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Whether for patriotism, adventure or economic opportunity, recruits are streaming into Fort Benning, Ga., this summer for infantry training and a frontline role in the war on terrorism.

Even as news outlets emphasize the chaos and casualties of Iraq, and a divided U.S. citizenry debates the wisdom of the war there, the Infantry Training Brigade at Benning is flush with volunteers, many of whom can expect to face combat in the coming months or years.

The swell of volunteers is more evidence, officials contend, of the resiliency and vitality of the all-volunteer U.S. military.

Lt. Col. Allen Smith, deputy commander of the Infantry Training Brigade, said in a phone interview that the courage of these young men, arriving in groups of 220 almost every Friday, will compare well, in time, to the celebrated, draft-induced “Greatest Generation” of World War II.

Despite the dangers and hardships of Iraq and Afghanistan, Smith said, “We still see a very dedicated young man [enlisting] to serve his country. Tom Brokaw wrote the book about The Greatest Generation. We say, well, this generation has a lot [too]. It’s just that history hasn’t identified yet what this generation is going to do.”

Fort Benning, the hub of Army infantry training, is bustling as the Army tries to grow by at least 10,000 troops a year through 2006 and to rebalance forces to meet wartime commitments and ease the burden of too frequent deployments on active and reserve component units.

The Army is growing “as fast as we can,” said Gen. Peter Schoomaker, its chief of staff at a July 26 press conference. He described efforts to recruit more youth, to retain more experienced soldiers and to attract separating Navy and Air Force members under a “Blue to Green” initiative.

The Infantry Training Brigade at Benning has grown from 24 companies to 30 since spring, and will reach 37 companies by December. The increase in training capacity will be enough to produce 10,500 more infantrymen a year, atop the current annual average of 14,000.

Apart from the obvious strain on recruiters who must scramble to sign enough volunteers, the heavier stream of infantry recruits poses infrastructure and supply line challenges at Benning, Smith said.

Modular barracks are spouting. Firing ranges are so taxed that coordination of schedules must be precise. Dental and medical staffs need to expand. Extra buses have been leased to transport recruits between training sites. Extra bunks, wall lockers and personal gear, including helmets and packs, are on order. So far the brigade has avoided shortages that could slow training but it’s a great worry as the end of the fiscal year approaches.

Brigade statistics show the typical infantry recruit is 20 years old. All are men because women are banned from the infantryman specialty. Seventy-nine percent of infantry recruits are white, 8 percent black and 13 percent are other races including Hispanic. Seven percent have some college education, 65 percent are high school graduates, 21 percent did not graduate but passed a General Educational Development (GED) exam. Seven percent of infantry recruits are listed only as “non-high school graduates.” Ten percent are married.

After 14 weeks and a graduation, most infantry soldiers go on to other training like airborne school, Ranger indoctrination, Special Forces training or specific instruction on the Bradley Fighting Vehicle or Dragon anti-tank missile. Some soldiers, however, go directly to a divisional unit and if that unit is headed to Iraq or Afghanistan, so are they.

Some Army officials, like many outside observers, expected a dip in recruiting for the combat arms after U.S. forces invaded and occupied Iraq. That hasn’t occur, Smith said, and he isn’t sure why. [Almost 1,000 U.S. servicemembers have died and more than 4,600 have suffered wounds.]

Despite the Army’s push to train infantrymen, Smith said, training standards have not changed. No one is cutting corners. At graduation, even with tours in Iraq or Afghanistan looming, “families are so appreciative” of changes in their sons, seeing them transformed to soldiers, Smith said.

“I just tell them, ‘Hey, it’s the drill sergeant that works that magic.’”

Graduate soldiers and families, Smith said, are no more likely today to dwell on the dangers ahead than they were before the war in Iraq. “There is apprehension but it is not widespread. There is inquisitiveness but not massive [worry] over what they face.”

That they are there at all, as volunteers, is a small miracle to many Americans.

— To comment, write Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA 20120-1111, e-mail milupdate@aol.com or visit: www.militaryupdate.com


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