More than eight years into fighting two wars, the U.S. military finds itself in an odd but enviable position: All four military branches and all six Reserve components reached their recruiting targets, both in quality and quantity, for the first time in the history of the all-volunteer force.
Eschewing the cold call and hard sell for what it calls the "soft lead," the military is employing the latest marketing techniques to secure the newest generation of recruits, who are plucked from an increasingly select pool of applicants. In a turnaround from as little as five years ago, Armed Forces enlistment requirements have never been higher.
"There's an awful lot of good kids out there who are coming out of high school with no job prospects or are having trouble affording college or don't see college is the route for them. That's the prime recruiting market," said William Strickland, a retired Air Force colonel who commanded recruiting in the western United States.
For a glimpse at prime recruiting territory for this new military, take a look at Mankato, Minn. In the past two years, the Mankato area has had 143 recruits sign on the dotted line to join the various branches of the military, with the Minnesota National Guard by far the leader. Last year, the Guard boasted a 60 percent share of the military recruitment market.
In Mankato, the recruiting effort has included things such as trucking in climbing walls at high schools after proms to sponsoring tournaments when the latest version of the combat video game "Call of Duty" comes out. Knocking down conventional wisdom, it also is in places such as Mankato where potential recruits are more likely to meet the increasingly demanding standards the military puts on its enlistees.
"It's been a lot of long hours to learn what the area is like and what the area needed, plus what the units needed," said Staff Sgt. Lawrence Eustice, one of three Guard recruiters stationed in Mankato.
Guard recruiters are all volunteers and receive no commission or extra benefits for the number of recruits they sign.
"They get paid the same whether the applicant says yes or no," said Maj. Jess Ulrick, commander of the southern Minnesota Guard recruiting team.
Recruiters such as Eustice say a sense of community and a desire to serve are motivating the high number of military recruits in the Mankato area. Detractors say a stifling economy and few choices are the motivation, reflecting national recruitment trends.
Rural and semi-rural communities always have been outstanding recruiting markets, experts say, because kids want to get out of town. Blue-collar and middle-class areas are represented in the all-volunteer force because, on average, potential recruits from poorer communities might have criminal backgrounds, lower test scores, or have difficulty meeting the physical requirements. Recruits from higher-income areas are likely to go through ROTC in college or enter the service academies.
The atmosphere in Mankato is not always conducive to recruitment. In April, members of the Mankato Area Activist Collective set up a counter recruiting table outside a recruitment station, protesting what they said were lies perpetrated by recruiters about military service.
"The college and the community draw people in, and once they are in and they can't succeed either educationally or professionally, they are sitting with that one option left and it's military service," said James Dimock, an assistant professor at Minnesota State University at Mankato, and a faculty adviser to the group. "People with financial options almost never choose the military."
A Government Accountability Office report to Congress found that substantiated cases of recruiter irregularities accounted for less than 1 percent of overall enlistees. But it also warned that if economic conditions improve, it may become more difficult for the military to find the kind of recruits it is getting now.