An American flag proudly emblazons the sides of the armed forces recruiting station in Times Square, where Sgt. 1st Class Stephen Healy used to mingle with a diverse crowd of hopefuls looking to join the Army.
But like the rest of the country, the center’s recruiters have had to adapt to coronavirus shelter-in-place orders and have been working from home — trying to enlist new soldiers online.
“I’m looking forward to being able to interact with people face-to-face again,” Healy, the Times Square station commander, tells The Post. “It’s great to interact with people through the internet, but face-to-face is just something I don’t think will ever go away and [I miss] the different cultures I get to meet on a daily basis.”
Thanks to its prime real estate, the center — which includes offices for the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force — typically attracts a high volume of foreigners looking to serve in the United States military, Healy says. Now, recruiters are trying to reach future soldiers through social media and digital job forums — an effort that was well underway before COVID-19 struck the Big Apple.
“Our heavy focus on virtual recruiting over the last 19 months has helped pave the way for a more smooth transition to 100% virtual,” Sgt. 1st Class Robert Dodge, a US Army recruiting command media relations specialist, tells The Post.
Today, the Army operates 43 virtual recruiting stations, staffed with three to five recruiters who evaluate and guide those wishing to enlist nationwide. And they’re relying on that infrastructure, plus an army of remote recruiters, more than ever as physical recruiting stations join online efforts.
“The groundwork was set before the coronavirus,” says Harris. “Now it’s paying dividends because people are home paying more attention to our postings and information and have time to have conversations via social media and Skype.”Staff Sgt. Barry Harris, one of the Times Square center’s two recruiters for the Army, says that virtual recruiting has had its challenges — like finding ways to engage potential recruits online or family at home dissuading hopefuls from enlisting — but efforts have been overwhelmingly successful.
Harris is assigned several colleges from which to recruit soldiers and previously had access to their job forums, he says.
“Since there’s no graduation, people are looking for employment and other opportunities,” Harris adds.
Before COVID-19, the Times Square center was unique, according to Healy, who previously served as a recruiter at centers in Pennsylvania and Arizona. The station commander says that, unlike its counterparts nationwide, the station, which has been open in the busy tourist area since 1946, sees “more cultural diversity than other parts of the country,” in both its visitors and recruits.
“We have a lot of people from other countries, many of whom had former military experience, that stop by and visit,” he says. “Several people have made our office their first stop after entering the country and getting their green cards.”
“That definitely makes New York unique,” he adds.
The station even has a table of patches and medals from those who have served in foreign militaries, which were swapped with the station’s staff.
“Even if I don’t see as many locals, I do see a lot from other countries and get to learn about other militaries and where they’re from. I’ll give them a patch and they’ll give me a medal,” Healy says.
“GoArmy.com is a great resource for people to do their research before visiting the office,” says Healy. “Because of the internet, people have a good idea of what they want before they come in.”He also says that the station meets “a lot of transplants from other states that were working with other recruiters and moved here with family.” Some looking to join the Army are even Big Apple residents that live in the area stopping by on their way home or on their way to work, Healy says. But most people who normally come into Army recruiting centers nationwide have already done research online.
Amid the coronavirus crisis, Healy says that the center has had more calls than normal from New York medical professionals looking to enlist. The city, considered the epicenter of the virus in the US, has been particularly hard-hit by COVID-19, with 174,709 cases, 43,744 hospitalizations and 14,162 deaths as of Thursday.
“I’ve had some phone calls from people that are medical licensed that wanted more information,” says Healy, who refers them to a specialized recruiting team for the Army’s medical department. “But it’s inspiring when I hear stories like that.”
The coronavirus has also caused delays in Army recruitment, as there was a temporary freeze on enlisting new recruits, Dodge says. The Army paused “the shipment” of soldiers to basic combat training for two weeks from April 6 to April 19 to ensure appropriate and necessary mitigation procedures were in place.
“It has been determined that conditions are at a point to safely begin shipping future soldiers to [basic combat training] again,” says Dodge. “This decision was made after rigorous analysis of processes and procedures to protect both new recruits and those currently training.”
All “Future Soldiers” will be prescreened for symptoms and potential exposure to COVID-19 before departure to basic training in order to mitigate the spread of the disease, Dodge says. The Department of Defense has also indicated in new guidelines that coronavirus survivors could be barred from joining the military.
“Future soldiers who are in areas considered at high risk for exposure to the virus are rescheduled for new training dates with no change in occupation or bonuses,” Dodge adds.
Healy says, though, that the Times Square station shipped out a recruit from the Bronx to basic training this week.
“We went to go get them from their apartment. It was in one of the poorer sections of The Bronx,” says Healy. “It was good to feel like we were helping him get out of that situation in a house with two bedrooms and six brothers and sisters and no personal space.”
“He was excited. He had been waiting and it was a relief for him to finally get out.”