Military recruiting is lagging

High tuition costs no boon for recruiters

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With graduation just around the corner, most high school seniors have already decided what their immediate future will hold. Many will be heading off to college, some will be going straight into the workforce, and a decreasing number will be headed into the military.

Whether they are potential officers or enlisted personnel, the military is proving to be a less attractive option for high school seniors than at any time in the past dozen years, said U.S. Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Ivan Lebron, a Marine Corps recruiter based in Brooklyn.

According to the terms of the Every Child Succeeds Act signed by President Obama in 2015, students should be exposed to a wide range of education and career options. “We’re all supposed to be able to put our messages in front of the kids equally,” Lebron said. “But some schools don’t like us to come in.” Sewanhaka High School, in Elmont, is cooperative, he said, but other schools throughout Nassau County, from which he recruits students, are less so.

None of this year’s five valedictorians in the Sewanhaka Central High School District reported considering the service academies — the Air Force Academy, the Coast Guard Academy, the Merchant Marine Academy, the Military Academy at West Point or the Naval Academy — or the Reserve Officers Training Corps programs as possibilities for the coming academic year. Sewanhaka takes in Elmont, Floral Park, Franklin Square and New Hyde Park.

“You don’t have to be a valedictorian to qualify” for an appointment to a service academy, according to guidance counselor Gregory Ledger, who serves as the liaison between students and military recruiters at Elmont Memorial High School. “Many of the top kids have the grades for these programs,” said Ledger, who was the only guidance counselor among the Sewanhaka district’s five high schools to respond to a Herald inquiry about military recruitment.

The drop-off in military recruiting is surprising, given rising tuition costs, which averaged nearly $35,000 for the four years ending with the 2017-18 academic year, according to collegedata.com.

“The Marine Corps is smaller than the Army — about 200,000, so it’s not as tough” to meet recruiting targets, Lebron said. The Army has more than a million men and women in uniform, including regular Army, National Guard and Army Reserves. But even with fewer spots to fill, recruiting in the schools has been challenging for the Marines, he said.

For recruiters, the biggest challenge is to find ways of communicating the opportunities that the military can provide, according to Lt. Col. Judd Floris, commander of the Army’s New York City Recruiting Battalion. Based in Brooklyn, Floris’s command also has responsibility for Nassau and Westchester counties.

“Seventy-nine percent of recruits have a friend or family member in the military,” Floris said. A declining veteran population means fewer people with firsthand awareness of the military as a way of life. “There’s a misperception of what the military is,” Floris said. Much of what people know about the military is conditioned by what they see in the media, he said. “People who live near a military base have some awareness from first-hand experience.” In a metropolitan area, however, the military is less a part of people’s consciousness.

“The Army has 150 specialties,” Floris said. “They’re not all combat arms.” For example, he pointed to more than 50 specialties in the health care field alone.

For seniors interested in a career as an officer, the military offers a number of tracks, Floris said. First, they can seek appointment to a military academy by a congressional representative or U.S. senator. Each member is allowed a limited number of appointments. Students who matriculate at the service academies are full-time members of the military, and as such, receive the complete range of military benefits, in addition to a monthly stipend.

Students interested in the service academies “need to begin setting that up by their sophomore year,” Ledger said. “They have to get together their testimonials from elected officials and all the documentation necessary in order to receive a congressional appointment.” Students who wait until their senior year to begin the process usually learn that it is too late, he added.

Many civilian colleges also offer ROTC programs. Such programs differ from service to service, but most provide tuition assistance and a stipend to help defray living expenses. In the case of the Marine Corps, “it’s a full ride,” Lebron said. “They get 100 percent of their tuition paid, whether they go to a school with a ROTC program or even to a school close to a magnet school” with a program. ROTC members also receive living expenses. In the New York metropolitan area, these can total as much as $3,800 per month, he said.

But financial incentives are not as attractive as might be supposed, according to Ledger.

He said the students who are interested in math and science or who want to pursue careers in criminal justice are most likely to consider a military option. “The Navy has a ‘nuclear’ program that focuses on the best, most brilliant math and science students — STEM students,” he said. “We had one student, but he decided to change his major to biology.”

Floris, a 1999 West Point graduate and member of the Army’s elite Special Forces, emphasized the benefits of a military career. But he also underscored the ways in which military service can provide advantages for careers in civilian life. The Post 9/11 Bill of Rights — an updated version of the original G.I. Bill — provides free tuition for nearly every veteran. That benefit is also transferable to veterans’ dependents. Floris completed an advanced degree from Georgetown University as a member of the Army, “so I won’t need my tuition benefit.” His two children will, and Floris has transferred his tuition benefit to them. Lebron, a 17-year Marine Corps veteran, also completed his education while on active duty. He, too, has transferred his tuition benefit to his children.

Beyond that, “the military can prepare a person for almost any civilian career. Ninety percent of military specialties have their counterparts in civilian life,” Floris said. And “employers find military experience advantageous,” both for the level of training and experience, as well as the leadership qualities most veterans develop, he said. “Nearly everyone ends up with soldiers under his or her command,” he said. “How many other 25-year-olds have that?”

Lebron agreed, especially in the case of those not yet ready for college. “So much emphasis is on going to college, but a lot of students aren’t prepared to do college work,” he said.

Both Floris and Lebron made clear, however, that joining the military isn’t just an alternative way of paying for college or training for a career in technology or health care. “Sixty percent of Marines are combat arms,” Lebron cautioned. Both Floris and Lebron served overseas tours in combat zones. “We talk to them about service,” Floris said. It is one of the many ways in which the military is a different kind of path.

Ledger concurred. “For anyone not interested in college, the military is always an option we want to make available” in terms of information, he said. “It really comes down to the kid. If they’re passionate about it, it doesn’t take much persuasion.”