After graduating from high school, Vanessa Givens wanted more opportunity than she felt her South Carolina hometown offered.

"Our family didn't focus on education. We focused on getting a job," she said. "In  Beaufort, there's not many opportunities outside of being a cashier or working at a local department store."

So in search of a better life, she and two friends enlisted in the military. She chose the Navy, which paid her way through Florida A&M University where she earned a bachelor's degree in accounting. After 21 years, she retired as a surface warfare officer. Today, she is a Navy civilian employee recently honored for her exemplary work as an equal employment opportunity specialist.

Givens, 45, recommends the armed forces to young people.

"I think it's a great option," she said. "The military is a great opportunity to start a career."

But drumming up interest in military service among people ages 17 to 24 has been a growing challenge.

More than 80 percent of young people interviewed for an annual Department of Defense survey indicated they weren't leaning toward a future in the military. Compounding the problem, some estimates show that only 25 percent in that age group would meet the minimum qualifications to enlist.

So recruiters beat the bushes to find youth interested in enlisting who also could qualify for the service. They spend long hours out in the community. Finding 50 new Marines can entail an average of 10,000 contacts ranging from a few minutes to an hour, said Marine spokesman Justin Kronenberg.

"That is an incredible amount of time," he said. "It is challenging."

Last year, the Marines met their recruiting goal of nearly 32,000 new enlisted, 5,300 reserves and 1,700 officers, he said.

Army spokeswoman Kelli Bland said obesity is the biggest problem with potential recruits. Other issues include poor aptitude scores or a felony criminal record.

Still, the Army met its goal of recruiting 68,500 new active-duty members and 14,400 reserves in the last fiscal year ending Sept. 30. This year, it aims to add 80,000 to its active-duty ranks.

Last week, USA Today reported that the Army had relaxed some of its recruiting standards to allow people with a history of self-mutilation, bipolar disorder, depression and drug and alcohol abuse to seek waivers to enlist. Army officials said the change was triggered in part by better access to medical information on recruits.

The Air Force, which lags far behind the Army in recruiting, had 33,000 new enlisted members last year which slightly exceeded its goal. It also added 1,200 officers. This year, it aims to recruit 29,450 enlisted and 1100 officers, said spokeswoman Leslie Brown.

Last year, for every 11 Army recruits, there was one Air Force recruit, she said.

To increase its ranks, the Air Force promotes benefits such as medical coverage, 30 days of annual leave and 100 percent tuition assistance. But the number of potential recruits shrinks because of issues such as obesity, use of illegal drugs, having flat feet or medical conditions such as asthma, she said.

Active-duty service members represent less than 1 percent of the U.S population.

"People just don't serve in the military," she said.

Analyst Beth Asch of the Rand Corporation said between 13 percent and 17 percent of young Americans have expressed interest in military service in annual government surveys.

For new recruits, military pay often is higher than a job in the civilian world.

"They see it as the best opportunity available," Asch said.

Reach Prentiss Findlay at 843-937-5711.