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Internet Is Key Tool In Military Recruiting

Online games have become a key tool for today's military recruiters as they try to keep up with the times in order to ensure a steady stream of new personnel.
FORT LEWIS, Wash. (AP) -- For today's military recruiter, the stern scowl of "Uncle Sam wants you!" is increasingly a thing of the past. Instead, the Armed Forces are wooing young prospects with stuff they can relate to--online games, hot rod races, and trendy ads.

"It's just a matter of we have to stay current with the way people are used to getting information. We're like any other advertiser or any other organization that is selling something to the American public," said Douglas Smith, spokesman for Army Recruiting Command in Fort Knox, Ky.

The military has depended on volunteer enlistments since the draft ended in 1973, putting recruitment drives largely at the mercy of trends in the economy, youth unemployment, and the number of high-school graduates attending college.

Staying abreast of the times is one way to ensure a steady stream of recruits.

On one recent day at Fort Lewis, a Stryker combat team conducted an anti-terrorist training mission in which soldiers barreled through buildings in a mock-up of a city in Iraq.

A grenade filled the air with yellow smoke and the sputter of gunfire mixed with soldiers' shouts. "Down! Down!" soldiers yelled as they charged across a plaza between two buildings hiding the enemy.

The show wasn't just for the eyes of military brass. There were computer software designers watching, too.

Details of the training mission will be used in the latest version of "America's Army," the Army's online gaming tool used to show what it's like to be in an elite fighting unit. The newest version of the computer game is set for release in April and will be available at local recruiting stations.

"We're dealing with the cyberspace generation," said David Segal, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, and a leading military sociologist. "We're taking advantage of the things that youth find appealing."

Soldiers who participated in the Fort Lewis exercise cautioned against enlisting without serious consideration--regardless of how real the game.

"If you get shot, there's no coming back. There's no 'play again,'" said Sgt. 1st Class Bernabe Quinones, 36.

Since 1999, the Army has exceeded its recruitment goals. In 2003 it surpassed its aim of 73,800 enlistments by 332. The Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps also posted numbers above their target enrollments.

Despite the growing number of American deaths in Iraq--more than 540 since military operations began--the volunteers keep coming.

Web sites, games, television commercials and recruitment officers armed with laptops--dubbed "PowerPoint Rangers'' among the rank and file--are some of the innovative ways the Army hopes to continue boosting its numbers.

The Army also sponsors the National Hot Rod Association, NASCAR, a basketball tournament called "Taking it to the streets," and the Army All-America Bowl--a football game featuring the country's star high school senior football players.

Military officials said there are no numbers to show if heavier marketing works. But Lt. Bill Davis said when the Navy--also a NASCAR sponsor--launched its Web site, www.navy.com, in 2001, it recorded 6.5 million inquiries the first year. In 2003 there were 6.8 million hits.

The Internet allows potential recruits to check out a service "without the intimidation of walking into a recruiter station," said Davis, spokesman at Navy Recruiting Command in Millington, Tenn.

The Army went one step further in using computers as a recruiting tool when it started offering free computer games in 2002.

The Army's 74,132 recruits in 2003 outnumbered the Navy's 41,075. The Air Force enlisted 37,141 last year while Marines, a smaller force, recruited 32,530.

The Army still uses traditional methods like posters, mailings, and job fairs to reach people, but Segal said recent recruitment techniques show it wants to broaden its appeal.

"They've realized that somehow the collective security needs that the Army represents have to incorporate the individualistic values that are central to the American society," he said.

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