Military striving to meet the challenges of recruiting during the coronavirus pandemic
By ERIKA I. RITCHIE | The (Anaheim, Calif.) Orange County Register | Published: May 24, 2020
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ANAHEIM, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — Struggling in the coronavirus-tightened market to find a replacement for his lost pizza-delivery job, Anthony Hernandez switched gears entirely and headed to the Marine Corps Recruit Station in Lake Forest.
Since he was 8, he said, he dreamed of becoming a Marine and serving his country.
But a large Psalms 23:4 tattoo on his forearm fell too low in what the Marines consider a “violation zone” — the 2 inches above the wrist.
“At first, they told me I could get a waiver and I thought I was good to go,” the 20-year-old Irvine resident said. “Then they told me the tattoo was a disqualifier. I was extremely disappointed.
“I always wanted to earn the title of Marine; I looked up to that.”
A couple of hours later, Hernandez got a call from Sgt. Nathaniel Hardin about opportunities in the Army. The Marine recruiter had given the Army recruiter a call.
Hernandez, who now sees himself as more of a soldier, signed up for the infantry with hopes of going to Airborne School.
“The goal isn’t to compete, but to help people looking to serve in the military,” said Hardin.
In fact, most recruiting stations include all service branches in one location so candidates can see what best suits their goals.
But when the coronavirus pandemic hit, military recruiters nationwide shut down that public access and went to digital platforms. In doing so, they’ve adjusted to a new normal, changing the way they’ve recruited for generations.
While both the Army and the Marine Corps have used digital platforms to supplement their face-to-face training, the pandemic forced their exclusive use. As recruiters adjust to the digital space, they are finding it likely could have a lasting impact on filling military ranks of the future.
At the begin of the year, goals for recruitment are set for each branch to make sure they know they’ll have the force they need ready to meet their missions.
While about 75% of recruits for the Marine Corps and the Army come from recent high school graduates or community college students, recruiters now are hearing more from those whose job prospects have taken a hit because of the pandemic.
But graduation season and summertime are typically when both military branches process and ship the largest number of recruits to boot camp, and recruiters have seen a dropoff recently as the coronavirus outbreak confuses daily life. Also, mandatory quarantines have delayed recruits and positive cases have popped up.
One option being used while virus concerns delay shipping the enlisted to training is a “soft contract,” said Lt. Col. John Bleigh, who heads up the U.S. Army Southern California Recruiting Battalion. Bleigh oversees 36 recruiting stations from Barstow to the Mexican border including in Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside and San Diego counties.
“These soft contracts are a critical tool we use to fill the gaps and predict how we will fare when shipping and enlisting ramps back up to full capacity,” he said. As soon as recruits can report to Military Entrance Processing Commands, the soft contracts will turn to official contracts.
“People are answering the call to service by working with us to commit once we can safely enlist and ship them to basic training,” Bleigh said.
As of mid-March this year, officials with the Army’s Recruiting Command say they are 2,200 contracts ahead of where they were at the same point last year. With respect to hard numbers, they are even with May 2019. They are 4,000 contracts short of their projected goal.
Before the coronavirus, recruiters used area canvassing, in which they worked with counselors at high schools and had booths at sporting events and pop-ups at malls. Meetings were face-to-face, and it was easier to build relationships and to develop trust.
On March 18, the Army — the nation’s largest and oldest military branch — was the first service to shut down its 1,400 recruiting stations. Recruiters were told to target potential candidates via social media, through texts and via phone.
The Marine Corps followed on March 25 with plans to prospect only in the virtual sphere. By then, the Department of Defense’s recruiting force of more than 20,100 service members had shut down public access to recruiting storefronts.
“It’s been night and day,” said Staff Sgt. Robert Gladysz, who oversees five recruiters in the Marine Corps Torrance Recruiting Station. “It’s not necessarily a bad thing. It was required, and as Marines, we’re trained to adapt.”
The Marine Corps Recruiting Command already had invested in developing standardized digital engagement training designed to ensure their recruiters understood the basics of interacting with young people who have lived much of their lives with social media.
For awhile, Gladysz and his recruiters worked from home. Recently, their recruiting station is among a handful that has reopened.
They work in shifts now to make sure they are appropriately socially distanced. Inside their recruiting station, they wear masks, wipe down their workspaces in the morning and at night, and take the temperature of anyone walking in.
Each spends hours on the phone, texting and chatting with prospects in an environment that’s safe from the threats of COVID-19.
“We build relationships with highly qualified volunteers looking to earn the title Marine,” Gladysz said. “That hasn’t changed because of the pandemic.”
Building those relationships isn’t as easy using digital interactions.
“It’s growing pains on what works and what doesn’t,” Gladysz said. “You might shoot them a message and it kind of falls off and on. It’s not like meeting someone in person. On your phone, you have distractions when you’re going about your day.”
He and his recruiters have found that once they have the potential recruit engaged, moving the conversation to an Instagram video or Zoom where both can see each other makes a huge difference. That’s where they can humanize the interaction, figure out the potential candidate’s goals and determine the best fit.
“I think we’re a lot more effective than when we started,” he said.
Boot camp and coronavirus
In comparison with this time last year, in the entire 12th Marine Corps District — essentially the West Coast — there has been a 14.6% decrease in the number of recruits shipping off to boot camp and a 39.18% decrease in April.
Some of the shipping requirements have been adjusted to deal with the coronavirus impacts, While numbers are lower, Marine recruiting officials say they expect to meet the overall mission requirement.
Marine recruit Christopher Diaz, 20, a recruit from Hawthorne, shipped out on March 31.
Four days into the beginning of basic training at the San Diego depot, he and the rest of the Marine recruits in Bravo Company went into quarantine. They were the last recruit company that shipped out before official quarantine orders went into effect.
Diaz signed up with the Marines in December and was excited to start his 13-week training.
“We were preparing to get chow when an official came in and told us we’d be quarantined for 14 days,” he said. “The whole platoon was caught by surprise. I was concerned about coronavirus before I shipped, but I never thought it would affect my platoon.”
The two weeks turned to four weeks. At first, Diaz was by himself in a small room; then he got a roommate. They were confined to their room and were allowed to open their door only for food or visits from the Navy corpsmen who did medical checks twice per day.
“I looked forward to those because they were our only social interaction,” Diaz said.
Now, two weeks back into his training, Diaz sees some of the benefits to the quarantine — so does Staff Sgt. Cole Chandler, his drill instructor.
“Usually, when civilians first get here, they’re concerned about themselves,” Chandler said. “Now, I see them coming together as a small group.”
That’s especially important as training gets harder. Chandler also gives credit to the families of the Marine recruits during the quarantine.
“Without them, they may not have made it through,” he said. “I had them call all their moms on Mother’s Day.”
Meanwhile, Hernandez, whose contract is signed, is doing his best to get ready for his infantry Army job. He’s getting stronger by hiking almost daily in Aliso and Woods Canyon. At 6 feet tall, he’s dropped his weight from 220 pounds to 185 pounds.
“I feel healthy, and my mind is more clear,” he said.
On July 27, he will ship out to Fort Benning, Ga. In the infantry, he expects to see combat, but said that doesn’t scare him.
“We all need to do what we can to protect our country,” he said. “If it weren’t for our ancestors in all the past wars, we wouldn’t have the country we have today.”