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Molly Parker had been thinking seriously about joining the military for the past few weeks, ever since her older brother returned from serving in Iraq as a Marine.
She was on her way to class at Mitchell College March 6 when she saw an Army recruiter outside the cafeteria with a table full of brochures and Army pins, bumper stickers and lanyards.
“If I sign up, will I go to Iraq?” Parker asked Sgt. First Class James R. Young Jr. “Do the reserves go first?”
Young said active-duty and reserve soldiers have a “pretty equal possibility” of being sent overseas, but that Parker would be able to finish college before qualifying to deploy.
The idea of going to war is “nerve-wracking,” but it is a part of serving today, Parker said. She made an appointment to meet Young at the recruiting station on Howard Street.
But dozens of other students walked by without picking up information or asking questions. Only a few students gave Young their contact information.
The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have made it harder to recruit soldiers into the active-duty Army and Army Reserve, said Andy Entwistle, chief of public affairs for the Albany Recruiting Battalion. The battalion covers recruiting in all of Connecticut and Vermont and parts of New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts.
“As people began to see the casualties and the reality of war on television, naturally that generates certain perceptions, and those are usually negative,” Entwistle said.
Those negative perceptions translated to fewer enlistments in the Army from Connecticut, most noticeably in 2005 and 2006, Entwistle said.
The state's 14 recruiting stations have had a combined goal ranging from 750 to 1,150 enlistments annually for the past seven years, none of which were met. Success rates ranged from 32 percent to 86 percent.
Nationally, Army recruiting fared better, making its goals almost every year. Entwistle said the national numbers are on the rise, with the Army on track to enlist 80,000 active-duty and 26,500 reserve soldiers this year.
From the start of the 2008 fiscal year in October until the end of February, 24,949 soldiers enlisted nationwide for active duty and 11,096 for the Army Reserve, Entwistle said.
Connecticut's numbers will not be available until the end of the year.
“We recognize there is still a significant challenge ahead, but we achieved the goal last year and we believe we will meet the challenge again this year,” Entwistle said.
Many recruiters are veterans of this conflict. Entwistle said they are “living proof that you can go overseas and come home again, and they have their own stories to tell.”
Cpl. Stephen Taylor, a recruiter at the Norwich Army Recruiting Station, wears a memorial bracelet for a friend, Cpl. Stanley J. Lapinski, who was killed in Baghdad in 2005. Potential recruits ask him about the bracelet.
“I'm honest. It's war. It happens,” said Taylor, who was in Baghdad from January 2005 to March 2006 with the 3rd Infantry Division. “I'm just glad my arms aren't full of bracelets.”
Taylor tells recruits about “the good, the bad and the ugly.”
“They can get on the Internet and find this stuff out, anyway,” he said.
“We don't sugarcoat anything here,” said Sgt. First Class Jack Hurley, Norwich station commander. “I'd much rather be honest and have them walk out the door than lie to an individual and have them make the wrong decision about joining the Army.”
On average, 30 to 35 people enlist in the Army annually from the Norwich station on West Main Street, and about 40 enlist each year from the New London station.
Recruiters call seniors in high school and recent graduates, visit schools and job fairs, and contact residents who request information from the Army's Web site. They tell everyone interested in enlisting that there is a chance that they will be sent to Iraq or Afghanistan, said both Hurley and Young, the station commander in New London.
What the war has done, they say, is weed out those who are primarily interested in the Army for its financial benefits.
“Before the war, people would have joined for the bonuses or college money,” Hurley said. “Now people join knowing there's a chance that they will go to war, so there's a sense of pride and service to country.”
Taylor summed it up: “We don't get the wishy-washy people.”
Before Sept. 11, 2001, recruiters pitched the Connecticut Army National Guard as a way to go to college for free, and about 850 people a year took them up on the offer.
But now it's an “accepted reality” that members of the National Guard have a strong possibility of deploying overseas, said Maj. Charles K. Jaworski Jr., recruiting and retention commander for the Connecticut Army National Guard.
Since 2004, about 4,000 of the state's Guard members — nearly 80 percent — have served a full-time deployment either in Iraq, Afghanistan or the United States. Some units may soon be mobilized to go overseas for a second time.
Anyone who has joined since 2001 has finished the six-year requirement and could have chosen to leave. But the majority are choosing to stay, with the retention rate at 75 percent — the highest in 10 years.
“Not only are they volunteers, but they all, for the most part, accept the fact that they may get sent overseas, and a lot of them have been overseas,” Jaworski said.
Initially, as local units were mobilized and sent off to war, the number of enlistees in the Connecticut Army National Guard plummeted to the lowest in recent history, with just under 400 enlisting in 2004 and 2005. The goal was about 800 recruits each year.
Jaworski attributes the turnaround to people wanting to serve their country and their state, and the increased incentives to do so.
The Guard still offers free tuition to 17 state schools and community colleges. It now also gives bonuses of up to $20,000 for select jobs and retention bonuses for re-enlisting.
A program begun in late 2005 offers soldiers $2,000 for each person they refer to the Guard who signs up. That has accounted for a third of the gains since the start of the 2008 fiscal year, Jaworski said.
The number of recruiters has almost doubled, to 41, and the Guard is opening storefront recruiting offices to have a presence in communities that are not close to the state armories.
“We acknowledged the fact that recruiting was going to be harder and that there was going to be a tendency to not want to join the military once the war was going on,” Jaworski said. “We flooded the market with National Guard recruiters saying, 'We need you now more than ever.' ”
In 2006, more than 600 people joined the state's Army National Guard, and last year more than 500 people joined. The Guard is on track to meet its goal of 700 new enlistees in 2008, with about 250 signed up by the end of February, according to figures from the Guard.
“It's noble to join the military, to serve your country and your state,” Jaworski said. “It's patriotic, and some of that went away in 2003, 2004 and 2005. We're trying to get that back.”
The military's readiness for future conflicts will depend on people like Seth Howard, who chose to enlist despite the war.
Howard graduated from Stonington High School in 2006 and moved from one unfulfilling job to the next.
“I was going nowhere, and the military looked like one of the few options that, if I put my mind to it, if I really got myself out there, they would give back,” said Howard, a 20-year-old Pawcatuck resident who hopes to pursue his college education in the Army.
The service offers tuition assistance and money to pay back student loans. A new incentive program pays enlistees up to $40,000 to buy a house or start a business after their military commitment is finished.
Howard is filling out paperwork to enlist as an active-duty soldier, and he hopes to work in intelligence. As for deploying to Iraq or Afghanistan, he says he will avoid it if he can.
“Some soldiers are brave enough to join infantry. I'm really not that tough,” he said. “If it comes along, if I'm asked to do it, I will. I've considered it, and I know that you get a certain respect when you get out because you served your country and put in your dues. On Veterans Day, you know the parade is going to be for you.”