FOUNTAIN, Colo. — The local Army recruiting station was empty. The normally reliable recruiting grounds at the nearby Walmart were a bust. With the Army still thousands of soldiers short of its recruiting goal, the station commander, Sergeant 1st Class James Pulliam, dressed head to toe in camouflage, scanned a strip mall parking lot for targets.
He spotted a young woman getting out of a car and put on his best salesman smile.
“Hey, how’d you know I was going to be here today!” the sergeant said with an affable Carolina drawl, as if greeting an old friend. “I’m going to help put you in the Army!”
These are tough times for military recruiting. Almost across the board, the armed forces are experiencing large shortfalls in enlistments this year — a deficit of thousands of entry-level troops that is on pace to be worse than any since just after the Vietnam War. It threatens to throw a wrench into the military’s machinery, leaving critical jobs unfilled and some platoons with too few people to function.
COVID-19 is part of the problem. Lockdowns during the pandemic have limited recruiters’ ability to forge bonds face to face with prospects. And the military’s vaccine mandate has kept some would-be troops away.
The current white-hot labor market, with many more jobs available than people to fill them, is also a factor, as rising civilian wages and benefits make military service less enticing.
But longer-term demographic trends are also taking a toll. Less than one-quarter of young American adults are physically fit to enlist and have no disqualifying criminal record, a proportion that has shrunk steadily in recent years. And shifting attitudes toward military service mean that now only about 1 in 10 young people say they would even consider it.
To try to counter those forces, the military has pushed enlistment bonuses as high as $50,000 and is offering “quick ship” cash of up to $10,000 for certain recruits who can leave for basic training in 30 days. To broaden the recruiting pool, the service branches have loosened their restrictions on neck tattoos and other standards. In June, the Army even briefly dropped its requirement for a high school diploma, before deciding that was a bad move and rescinding the change.
The Army is the largest of the armed forces, and the recruiting shortfall is hitting it the hardest. As of late June, it had recruited only about 40 percent of the roughly 57,000 new soldiers it wants to put in boots by Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.
So Pulliam, 41, a helicopter mechanic who turned to recruiting five years ago, was hunting for anyone who might want to join, even if they did not know it yet.
Like many soldiers who make recruiting their career, he believed in what he was selling because he knew what Army service had done for him. Before he enlisted in 2012, he was a 31-year-old warehouse worker in North Carolina, working extra shifts to support his three children. A year later, he was working on AH-64 Apaches, with his housing and education paid for by the Army.
“It changed my entire life,” he said. “And that’s the gift I have to give to other people. You just have to find the people that need it.” He chuckled and added, “That ain’t always easy.”
The young woman in the strip mall parking lot was on her way to get a pizza and looked confused when the tall man in green began pitching her on the benefits of serving her country. She eventually apologized politely and said she could not join up, gesturing to an insulin pump clipped to her shorts.
The sergeant made a mental note: diabetic, not fit to serve. But he did not give up.
“OK, well, just give me a name — one number I can call, right now,” he pressed. “You’ve got to know someone who might want to join. One number, and I’ll leave you alone.”
Seconds later, he was on the phone with one of the woman’s friends. “She says you want to join the Army,” the sergeant said, as if he were announcing the winning Powerball numbers. “Where you work? I can meet you when you get done.”
The sergeant paused, turned and said, “Dude just hung up on me!”
The other branches are not having any easier of a time. The Navy and Marine Corps do not release recruiting figures before the end of the fiscal year, a spokesperson said, but both have acknowledged that it will be hard for them to meet quotas this year.
Even the Air Force, which has rarely had trouble attracting talent in the past, is about 4,000 recruits short of the level it typically reaches by midsummer.
“Bottom line, up front, we are in a week-to-week dogfight,” said Major General Edward Thomas Jr., commander of the Air Force Recruiting Service. “We are growing hopeful that we may be able to barely make this year’s mission, but it’s uncertain.”