Colorado educators visit a virtual firing range at Fort Carson Jan. 28, 2019.

Dan Boyce/CPR News

The U.S. Army fell 6,500 soldiers short of national recruitment goals set last year by the Trump administration, and the Army battalion responsible for recruitment in Colorado, Nebraska and Southern Wyoming is now being charged with bringing in 2,300 new soldiers in 2019 as part of a new nationwide recruitment drive.

It’s the first time the Army has not met its recruitment goal in more than a decade. Last year’s nationwide goal: 76,500 new troops.

One of the regional battalion’s strategies for raising the numbers: get teachers, counselors and school administrators to volunteer to lend a hand.

About 20 educators, most from around the Colorado Springs area, took up a recent invitation from the Army to visit El Paso County’s Fort Carson military base for the day. Recruiters showed them everything from a fleet of military vehicles to a video game-inspired simulation of what it’s like to drive those vehicles; they visited a gym and shopping center and tested their aim on a virtual shooting range.

Cheyenne Mountain High School teachers Lisa Jolstad, right, and Kate Bridgman sit in a driving simulator while Army Capt. Wes Barber looks on.

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Army Capt. and recruiter Wes Barber said that back in the day, strategy used to focus on bravery and the thrill inherent in military life.

“There are still folks out there that want that,” he said. “There are still folks out there that just want to serve their country."

There’s no guarantee new recruits in Colorado will wind up at Fort Carson, but those who do are likely to see some kind of action overseas. The base has one of the busiest deployment schedules nationwide.

Barber said to reach the Pentagon’s higher recruitment goals, the Army has to appeal to more than a young person’s sense of adventure. He intended to show educators that the military can be a smart professional and academic choice for career-minded kids. The Army is also using social media campaigns and fielding teams in video game tournaments to get the message out.

“I would conjecture that when you join the military, you are in fact choosing college,” said Army Education Services Spec. Larry Beer as he spoke to the group in a gymnasium where an enormous American flag took up much of the wall behind them.

The Army can be part of a serious collegiate plan right from the start, Beer said, and recruits can earn college credit even through basic training. He told the teachers there are more than 150 career options in the Army, representing information technology and medical fields, human resources and logistics and more.

Las Animas High School English teacher David Armstrong said the tour broadened his perspective of what the military can offer potential recruits.

“You know, when I was in high school...it was a lot of the ‘give me a gun and we’ll go out and do what we gotta do and then come home and then it’s the GI bill.’ But, their job is not just to carry a gun and a 50-pound backpack and go shoot people. It’s in some cases being an operating room specialist,” Armstrong said.

Discover Canyon High School Counselor Staci Wayant, right, on a tour of Fort Carson on Jan. 28, 2019.

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Kate Bridgman teaches English language development at Cheyenne Mountain High School in Colorado Springs. Many of her students are green card holders, considering the military as a path to citizenship. She had never been on Fort Carson, even though she has lived and worked near the base for years. She was glad to get a more thorough understanding of it.

“As an educator, I need to look at all, all avenues for my kids. What they’re ready for, what they’re looking for and that the military has certainly developed a much more diverse kind of approach,” Bridgman said.

Recruiters in Colorado may have their work cut out for them, however, as a strong private sector economy pulls some potential future soldiers away.