WASHINGTON -- Tonya Shelton was feeling the weight of $28,000 in student loans when she saw a snazzy commercial promising adventure, travel -- and a chance to pay off her debt. She's in the Army now.
Thanks partly to financial incentives, the Army is well on its way to surpassing its recruiting goals for a second straight year. The other services also expect to meet or exceed their targets.
Sweetened incentives, including enlistment bonuses of as much as $20,000, have helped to fill deficits throughout the armed forces.
"When I saw that student loan payment program, that sold it for me," said Shelton, who is months away from receiving a $13,000 enlistment bonus. In three years, if her new career works out, the Army also will pay off her student loans.
Since graduating with a business degree from Kentucky's Murray State University, Shelton has earned money handing out chocolate samples, and worked as a discount store cashier and as a secretary.
"I had to do what I had to do," she said, shortly before she started training last month at Fort Jackson, S.C.
At 27, Shelton is older and more educated than the typical recruit, and the services would not mind attracting more like her. In fact, the military has stepped up attempts to attract people with college experience.
"We have a lot of money we can give, and we want to reward kids who have college credit or college degrees," said Col. Kirk Davidson, the Army's recruiting operations director.
"College kids are more smart-aleck," Davidson said. "They're a tougher crowd. But we found there's a great market there, and the future of our recruiting is going to be in the colleges, period."
The Marines also are looking for recruits on campuses, aware that "college is the gold standard" and that high school students' view of the military might be shaped by educators who opposed the Vietnam War, said Capt. Rob Winchester of the Marines recruiting command.
The military had no choice but to widen its focus, said Charles C. Moskos, a Northwestern University sociology professor who studies the armed forces.
"The biggest problem with recruitment now is that a lot of people look at joining the military as something for losers," he said. "And they get that image because for so long they kept trying to recruit high school graduates, or even high school dropouts."
Until recently, high-paying civilian jobs in the high-tech economy have made it particularly difficult to attract young people to the armed forces. That challenge continues despite the weakened economy.
Recruiters are seeing fewer young people whose parents had a military background of their own.
In the past five years, the Marines consistently have met recruiting goals. That, however, has not stopped their aggressive marketing. They recently sent uniformed officers to promote military service at a screening of the movie "Pearl Harbor" in a Virginia suburb. Recruiters also set up an obstacle course for people attending an annual music festival in Washington last month.
Other services also attribute better marketing as a reason for meeting or surpassing recruiting targets this year.
The Army spent about $110 million on a new advertising campaign that included the January launch of its "Army of One" slogan aimed at attracting a new generation of soldiers.
The service also is using the Internet more aggressively, jazzing up its Web sites and setting up chat rooms to answer questions. Hits to the Army's Web site have reached 15,000 a month, compared with 4,000 in January.
The Navy added more than 1,500 recruiters, released new ads and updated its Web site, said Lt. Steve Zip, a spokesman for the Navy recruiting command. Like other services, it also has increased enlistment bonuses and money to help pay for college and student loans.
The Army expects to recruit 75,800 new soldiers this year, and already has enlisted 43,820 of them.
The Navy and Marines are more than halfway to their goals of 56,348 and 38,925, respectively; the Air Force is less than 4,000 shy of its 34,600 target for the year.
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