Recruiters who go by-the-book say they can spend several hours in the morning visiting a school in a rural location, grabbing a fast-food lunch during their drive back to their home office, and spend the afternoon interviewing potential recruits and shuttling recruits without cars to and from a testing location. (Senior Airman Tiffany DeNault / Air Force)
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Air Force recruiting is plagued by a longstanding epidemic of falsifying records, according to multiple recruiters around the country.
And some recruiting supervisors tacitly encourage overworked and undermanned recruiters to falsify their reports — a practice commonly known as pencil-whipping — as a way to keep up with requirements that leave recruiters working brutally long hours, eight current and former recruiters said in interviews with Air Force Times.
Recruiters who don’t cut corners and try to do everything by the book said they are chewed out for not getting everything done and their performance evaluations and chances for promotion suffer. They also said they’re stretched so thin, they suffer from physical and mental problems. Several said they developed high blood pressure, hypertension, heart problems, depression and other medical conditions after becoming recruiters. Some recruiters’ home lives suffer because they’re away from home so much and are so stressed. One recruiter, who asked that his name not be printed, said he nearly attempted suicide earlier this year because he was so stressed from the pressures of recruitment.
“It’s bad, and it’s Air Force-wide,” said Tech Sgt. Michael Rosiere, who until December was a recruiter at the 337th Recruiting Squadron, which is based at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina.
In an Aug. 27 interview, Col. Michael Romero, acting commander of the Air Force Recruiting Service, said the reports are “disheartening” and acknowledged that some recruiters do cheat. But he said cheaters are swiftly punished when they are found out.
“We take it very seriously,” Romero said. “When we do get reports of this, we investigate it fast, we find out if there actually is an issue, and then we hold the people accountable if that’s the case. ... If we find climates where it is being allowed, we look at all levels of leadership to figure out why that is happening, and take action to do something about it. We would rather struggle in making our requirements than pencil-whip. Because at the end of the day, if we’re bringing in the wrong airmen, we’re gong to find that out.”
But Romero doesn’t think the problem of recruiters pencil-whipping and flight chiefs encouraging it is widespread or jeopardizing the integrity of the recruiting service as a whole.
“I’m just not seeing a significant amount of breaches of that kind of conduct,” he said, based on anonymous comments in climate surveys and the normal process of reviewing recruits during processing and basic training to uncover hidden problems. “We have some, but it’s at a much smaller level than somebody may think.”
An August 2013 climate survey of the 337th, obtained by Air Force Times through a Freedom of Information Act request, showed several recruiters at Shaw had deep concerns about their excessive workload, poor leadership and rock-bottom morale.
“Recruiting is a career field that goes against the AF’s core value [of] integrity,’ ” one unnamed recruiter wrote. “I’ve never felt the need to lie prior to being in this career field.”
What recruiters say
Eight recruiters from four different squadrons around the country who spoke to Air Force Times said the problem is longstanding in the recruiting service, and all described similar processes that lead recruiters to cheat. Flight chiefs never outright tell overworked recruiters to falsify their reports when they come asking for advice on what they’re doing wrong, recruiters say. Instead, they say, flight chiefs tell recruiters something along the lines of, “Go ask your flight mates how to get the job done.”
“In recruiting, that’s code for, ‘Talk to your other recruiting buddies, they’ll tell you what you can lie about, what you can falsify,’ ” Rosiere said. “ ‘They’re going to tell you ways to do this job that I can’t tell you.’ Even if [flight chiefs] don’t come out and tell us to lie, the pressure is so great, they know we can’t get it all done. They know the only option is to lie, to falsify.”
A former recruiting flight chief from the 337th, who asked that his name not be printed, confirmed that when flight chiefs say, “Talk to your flight mates,” they mean go find out from the other recruiters how to cut corners. He said when he was a recruiter, that’s what his flight chief told him, and he admitted he said the same thing to his recruiters when he became a flight chief. That retired flight chief said he himself cheated when he was a recruiter.
When asked whether it bothered him to tell his recruiters, with a wink and a nudge, to cheat, the flight chief said, “To be honest, it was par for the course. Everybody’s been doing it for God knows how long.”
Lt. Col. Cary Belmear, commander of the 337th, referred Air Force Times to the Air Force Recruiting Service when he was asked to comment on the allegations of cheating at his squadron.
One frequent method of pencil-whipping reports is to cover up minor medical conditions that could either disqualify recruits or delay their inprocessing, said a recruiter at the 313th Recruiting Squadron in New York, who asked not to be identified.
“Some recruiters say, shut up about your ADHD,” or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, the New York recruiter said. “Are you using your inhaler now? No? Shut the hell up then, all you’re doing is slowing up the process or allowing MEPS [military entrance processing station] to disqualify you.”
When asked if the pencil-whipping means people are getting into the Air Force who shouldn’t be, the New York recruiter said, “God, yes.”
“From what I’ve seen, and conversations I’ve had, there’s all kinds of people in the Air Force with health problems they had previously,” he said.
Retired Master Sgt. Billie Hamby, who was a recruiter at the 368th Recruiting Squadron at Hill Air Force Base in Utah, said recruiters are “crazy” for covering up minor medical issues such as childhood asthma, former use of behavioral medications such as Ritalin, or a broken leg as a child, since recruits can get waivers for most such things. But the coverups happen, Hamby said. Seeking a waiver might add a few weeks to the process, she said, and some recruiters don’t want to wait that long and give recruits more time to get cold feet.
Besides being dishonest, Hamby said, covering up some of those old medical issues also could place the young recruits in danger.
“That’s the kind of thing people need to know, in case something happens,” Hamby said.
Another common way recruiters pencil-whip reports is to claim they went to a school to recruit students when they didn’t actually go inside.
“You could drive by and wave, and say, ‘Yeah, I was there,’ ” the former flight chief at the 337th said. “You’d make sure somebody saw your face, and then leave. In order to have the time to do everything else, the actual important stuff that we needed to do, you had to get creative with some of the things required by regulation, but you know that it just didn’t make sense to actually do them.”
The retired flight chief at the 337th said he usually blew off visits to poor-quality schools that he thought were unlikely to yield recruits who could pass the tests required to enlist. And he sometimes would skip required cold-calling of random young people to try to encourage some of them to enlist.
Hamby said she never cheated and was never told, implicitly or explicitly, to cheat by her flight chief. She loved recruiting, and said she didn’t think it was necessary to cheat. Like most recruiters, she had some trouble getting the hang of the job at first, but her flight chief showed her some honest ways to more efficiently manage her time and visit schools and other events.
But she said she knew others who did cheat, and were told by their flight chiefs to do so.
“A lot of people I recruited with, they cut corners to put people in,” she said. “For me, not wanting to jeopardize my integrity, it was the hardest way, to do it without cutting corners. I’ve seen people under a lot of pressure. I saw a lot of [cheating], and I believe it’s common Air Force-wide, because there’s so much stress on making goal every month.”
The New York recruiter believes pencil-whipping is a widespread problem.
“I don’t know a single person in all my time in recruiting that has not falsified documentation,” he said. When asked if that meant he himself pencil-whipped reports, he hesitated, and then responded, “Yeah.”
He said he never covered up recruits’ medical problems, as some other recruiters do, because he didn’t want to risk getting caught if a recruit got nervous and confessed his ADHD or asthma later on. But he falsified other parts of his job.
“Everything is pencil-whipped,” he said. “Everything. I tried my best ... to do every school visit, to do everything by the book. I ran myself into the ground. I started seeing counselors. My marriage has been on the fence since the day I arrived in recruiting.”
Air Force recruiters are under greater pressure to produce than their counterparts in the Army. This year, the Army hopes to bring in 57,000 new active-duty soldiers with 6,726 active duty recruiters, which averages out to more than eight recruits per recruiter. The Air Force, on the other hand, now has 954 recruiters to bring in 25,150 recruits — an average of more than 26 recruits per recruiter.
Part of the problem is that Air Force recruiting is chronically undermanned. According to statistics from the Air Force Recruiting Service, there are now 954 enlisted accession recruiters — less than 80 percent of the authorized level of 1,200 recruiters. That is the lowest staffing level, and highest rate of undermanning, in at least 15 years.
Romero acknowledged that recruiters are stressed and undermanned — partly because, until last year, the Air Force only relied on volunteers, of which there were too few. But the Air Force is trying to address the problems, he said. The new developmental special duty program — which selects top performers to serve stints in recruiting, instead of waiting for volunteers — will help bring the ranks of recruiters up to about 1,200 over the next few years and lessen the pressure on recruiters, he said.
And last month, Gen. Robin Rand, commander of Air Education and Training Command, said at a conference in Jacksonville, Florida, that the Air Force is planning to consolidate remote recruiting offices that are staffed with just one recruiter, to ensure each office has at least two.
Romero said the Air Force will likely cut 100 of its current 886 offices in the short term, and by fiscal 2021, have between 400 and 500 total offices in centralized locations. That will help recruiters divide up duties, he said. For example, combining offices could allow one recruiter to spend a few days on the road visiting schools, while another recruiter handles walk-ins, interviews recruits and answers questions from parents, Romero said.
The Air Force is also hoping to make greater use of mobile technology such as smartphones and tablets to ease the burden on recruiters and require fewer in-person visits. For example, Romero said, recruiters sometimes have to drive out to a new recruit’s house or school to get a signature on a document. But using digital signatures could allow recruits to sign those papers electronically with just a click, and save recruiters a long drive.
“I think that will help alleviate, not only the travel time, but in the small cases you referred to about pencil-whipping, may take that off the table altogether, if it no longer becomes a time issue,” Romero said.
As a result of the requirements, some recruiters regularly work 11, 12, 13 or even 14 hour days to keep up with their workloads, and they sometimes work on weekends to catch up on work or hold recruitingevents. Recruiters who go by-the-book say they can spend several hours in the morning visiting a school in a rural location, grab a fast-food lunch during their drive back to their home office, and spend the afternoon interviewing potential recruits, shuttling carless recruits to and from a testing location, meeting Delayed Entry Program recruits to make sure they’re not going to get cold feet or do something that jeopardizes their enlistment, and typing up reports on all their interactions on a shoddy computer system. They answer calls at home, late into the night.
“We’re recruiters, life coaches, taxicabs and data entry,” the New York recruiter said.
Another recruiter at the 337th, who asked that his name not be used, said he volunteered for this job to give young people opportunities.
“I wanted to help people,” he said. “I felt I could make a difference in kids’ lives the same way my recruiter helped me.”
But the job ended up being far different than he envisioned. His bosses focused on meeting his monthly quota of three or four recruits. But to hit those numbers, he’d have to talk to 50 or 60 young people per week.
“It becomes so overwhelming, when your career is based on a 17- or 18-year-old kid, who can change his mind in a heartbeat and say, ‘Sorry, man,’ ” he said. “That stuff, right or wrong, looks unfavorably on a recruiter.”
While some of his colleagues falsified their records to take some of the pressure off, he refused. He worked on weekends and was more than hitting his numbers. But the long hours required took a toll, and his depression led him to nearly attempt suicide earlier this year.
“My family got to see the decline over the last year,” he said. “Little by little, I got more and more depressed. It went from morbid thoughts, to where I was looking to buy a firearm and take care of it that way. My wife was calling me ... and was afraid when she couldn’t get in contact with me. [When his wife finally reached him on his cellphone,] that broke me out of it, to the point where I realized, ‘What am I doing?’ From the gun store, I drove straight to mental health and told them everything, ‘I need help.’ ”
That recruiter acknowledged that the stress of his job wasn’t the only factor contributing to his near-suicide attempt. He said he has post-traumatic stress due to his time in Iraq, but said the pressures of recruiting worsened matters.
He had hoped to retire at 20 years, but has now been taken off recruiting duties and suspects he’ll be medically boarded.
“This is the worst job in the world,” he said. “I’d deploy in a heartbeat if I could get back in my old field.”
Romero said it’s concerning to hear that some recruiters are facing a physical and mental toll from the stress of their job. He said some recruiters may be stressed from being in new locations, far from military bases and the support military communities provide. He hopes that consolidating offices into a “hub-and-spoke” system will give recruiters wingmen to help them and relieve some of that pressure. And if the recruiting life isn’t working out for some airmen, Romero said the Air Force will try to find other jobs for them.
“It’s tough duty,” Romero said. “We understand this is very stressful, and it’s very important for us to try to figure this out.”