Brig. Gen. Kevin Vereen walked into the Fayetteville Recruiting Center long before he ever put on an Army uniform and well before he wore the star rank of a general officer on his chest.
It was 1983 and Vereen, who was attending Reid Ross High School, walked into the recruiting center at Eutaw Village Shopping Center off Bragg Boulevard and met with the recruiter who would help launch his Army career.
“My brother and I walked right in,” Vereen recalled.
The son of 1st Sgt. John Vereen, who served in the 82nd Airborne Division and with Special Forces units on Fort Bragg, Vereen began his service in the North Carolina National Guard before being commissioned an officer from Campbell University in 1988.
On Friday, Vereen, now the deputy commanding general for operations at U.S. Army Recruiting Command, walked back into the Fayetteville Recruiting Center, which is still located in the Eutaw Village Shopping Center.
Other than the location, Vereen said Army recruiting has changed a lot over the course of his 30-year career.
And now, following a year in which the Army fell short of its recruiting goals for the first time since 2005, the general said the Army would need to continue to adapt.
The Army must increase incentives for recruiters and decrease the bureaucracy soldiers must wade through on a regular basis, he said.
And recruiters must fully embrace social media, Vereen added, as the Army takes more interest in eSports and online gaming.
“We have to go where the kids are,” he said. “And they don’t look at TV anymore. We’ve almost got to change our whole way of advertising.”
The Army must embrace new technology, Vereen added. And take lessons learned from recruiters for Fortune 500 companies.
But more importantly, the general said Army recruiters must adapt their message to a new generation — one that has the world at their fingertips and prefers text messages and Snapchat over phone calls.
“We have to get better,” he said.
The Army recruited 70,000 new soldiers in the last fiscal year, which ended in September. That was the most new recruits the service has attracted since 2010, but fell short of goals set as the Army looks to increase in size from about 476,000 soldiers to about 500,000 in the coming years.
Vereen said the Army missed its 2018 recruiting goals by about 6,500 recruits. But he praised Fayetteville recruiters, who — working in the shadow of the nation’s largest military installation, Fort Bragg — have historically been among the country’s best recruiters.
This past year was no different, Vereen said.
“We fell short, but Fayetteville made it,” he said. “You guys have done very well.”
The Fayetteville Recruiting Station, which includes 17 recruiters, brings in more recruits than many much larger recruiting units spread across the nation.
That success has brought lofty expectations to the center. Expectations that Vereen said the recruiters have exceeded.
He said the Army depends on Fayetteville and similar communities, many of which are spread across the southeast, to meet their goals.
“If those communities don’t hit their recruiting goals, the Army has little chance of meeting its larger goals,” Vereen said.
A growing economy, shrinking unemployment rate and challenges related to youth obesity all contributed to missing the recruiting goals, the general said.
Falling short is disappointing, he added. But the Army isn’t pointing fingers.
Instead, Vereen said recruiters must aim to improve, both where the Army does well, like Fayetteville, and in communities where they are struggling to find new recruits.
But there is no one-size-fits-all approach, he said.
“What sells in North Carolina doesn’t sell on the West Coast,” Vereen said.
In some parts of the country, the appeal of the Army is all about the educational opportunities. In Fayetteville, it comes down to service to country and family ties, he said. And elsewhere, the focus is on finding adventure.
Vereen, who now serves at Fort Knox, Kentucky, visited his hometown to meet with local recruiters and also get an update on the damage caused by Hurricane Florence, which struck the Carolinas last month.
In Fayetteville, the recruiting center was closed for two days because of water damage. And across Florence’s path, Vereen said, 18 centers were damaged by the storm, to varying degrees.
But he applauded the efforts of recruiters and other soldiers to serve their communities after the storm hit and as floodwaters continued to rise.
Both officially and unofficially, soldiers responded to help their neighbors recover from the floods and to save those who were trapped.
Those efforts, he said, have hopefully helped introduce communities outside of Fort Bragg’s influence to their Army.
“When we wear this uniform, we’re marketing,” Vereen said. “Our uniform is a billboard.”
The 6,500 recruits the Army failed to find last year will likely be added to this year’s recruiting goals, which haven’t been officially announced, Vereen said.
Recruiting is a top priority within the Army, he noted, because if the Army fails to meet its recruiting goals, there are ripple effects across the force.
“Readiness is the top priority,” he said. “And you can’t be ready if you don’t have people in uniform.”
The Army relies more on manpower than any of the other services, Vereen said, and recruits more each year than the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps combined.
“I need everybody working,” he said. “We have to win. We have no other option.”
In the meantime, Army leaders are reviewing many of the force’s recruiting policies.
There are efforts underway to provide recruiters with more resources and better networks, Vereen said.
Leaders are also looking at medical and misconduct waivers, which currently fall to Vereen’s desk.
He said many of the issues preventing would-be recruits from joining the force are mind-boggling.
They include medical conditions such as eczema and minor misconduct that boils down to “kids being kids.”
Vereen, a former military police leader, hinted that some rules would be relaxed.
“There are some people who should be given the opportunity to join the Army and have not been given a fair shake,” he said.
But Vereen said there has to be a balance. And that he doesn’t want to see new recruits enter the Army and become immediate issues for commanders because of misconduct.
The Army will not sacrifice quality for quantity, he said.
“We only want the best to serve in the Army,” Vereen said. “That’s what our institution deserves.”
Those types of recruits are in ample supply in Fayetteville.
Fort Bragg and a large population of veterans are a big advantage to local recruiters, Vereen said.
“It’s a great community that loves the military and loves the Army,” he said.
And issues facing local recruiters reflect that.
During Vereen’s visit, he heard about recruiters not having enough ink for their printers, needing more phone lines to keep pace with their work and needing larger vehicles to carry more recruits.
Those issues, he said, are born in part out of the local center’s success.
“I am proud of them,” Vereen said. “But it will make me even more proud if all of our units do very well.”
© 2018 The Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, N.C.)
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