired while serving the nation. There is virtually no limit to the types of training, education and jobs available in uniform.

There are hundreds of job specialties that offer enlistment bonuses ranging from $1,000 for a four-year enlistment to $12,000 and more for six-year enlistments in critical specialties.

While serving on active duty, members may continue their college-level education with up to 75 percent financial support. Further, service members may contribute part of their monthly pay and receive more than $19,000 for college with the Montgomery GI Bill.

The leadership experiences available cannot be overemphasized. We literally take teenagers off the streets of their hometowns and in a very short period put them in charge of multi-million-dollar equipment. And they get invaluable supervisory responsibilities.

The crew chief of a multi-million C-130 cargo plane at Pope AFB, or an F-15E Strike Eagle at Seymour Johnson, may well be a three striper with but four years of service. That is an incredible responsibility for a young man or woman a few years out of high school.

When these young men and women leave the service, whether it is after their initial hitch, or whether they stay in for a career, they have a leg up on their peers. They are loaded with talent; they are healthy, physically fit and drug free; they are dedicated to a strong work ethic; they are highly trained in technical disciplines; and they are experienced supervisors, managers and leaders. In most every case, they are just what an employer is looking for.

Of course, there are plentiful opportunities also for those who are college bound, in college, or about to graduate.

The various military academies need about 7,000 freshmen each year. The Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard academies offer the finest education available, and without cost to the student or family. While competition for these coveted slots is high, so is the reward if selected.

A structured military academy lifestyle may not be for everyone. But there is an alternative. The services also offer Reserve Officer Training Corps programs at most colleges and universities. In the Air Force, for example, there are about 7,500 four-year, three-year and two-year scholarships available each year. Students pursuing degrees in electrical engineering, computer science, math, physics and other technical fields could end up with a program covering all or part of tuition, books, most fees, and a $200 monthly stipend. Upon graduation they are commissioned as Second Lieutenants and are immediately thrust into key supervisory positions.

Allow me to get personal with this opportunity thing. I came from an excessively poor family. I lost my father when I was 10 years old, and I lived in a Masonic home for fatherless boys from age 14 until I joined the United States Air Force -- an Air Force that taught me to fly, permitted me to obtain bachelor's and master's degrees while serving on active duty. The Air Force allowed me to travel and serve in all parts of the world. It gave me ample opportunity to serve my country, and it made my family a part of the Air Force family.

There are over 200,000 opportunities like that each year in America! This is the second in a series of monthly columns written by retired U.S. Air ForceLt. Gen. Robert D. Springer. Springer is the president of NovaLogic Systems Inc., of Calabasas, Calif., which provides integrated PC software solutions to the defense community and others in the areas of simulation, mission editing, distributive mission training and planning, terrain database modeling and visualization. Gen. Springer is also a public speaker, lecturer and media consultant, including for WRAL-TV5.

In addition to his motivational speeches, he talks on ethics, leadership, national defense and foreign policy issues. He is the military consultant for the CBS affiliate, WRAL-TV5, in Raleigh, N.C. He has also appeared on the PBS McNeil-Lehrer News Hour, C-SPAN, Fox News, National Public Radio, ABC Radio and others.