March 19, 2012 / 3:13 PM / 5 years ago

Volunteer army wins hearts, minds of young Germans

BEELITZ, Germany (Reuters) - When Christian Mumber told his mother he was voluntarily enlisting in the German army for eight months, she burst into tears.

"She was really shocked," said the 18-year-old, grinning. "She was worried I wouldn't be able to endure army life, that I'd be eaten alive."

Now, without his earring and dressed in a green camouflage uniform, Mumber is one of thousands of young Germans who have signed up for a gap year of 4.30 a.m. starts, 10-km (six-mile) marches and bellowing sergeants as part of Germany's new voluntary military service, created last year to replace the draft.

The paid scheme lasts from seven to 23 months and long-term volunteers can join peacekeeping missions abroad.

Voluntary military service has exceeded expectations in Germany, which continues to struggle to define its international and military role in the historical wake of past aggression.

Since its introduction in July 2011, around 9,000 Germans are estimated to have volunteered in the scheme - almost double what the government had estimated.

At the Hans-Joachim von Zieten barracks in Beelitz, a run-down east German town whose asparagus harvest is hailed as the highlight of the municipal calendar, all 140 places for volunteers have been filled every quarter.

Fears that scrapping the decades-old draft for male school leavers would leave the army desperately understaffed have proved unfounded, said Lt. Col. Boris Nannt, commander of Beelitz and the logistics battalion based there.

Despite a shaky start - the national drop-out rate was 24 percent in the first six months - Nannt said he had not experienced any recruitment problems.

"I think it's fair that if people come to the army voluntarily they should be able to leave. But the people who stay - the larger percentage - are tip-top," he said.

"The big difference is that they want to be here and that's more important to me as a commander," he said.

SENSE OF ADVENTURE

Now in his second month at Beelitz, Mumber said he could understand why many thought the scheme would fail to attract recruits.

"We had to run for 10 km with an 18 kg (40-pound) pack yesterday. I don't think anyone would do that voluntarily," he said.

"But when you're with your fellow soldiers they spur you on, and you feel a sense of achievement afterwards," he said.

Mumber, who like all the recruits quoted in this article was selected by the army to be interviewed, said he signed up to the scheme after he had to break off his 'Abitur', the qualification required for entrance into university.

"I ended up here because a friend told me I'd enjoy it and I'd have great stories to tell," he said. He said he was seriously considering signing up to the army for four years.

Martin Ossetek, 21, another fresh recruit, said he joined after tiring of his desk job and also hoped to stay longer.

"I decided I didn't want that kind of working life any more. I wanted to be outside, I wanted sport and adventure," he said.

Under the last version of the draft, first introduced in West Germany in 1957, young men had faced compulsory service of six months. Now, as then, recruits who decide to extend their period of service to 18 months or more open themselves up to the possibility of serving in war zones.

With over 5,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, Germany is the third largest contributor of troops to the NATO-led force there, and has suffered 52 deaths since 2001.

Beelitz will send 300 soldiers to Afghanistan in October - the third time the battalion has deployed troops to the country.

Hassan Ahmad El-Hassan, 20, rings his mum every Thursday to ask what she will be cooking when he comes home at weekends.

As a Muslim, El-Hassan cannot eat the meat served in the mess, but he said this was a minor inconvenience.

Not only is he planning to extend his stay in the army, he would also be willing to serve in Afghanistan.

"They (the Taliban) are dragging my religion through the mud. That's why there's no question that I'd go out there because freedom should be the same for everybody," he said.

El-Hassan, who was born in Berlin to Lebanese parents, said his decision to sign up stemmed from his gratitude to the country that had helped his family.

"Before, I thought I would go away for a year after school, travel around and go to America or Australia," he said.

"But this country took my parents in when they fled Lebanon and gave us the chance to lead a normal life, and I really wanted to give something back," he said.

ARMY ADVERTISING

The reforms of the German military, aimed at creating a more cost-efficient and flexible force, have ushered in an army which must now work for every last recruit as well as beef up its image as an attractive place to work.

Some feared the army might end up drawing disproportionately from the ex-communist east, where poor employment prospects make for a rich recruitment ground.

A volunteer army in which an overly large number of east Germans served - and possibly died - for their country, could risk cooking up resentment across the still keenly felt east-west divide.

However, statistics suggest the number of new volunteers stepping forward from the former East Germany are broadly proportional to the region's size, about 16 percent of Germany's total population.

Since the end of the draft was announced in late 2010, the German army has stepped up its recruitment drive with television and radio spots under the slogan "Wir dienen Deutschland" -- "We're serving Germany".

Open days for young people and increased opportunities for work-shadowing at the barracks have become a regular occurrence in Beelitz since the switch.

Nannt, a salesman by training, said getting the recruits was only half the issue and the army needed to develop a "face" for the general public.

"It's not just about winning recruits but also about political education," he said. "People should be shown what the army actually is because many don't know what goes on behind the barrack walls."

Editing by Gareth Jones and Sonya Hepinstall

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