Overseas recruiters find rewards despite obstacles
Stars and Stripes August 26, 2009
Sandra Laird often asks herself "What the heck am I doing?"
Usually, the question pops up when she’s out for a run to get in shape, struggling with push-ups, studying for a military entrance exam or tending to the needs of her four children.
At 34, Laird is joining the growing group of military recruits seeking a better future amid the downturn in the global job market.
Until recently, Laird, an American citizen married to an Italian, worked at an Italian pastry bar. Her wages were almost embarrassing, she said.
With little or no prospect of finding a decent-paying job in Naples, Italy — either on the economy or at the U.S. Navy base there, Laird said she sauntered into the recruiting station several weeks ago, ready and willing to sign up.
"I was dumb. I wished I had done this many, many years ago," said Laird, who just made the Navy’s age cutoff.
Candidates such as Laird are a welcome sight for military recruiters stationed overseas.
Here, recruiters can’t just walk into any off-base shopping center and start talking up the military to the mall rats. They can’t man a booth at a county fair or camp out at unemployment offices to woo the unemployed. The recruiting pool overseas is pretty much limited to graduating high school seniors.
While those teens are equipped with firsthand knowledge of the stresses of military life and the deployments that have taken their parents to war, recruiters can counter with perks such as bonuses, guaranteed medical care, steady paychecks, retirement plans, housing and the revamped GI Bill with increased education benefits.
Federal law authorizes the defense secretary to collect student directory information for military recruiting purposes from any secondary school that receives federal money through the No Child Left Behind Act, including schools operated by the DOD, said Maggie Menzies, spokeswoman for Department of Defense Dependents Schools-Europe.
In addition to the limited recruiting pool, overseas recruiters must endure the long hours and the stress of meeting monthly quotas that all recruiters deal with.
The overseas recruiters said they must often moonlight as chauffeurs.
Overseas offices don’t have centralized Military Entrance Processing Stations, a one-stop station for recruit testing and medical screening. Overseas recruiters often ferry recruits to one doctor’s office for eye exams, possibly another location for blood work, and yet another site to take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, the standard military entrance exam.
It’s a harder job than most people think, said 1st Sgt. Jeffrey Martin, an Army recruiter based in Heidelberg, Germany.
The Army recruiting company in Europe is divided into stations at Grafenwöhr, Wiesbaden and Kaiserslautern, all in Germany, and each is staffed with three recruiters. The company’s overall monthly goals range from 10 to 15 active-duty recruits and two to six Reserve recruits.
The main factor that determines Army recruiting goals is the number of recruiters in an area, Martin said. The nine recruiters cover all of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.
By contrast, the Navy’s average goal in Europe is one active-duty and one Reserve recruit per month. But, the two recruiters in southern Italy cover Spain, Italy, Turkey and Bahrain. Several factors drive the goals, such as the number of recruits in an area, the number and experience of assigned recruiters, and historical recruiting trends, said Petty Officer Cathy Sund, a Navy recruiter based in Naples, Italy.
Despite the stresses, the job has its perks, recruiters said.
"I’ve done rural — we’re talking cornfield rural — and I’ve done metro, and this [overseas job] is so much more rewarding," said Sund, a 23-year veteran finishing her last tour in Naples before retiring.
For servicemembers who take on a recruiting post, especially an overseas one, it often translates to a quicker promotion if they work hard, Sund said, as promotion boards note that members volunteered for a difficult job.
"You can spend a couple of years recruiting and then rejoin the fleet one pay grade higher," said Sund, who spent six years as a reservist before coming on active duty.
During a robust economy, military services have to offer more incentives, such as cash bonuses and college funds with more job specialties, to attract recruits, Martin said. But because of today’s sagging economy, recruiting is easier.
Current active-duty members are reluctant to leave the security of a guaranteed paycheck and go out into an unstable economy, driving down the number of new recruits the services need each month.
During these tough economic times, each of the services has consistently reported meeting or exceeding recruiting and retention goals. In June, for example, the Marine Corps’ accessions were at 114 percent of its monthly goal, followed by the Army at 103 percent and the Navy and Air Force each at 100 percent, according to the most recent data released by the Pentagon.
When the job market is in bad shape, the military benefits and can be much more selective in whom commands admit, said Senior Chief Petty Officer Tom Jones, spokesman with Navy Recruiting Command.
For Laird, a mother of four, the Navy is providing the opportunity she was looking for. While she is concerned about having to serve sea duty away from her family for months at a time or being deployed to a combat zone, she thinks the risk is worth taking if it gets her out of the unemployment line and into a steady-paying job with health care benefits for her family.
"There are no guarantees I’ll get shore duty, but there’s a chance for giving my kids a better life," she said.
Star and Stripes reporter Lisa M. Novak contributed to this story.