RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're taking a look at the consequences of a little-noticed anniversary. Forty-five years ago, in the wake of the Vietnam War, the draft came to an end. Since then the U.S. has fielded an all-volunteer military force. Over the next couple of weeks, NPR will be looking at what that has meant for each of the armed services and for the country. This morning we start with the Army. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is with us.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.
MARTIN: So first a big-picture question. Overall, how has the all-volunteer military performed?
BOWMAN: You know, it's performed quite well. Since the end of the draft in 1973 you've had combat operations from Grenada to Panama. And, of course, Afghanistan and Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of troops have had combat deployments, and although you don't have large numbers of troops in any one location now, you still have today, Rachel, some 100,000 soldiers deployed all around the world in various countries training local forces or engaged in combat operations. Now, Army leaders are looking for more soldiers. They'd like to increase the total number in the Army to a half-million soldiers so they can get a rest. Or, as Army Secretary Mark Esper says, get soldiers off the hamster wheel.
MARTIN: So the pressure to fill the ranks falls most directly on recruiters, who find themselves in a squeeze between supply and demand. We go now to Jay Price of our member station WUNC for a frontline report.
JAY PRICE, BYLINE: Last spring, Army recruiters faced a historic mid-year increase for the number of active duty enlistees they were expected to sign. And when they squeaked by on that goal in October, they were given another huge increase for the next 12 months.
KELLI BLAND: So our target is 76,500 for the active duty Army to be completed by the end of September. It's a very challenging year for us, and it's already a challenging environment.
PRICE: Kelli Bland is a spokeswoman for the Army Recruiting Command. She says the Pentagon is adding hundreds of new recruiters and offering more enlistment bonuses. It's having some luck with higher reenlistment rates, which helps with the numbers. But recruiting is never easy, and right now it's especially hard. The labor market is near full employment, the Trump administration has made it harder to recruit immigrants, and most Americans, 71 percent, don't even qualify to enlist in part because so many are obese.
BLAND: People often have a lot of misperceptions about that, that they think it's easy to join. And it's really not. It's quite a challenge to meet all the requirements that we have for new enlistees.
PRICE: A growing divide between the military and civilian worlds hurts, too.
BLAND: About 50 percent of kids admit that they know little to nothing about the military. If kids don't know, and they have not been exposed to the military, they're not considering service.
PRICE: That divide recently spurred the Pentagon to start a nationwide public relations campaign to better familiarize civilians with the military and undermine stereotypes about it. And the Army is trying new ways to find people, like 23-year-old Jack Handly (ph), who just graduated from UNC Chapel Hill. He signed up after hearing from a recruiter online.
JACK HANDLY: The first contact was an email sent out to my department, and I messaged him back. And within a few hours, he'd added me on Facebook and direct messaged me, giving me the information to come to the office.
PRICE: In the high-effort, low-yield world of military recruiting, North Carolina is a good hunting ground. More than half of the Army is recruited from just seven states, including this one, California and Texas. Most are home to major military bases so people are more likely to be familiar with the military. But even in North Carolina, the job is hard for recruiters, like Staff Sergeant Miller McGowan. He was assigned to recruit students from UNC Chapel Hill and from a local high school.
MILLER MCGOWAN: Forty-thousand students go to the University North Carolina. How can I target 40,000 students?
PRICE: Not long ago, he said, a staple of recruiting was making 100 phone calls a day, working from lists of high school and college students, and just walking up to people in shopping malls and coffee shops. Recruiters still do those things, but now many, like McGowan, spend much of their time hunting online. His ratio of people he contacts to those who come in for a serious talk is about 8 to 1.
MCGOWAN: A lot of people in this area have a Facebook account, and it kind of opens up talking points.
PRICE: He's looking for that crucial detail or two that gives him a way into a real exchange, something that will give him a chance to make a connection.
MCGOWAN: Their page tells me where they're from, if they're into any extracurriculars at the school. Maybe it'll tell me a little bit of what their plan is, if we have mutual friends. You know? Maybe I've put somebody that they know in the Army.
PRICE: Last year the Army began tracking how many recruits are found via social media, and it set up a pilot program of virtual recruiting teams at dozens of local recruiting battalions. The teams use social media to search for candidates then hand off the best prospects to local recruiters. But even with the new approaches, McGowan says his three-person recruiting center is feeling pressure.
MCGOWAN: You know, it used to be in the recruiting world that if you got one enlistment a month, job well done. You know, you get a pat on the back, everything like that. But for us it's essentially double so it's very difficult, and we do kind of operate under the environment of you can go from hero to zero really quickly.
PRICE: And that's in a good location for recruiting.
MARTIN: We've got Jay Price on the line now. Jay, you have been talking to young recruits. What do they tell you when you ask why they have joined?
PRICE: Well, I mean, you know, first off, we've got 2 million people serving on active duty and in the Reserves, and they all have their own mixes of reasons. I mean, I hear people say they're joining for the challenge, a physical challenge, a mental challenge, helping pay for college or graduate degree. You know, some will flatly say they come from a messy background. I am struck by the number of times, particularly when you're talking with infantry troops, they come from families with a long and broad history of military service. There was one I was embedded with in Iraq who pulled out a Bible that his grandfather had carried when he fought in Normandy in World War II with the same unit.
MARTIN: Wow. Tom, every now and then someone does raise the idea of bringing back the draft, but this always just dies. It doesn't go anywhere. How come?
BOWMAN: Well, quite simply, there's no political support, and that issue rarely comes up in Congress. And Army officers I talk with really don't want a draft. They want people who choose to be in the Army, who want this as a profession. And also the military, they don't need millions of people marching around Fort Dix like you saw during World War II, and also it's very expensive. It would just cost a lot.
MARTIN: All right. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, and Jay Price, of our member station WUNC. Thanks to you both.
BOWMAN: You're welcome.
PRICE: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.