ROME, Italy — Italy, increasingly aware of the need for young, bright soldiers to restock its professional army, has gone on a recruiting drive.

To increase numbers, the Defense Ministry has launched a program of three-week military internships — dubbed “Live the Armed Forces” — aimed at luring men and women aged between 18 and 30 to a career in the army, navy, air force or Carabinieri unit, a police branch that operates in neighborhoods close to citizens.

The program will run until 2012 and aims to open up the military world to society, where it has previously been viewed as detached, and bolster the number of young people volunteering.

Italy suspended conscription in 2005 with the result that the army is now made up solely of professionals. According to the Defense Ministry, there are 288,066 “volunteers” in the armed forces.

Up until the 1970s, when young Italian males were required to spend 10 months in the military under threat of imprisonment, the armed forces were 400,000 strong. 

The government is expected to decide in 2011 whether to abolish conscription altogether or introduce a “mixed system,” involving recruitment via internships, said Col. Pier Vittorio Romano, one of the organizers of the internships. The internships do not function as a direct means of staffing: If the apprentice enjoys the three weeks and decides to become a solider, he or she must undertake a state exam. 

The 1,200 chosen participants — this year, 351 places were reserved for women — will get a thorough training, both theoretical and on the ground. 

They will learn the values of the armed forces — the constitutional duty of protecting one's country, their spirit of sacrifice and solidarity with the citizenry and the need for courage in peacekeeping missions abroad.

“The purpose of the internship is to offer all young men and women the possibility of living for a while the military life, developing in them a civil conscience,” Romano said. “It’s a real opportunity to bring citizens closer to the armed forces.”

Giuseppe Criscuolo, 18, from Naples agrees. The Defense Ministry held a similar internship in July, giving Giuseppe the opportunity to spend 10 days in the army’s elite Folgore parachuting unit in Pisa.

“It was a positive experience and it drew me closer to the military world. Life in the barracks is exhilarating, I’ll never forget it.” said Giuseppe, who recently graduated from high school. He said that for now, he would continue with plans to go to university, but might eventually apply to serve in the army.

At the very least, he said, it represented guaranteed fun.

Interns will be taught how to assist during natural calamities, including first aid and basic life support techniques, radio communications and the defense of cultural and artistic sites. Lessons will vary from anti-terrorism to the fight against drug trafficking. The training is alternated with tough physical activity.

The internships will take place in stations and barracks of all the four armed forces scattered across Italy.

Those in the army will be trained by the elite  “Alpines” unit in quick-walking, orienteering and topography through mountainous terrain. They will learn how to prevent the outbreak of wild fires, personal defense, shooting, team-building methods and how to deal with mass media during crisis.

The Carabinieri unit offers forensics courses aimed at turning the trainees into real detectives, as well as computers and hacking lessons to enable them recover lost files and documents. They will be taught to use technological devices such as the enhanced vehicle automation to vocally command instruments at a distance.

How does internship training differ from real-world military training?

“The shooting lessons will be simulated, not real ones,” Romano said, adding that “the training is purely formal.”

Also, internships are unpaid and participants are required to leave a warranty deposit in cash for the uniforms and outfits used. “That’s in case the clothes get ruined,” the colonel said. “But as for everything else — food and shelter — it’s all covered by the Defense Ministry.”

While a lack of remuneration may  seem not so appealing to young adults, the program has already registered a great success.

The Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa, speaking to the media, said that in just nine days “thousands of applications” had been filed online to the ministry’s headquarters in Rome. The internships look set to boost the image and appeal of the army and, in the long run, may boost the ranks of professional soldiers.

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