Area military recruiters fight to fill ranks

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:50

    NEWTON-Inside the storefront offices on Spring Street in Newton, thousands of miles from insurgent battles in Iraq, three Army recruiters face a fight all their own. One soldier standing behind a desk dressed in full battle fatigues insisted that there still are plenty of local young men and women interested in joining the military. The biggest exercise, he said, is enlisting the support of their parents. Two years into the war, the Army and Marines n the two services that have suffered the greatest loss of life in Iraq n have found a boulder of opposition to their enlistment efforts among the ranks of parents; a force some recruiters have found sometimes too difficult to move. "It's a tough decision," said Army Captain Christian Labra, who manages 32 recruiters at six stations in the tri-state region from Monticello, N.Y., to Paterson. "Some family situations are different than others. But, when someone is interested in the Army, we always discuss the family influences. I didn't choose to go to West Point without talking to my mom." The latest Department of Defense survey in November 2003 shows that only 25 percent of parents would recommend military service to their children, down 42 percent from August 2003. Legally, there is little a parent can do to prevent a child over the age of 18 from enlisting. But military recruiters concede the objections of a parent remain one of the biggest hurdles for them to overcome. "There's plenty of reasons that would make someone think twice about joining the military," said Labra, of Pawling, N.Y. "Like any job in the Army, our job certainly has its challenges." Recruiters from Sussex County, like others throughout the nation, may find limited opportunities to reach potential recruits despite their best efforts. Earlier this month, the Department of Defense began working with a private marketing firm to create a database of high school students ages 16-18 and all college students to help the military identify potential recruits in a time of dwindling enlistment in some branches. But the program is provoking a furor among privacy advocates. Some data on high school students already is given to military recruiters in a separate program under the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act. Recruiters have used the information to contact students at home, often angering parents and school districts. In the face of parental resistance, Labra said he is up to the challenge. "A lot of recruits make up their minds and really don't understand what the package entails," he said. "It's impossible to say whether a path will lead to combat." From October 2004 through May 2005, 10 people enlisted into the Army from Sussex County. And during the last school year, the Army made 10 recruiting trips to various Sussex County high schools. Labra is battle tested. He recently returned from Iraq after suffering two broken legs on a combat patrol through Baghdad. Labra then spent the next seven months in a hospital recovering from his injuries. He said he tries to share his personal experiences honestly and openly with potential recruits. "When I return to combat, these may be the soldiers I'm responsible for," said Labra, who joined the military at age 17 after graduating from high school in Pawling N.Y. "I don't want them to think they won't know what's going on. We want to make sure nothing is underhanded." Military recruiters around the nation will be facing a crucial task the next three months to fill year-end quotas by Sept. 30. Labra said now's the time when recent high school graduates begin exploring alternative career options, especially if jobs are scarce in the private sector. Although numbers have lagged the past few months, the Marines are expected to meet their goal of 41,031 recruits. The Army must enlist nearly 40,000 recruits from now until September to meet its year-end 80,000 quota. "It's a challenging job, but the recruiters are just as proud of their job as the soldiers in Iraq," said Labra. "They're true Americans. They just try to do the best job that they can."