Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Army Tries a Softer Touch to Retain New Recruits Special Barracks with TVs and Bathtubs Help Trainees Adjust to Rigorsof Military Life. but Is This Coddling? Series: SOLDIER SHORTAGE, PART 3 OF A 4 PART SERIES

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Army Tries a Softer Touch to Retain New Recruits Special Barracks with TVs and Bathtubs Help Trainees Adjust to Rigorsof Military Life. but Is This Coddling? Series: SOLDIER SHORTAGE, PART 3 OF A 4 PART SERIES

Article excerpt

For new Army recruits who couldn't cope with the rigors of basic training, there have always been two options: Get out or get down and do 50 more pushups - sir!

Now, at this sprawling base in the piney woods of South Carolina, there's a third option: Head over to a secluded dormitory for a quiet "timeout."

The dorm has TVs and VCRs. It has private bathrooms with bathtubs. The troubled enlistees watch movies like "Glory" and "Renaissance Man" and drill sergeants counsel them empathetically and in hushed voices.

The new program, called "Think It Over," is one of several initiatives the Army and some other branches of the military are instituting in an attempt to cut down on the dropout rate of new trainees.

While critics both inside and outside the military consider much of this more summer camp than boot camp, the Pentagon believes it is essential to try to deal with the worst soldier shortage in more than a quarter century.

Already, the military is trying a host of new initiatives to entice young people to sign up for active duty. But it is also increasingly worried about those who show up and then quit before their first buzz cut.

Here at Fort Jackson, for instance, 800 of the 35,000 trainees who arrived last year left in their first week - before they even began basic training.

Behind the new initiatives, though, lies a growing debate: Is the military now coddling recruits too much, or is all this appropriate - even essential - at a time when many of today's youth lack the commitment of earlier generations?

"If you are catering to them or bending over backwards, you're going to get a lot of dead weight on your hands," says Bill Hyman, a retired Army drill sergeant of the "old school."

Steven Paulk, a staff sergeant whose current duty station is the "Think It Over" dorm here, harbors a different view. "Now it's OK for society to say, 'I quit,' " he says. "Look at the profession athletes - they follow the money. They have no commitment to their teams."

Lack of commitment

Certainly, the numbers show some parallels in today's military. Nearly 40 percent of the Army's soldiers are now leaving before their first enlistment is up. This comes as the numbers of recruits continue to plummet.

To cope with this, Fort Jackson is trying programs that in essence give trainees a second and third chance:

*Think It Over. During this two-day respite at what looks more like a university dorm than an Army barracks, complete with private bathrooms and double beds, Sergeant Paulk delves into what is bothering the new recruits, tries to explain what it means to honor a commitment. About one-third who come here give the Army another shot.

One of those is Thenda Carter, an 18-year-old recruit from Wilmington, Del. She was ready to leave, but changed her mind after her stay at the "Think It Over" dorm. …

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