March 18, 1999

Who's Watching the Fort?

-A nervous glance at youth and the military-

by Barbara Kent

With Kosovo rumbling darkly in the background and Desert Storm an uncomfortably recent memory, current National military enlistment statistics are a source of concern for recruiters. In 1978 134,428 young men and women enlisted in the U.S. Army. In 1988 the number slouched to 115,386, but by 1998 enlistment had dwindled to 71,749. The decline in the numbers of enlisted military personnel is most meaningful when we recognize that in 1991, during Operation Desert Shield /Desert Storm, of the 309 Army units deployed in the Gulf, only 20 were regular, full-time Active Army. The remaining units were the "reserve component," that is, not "full time" comprised of 117 National Guard and 172 Army Reserves.

The Army is not the only branch of the armed forces suffering from declining first time enlistments. Commander Ed Gurkee, Long Island Naval Recruiter said "Unemployment is low, so enlistment is too...not only in the Navy but businesses are also having a hard time finding people. We met our (recruitment) goals, but we are just barely meeting them. Last year the navy fell 7000 people short nationwide." A strong economy traditionally equates to lower military enlistments.

Out of a graduating class of between 75-85 in 1998, Mercy High School had one student enlist. There had not been another in recent memory. According to Sister Joan, at the Mercy H.S. Guidance Office, that one enlistment is an increase. "Most of our students are college bound," she said. Last year, three Mattituck High School graduates enlisted, one went into the Navy another went into the Airforce and the third won an Army scholarship, along with a Southold student who also won the Army scholarship, but later declined it. Chief Jim Clausen, High School Naval Science Instructor of the Southold-Mattituck NJROTC Unit, says that "...maybe 8 to 10% of NJROTC cadets enlist in some form of military. If anything this has historically increased due to scholarships, the advent of high tech in service and lots of great benefits-- the service offers fantastic bonuses, and economic and educational incentives."
Commander Gurkee grew up on Long Island's North Shore, and affirms Chief Clausen's position. "Finding a decent job is not easy. Long Island students are interested in the higher tech jobs and medical programs. They're not just looking for a way out of town, but a way to get a good education and valuable skills. We have college programs too...a lot of advanced program degrees that we can offer. Island recruits are mainly kids who have graduated and are in the work force and aren't happy with the job they have and they're looking for a way to pay for college. The Navy offers a $50,000.00 college fund."

With all of the benefits, education, and job opportunity that the military offers, why are more students not taking advantage of it? The Riverhead High School guidance office suggested that "You have to pass tests...they don't take drop outs. The tests are very rigid and those who might want to go into the military might not be accepted." Commander Gurkee agrees. "We need people who did well in High School. I went to the academy 18 years ago. It is popular on the Island and the competition is difficult. In 18 years the criteria have changed and it's like getting into any good college. The applicant must have good S.A.T. scores and extra curricular activities."

War was not a surprising deterrant to the students I spoke with. Britt Feingold, a 17 year old student at Mattituck High School said "I feel that I would not enjoy the army, and I am scared that a war would break out..." More interesting though, was the anxiety about hazing, a recently sensationalized problem with some new recruits. A male tenth grade former NJROTC student at Riverhead High School had this to say: "I think that the commercials that are on television are attractive, yet misleading. They do not show the behind the scenes training and virtual torture that goes on in the dorm rooms. It does not show the tight meals and poor treatment you receive during your stay in Boot Camp and such. I have also reconsidered my decision because of the fact that initiations take place, hazings if you will. I do not feel that I, nor any human being deserves that kind of treatment."

A young High School woman from Greenport said "I personally like the Air Force...Also in the Air Force women cannot fight in actual combat so it's a safer area of the military for women...I considered the armed forces because of the free housing and a chance for a good education. I stopped this idea quickly when I became aware of the length of service after completing your armed forces training and of all the harassment suits... I wouldn't join the military because of the sexual harassment that goes on in any of the branches of the armed forces. Women have been treated harshly and some have had to leave due to harassment."

There are also those who have taken advantage of what the Armed Forces have to offer. Enrique Morales was in Air Force JROTC for 3 years and was "prior enlisted" so he actually joined the military at the age of 18. He served for 4 years, and then entered the ROTC unit at Rennslaer Polytechnic Institute. Upon graduation, he was commissioned as an officer and has so far served almost 4 years. When he leaves active duty, he will continue to serve in the active reserves for at least 4 more years as part of his commitment. Enrique joined the Navy because they promised him a career in nuclear power.