WASHINGTON - With the end of this month comes the end of the federal government's and the Army's fiscal year, and looming confirmation of some bad news many have predicted: The U.S. Army will fall short of its 2005 recruiting goal by 6,000 to 9,000 soldiers.
At the same time, Congress has thus far refused to permit the Army to shift funds in its budget to pay higher re-enlistment and enlistment bonuses to spur more young men and women to join or remain in the Army.
Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, told Knight Ridder that many more soldiers are re-enlisting than were expected, and that may help make up some of the difference. Schoomaker acknowledged that while this could help hold the Army level at its current strength of about 500,000, it would not be enough to expand the force by 30,000 more soldiers, as authorized.
He said that the Army is recruiting, or trying to recruit, 165,000 new soldiers every year - 80,000 for the active duty Army and 85,000 for the Army National Guard and Army Reserve.
Schoomaker said the Army clearly faces challenges as it goes through a radical transformation even while it is heavily engaged in fighting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq - but he flatly denied that the Army is broken.
He cited the fact that the 1st Cavalry Division, recently returned from a tough 12-month tour of combat duty in Iraq, had so many soldiers re-enlist that they far exceeded the target, achieving 136 percent of their goal.
Schoomaker said that 60 percent of the Army's soldiers today are combat veterans. ''This is an experienced Army,'' the chief said. ''This Army is taking on a paradigm shift in wartime.''
The shift he referred to is the reorganization of the Army's 10 divisions by adding a 4th combat brigade to every division - and reorganizing all the brigades to increase their ability to operate alone or in swiftly created task forces drawn from several divisions.
In the process the Army's 33 brigades - each with approximately 3,000 to 4,000 soldiers - would be increased to 43 brigades.
Some critics say the Army is being ground down by continued combat deployments, with only nine to 12 months at home before troops go back to Afghanistan or Iraq for another year in combat.
Schoomaker told Knight Ridder that the Army leadership was working on plans to give soldiers 24 months at home for every 12 months they are deployed overseas. Already, he said, some divisions are getting 14 or 15 months at home before heading back into combat.
Schoomaker said that one challenge the Army faces in recruiting new soldiers is that in the important 17 to 24 age group which provides two-thirds of all Army recruits, only three in 10 people are qualified to serve in uniform.
Out of that age group, the Army chief said, 2 percent are in prison, 20 percent have disqualifying physical or moral attributes, and more than 40 percent are high school dropouts or fail the mental tests. Of those who are eligible, more than half are in college.
Despite those figures, Schoomaker said he is ''very optimistic when I look at this generation.''
The chief said the Army ''needs the commitment of the American people'' to raise and keep the kind of Army it needs in this century. ''We are going to do this over and over.''
He added that in his view ''it would be very unfortunate if the American people turn their backs on these young soldiers.''
Joe Galloway is the senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder.