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Military hopes Web will capture recruits

Hoping to boost flagging recruitment in the post-Cold War era, the U.S. military hosts an essay contest on Yahoo with exotic prizes.

    Uncle Sam wants you to check out Yahoo.

    The U.S. military is in the midst of an experimental online recruitment campaign--an essay contest in conjunction with the popular search engine. Winners get to ride in an Apache Attack helicopter, operate an ocean rescue vessel, or tour an aircraft carrier.

    The Yahoo Fantasy Careers military competition, which began May 17 and continues throughout the July 4 holiday weekend, has already received 120,000 hits. The campaign has resulted in more than 6,000 hits to military recruiting sites such as Goarmy.com and Navyjobs.com.

    The goal of the campaign is not merely to generate hits, said Navy Commander Yvette Brown-Wahler, the Pentagon official responsible for the promotion. It's meant to give the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard more high-tech, cutting-edge images--as places to learn about lasers, computer programming and aeronautics, not just boot camp and barracks.

    "We were finding a whole generation-and-a-half of adults who have never considered the military and weren't able to talk to their kids about it," Brown-Wahler said. "We are the military of the 21st century. If you want technology, we've got it."

    The promotion is also meant to boost flagging recruitment in the post-Cold War era--a time when the military is a vague or invisible force to many Americans. The military is roughly one-third its size in the '80s.

    To maintain the military at 1.4 million active members, the Pentagon must recruit 206,000 people this year, plus 151,000 part-timers for reserve duty.

    But the hot economy, in which college graduates typically receive several job offers and employers are desperate for workers of all skill levels, is causing many would-be GIs to go civilian. At an annual rate, the military is roughly 3 percent short of 2000 recruitment targets.

    To bolster its ranks, the Pentagon agreed to pay Yahoo $25,000 to host the contest. It will also pay Yahoo $250,000 in banner advertising in August and September.

    Previous highlights of Yahoo Fantasy Careers, a 10-month-old service that is free to customers, have included contests to be an ice cream tester for Ben & Jerry's Homemade and a game tester for Sega Enterprises. Yahoo executives approached the Pentagon last summer when the Santa Clara, Calif.-based portal was brainstorming ways to target sailors and soldiers who were just entering the work force and looking for jobs online.

    Internet marketing experts say the contest is a shrewd strategy for the military. Although the Web has attracted a diverse following, including older consumers and women, its core is an audience of technology-savvy young men--prime candidates for a military recruiting 17- to 35-year-olds.

    "It's a technical-oriented, guy-oriented medium, and the contest is offering some pretty geeky but cool stuff, like flying around in an Apache Attack helicopter," said Mark Grimes, CEO of Web marketing company Eyescream Interactive of Portland, Ore. "A 30-second spot on TV isn't going to give you that kind of opportunity."

    But the contest hasn't turned out exactly as officials had hoped. The Army has received only about 200 essays for a contest to train in a flight simulator at the Army Aviation School in Fort Rucker, Ala.

    "We were hoping for more, but that's not bad," said Major Vic Harris, in charge of marketing and communications at U.S. Army Recruiting Command Headquarters in Fort Knox, Ky. Winners will be announced in August.

    Harris was more surprised by the types of people who wrote essays. Far from the stereotypical 17-year-old high school boy, working professionals and older adults made up a large group of applicants. One essayist was a World War II veteran who was curious about modern Navy carriers.

    "It's been from everyone imaginable," Harris said. "Military dependents, spouses, kids in high school, college. We've even had folks in their 30s. I guess everyone wants to fly an Apache."