WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Army is ending its best recruiting year since 1997 and expecting similar success in 2007, despite the weight of grim war news from Iraq, Army Secretary Francis Harvey said Thursday.
In an Associated Press interview, Harvey said the Army will enlist its 80,000th soldier on Friday, reaching its goal for the year with eight days to spare. That is a considerable turnaround from last year when the Army missed its target for the first time since 1999 and by the widest margin in more than two decades.
At the start of this recruiting year, which began Oct. 1, 2005, many questioned whether the Army would reach 80,000, given the many alternative career options available to young people and the growing unpopularity of the Iraq war. But a package of new financial incentives, new recruiting approaches and a bigger recruiting corps did the trick.
Army recruiters are making more use of the Internet to attract young prospects, and the Army this year began allowing people as old as 42 to enter the service; the maximum age previously was 35.
The Army also has accepted a larger number of recruits whose score on a standardized aptitude test is at the lower end of the acceptable range, and it has granted waivers to permit the enlistment of people with criminal records that otherwise would disqualify them. The Army says it does not grant waivers if there is a pattern of criminal misconduct or for convictions of drug trafficking or any sexually violent crimes.
Harvey said the Army would stick with the formula it used over the past 12 months, while adding a few new wrinkles for recruiters.
He described himself as ``moderately optimistic'' about reaching the 80,000 goal again next year. It is too early to know the final number for the current recruiting year, which ends Sept. 30, but Harvey said it would be the highest in nine years. Last year the Army fell short of its goal by the widest margin since 1979.
Harvey was flying to New York to personally enlist on Friday the 80,000th recruit _ Shirley Salvi, 23, a Rutgers University graduate who will report to Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., to become an Army linguist or intelligence analyst.
The trend in recruiting is particularly important for the Army now because it is striving to expand its overall ranks. The expansion is fundamental to an Army plan that increases the number of combat brigades available for fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, thereby giving soldiers more breathing room between overseas tours.
The Army secretary said combat brigades now get, on average, only 14 months at home for every 12 months at war. The goal is 24 months at home for every 12 months at war, but Harvey said they currently are moving in the wrong direction. Not long ago, combat brigades were getting 18 months between war tours.
By the end of the budget year on Sept. 30, the active-duty Army expects to have a total of nearly 504,000 soldiers, up from 492,000 a year ago. A year from now it hopes to reach its goal of 512,000, but that will not happen if recruiting slips again. Harvey indicated he expects recruiting to remain strong in the coming year.
``We're sticking with all the improvements we made'' over the past year, including a beefed up recruiting corps, Harvey said. ``If we start seeing trends that we don't like, we may'' add even more recruiters, he said.
There are now about 6,600 recruiters for the active-duty Army, up from 6,401 a year ago and 5,119 two years ago. The Army National Guard and Army Reserve also have greatly increased their recruiting corps.
The outlook for 2007 is brightened a bit by the fact that the Army expects to begin the new recruiting year with about 14 percent of the target number of 80,000 already signed up. Many who signed up this month, for example, did so with the understanding they will not begin basic training for several weeks or months. The Army began the 2006 recruiting year with about 12 percent of the year's total already signed up.