NYT: Desire to serve, not economy, fuels military recruiting
Here's some news that may shock you: new military recruits are signing up in droves because they actually want to serve their country. According to a Sept. 5 article in the Dallas Morning News that also ran in the New York Times, a poll of new recruits shows their number one reason for signing up is "service to country," not "job training" or "educational benefits" as it had been in recent years. Curtis Gilroy, the Department of Defense's director of recruiting, called these results surprising.
"When jobs are scarce in the civilian sector, the military is relatively attractive as a post-high school option for young people," he said.
Frankly, I'm surprised they're surprised.
In my work as an Army journalist and in research for my upcoming book "Why They Serve: The True Stories Behind the Americans Serving in the Global War on Terrorism," I've had the privilege of interviewing more service members than I can count. I've talked to Army drill sergeants, Navy SEALs, Coast Guard law enforcement teams and wide-eyed, baby-faced 18-year-olds in basic training. And not once has anyone told me they signed up simply because they couldn't find a job. In fact, their reasons for joining are as varied as they are (and no, they're not all from the South). Some have told me they chose to serve because of a renewed sense of patriotism sparked by 9/11. Some have told me they love the camaraderie, the structure, and the commitment to getting the job done right. Some, like 19-year-old Beatrice Mahoney in the article, feel strongly about carrying on a family tradition. The daughter of a retired Marine Corps master sergeant, Mahoney is enlisting in the Marine Corps with her boyfriend. Both of them are unemployed, but that's not their main reason for joining, Mahoney said.
"This is pretty much the only thing I know, and I love it to death," she said. "Our drive to be in the military pushed us together. I really think this is going to make us stronger."
All four of the military's main branches are far exceeding their recruiting goals for the first time, according to the article. But it's not because young people are viewing the military as an alternative to unemployment or flipping burgers. The one common thread in all of the responses I've gotten from service members about why they joined is a desire to serve their country. Sure, the bleak economy may have played a role in their decision, but the stakes involved in joining the military are awfully high these days. We all know the odds are pretty darn good that a new recruit will deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan at some point, and if you're truly just looking for a paycheck, facing enemy fire is a tall order. Military service is not for everyone, and if all you're after is an alternative to sitting on the couch, you'll probably be more likely to do something less hazardous and life-changing.
New recruits aren't choosing the military out of desperation, either. They're getting record-high scores on the ASVAB, the military entrance exam, and 99 percent of them have a high school diploma, according to the article. They have the smarts and education to potentially do something else, but have chosen service instead--and that's a powerful message to the rest of us.
While the economic downturn is not solely responsible for the up tick in recruiting, what it has done is provide a window of opportunity for those who had been considering joining the military. One young woman I met had been a high-powered New York real estate agent when the housing collapse hit at the end of 2007. She'd always wondered what it would be like to serve in the Army and to have a career with a bit more meaning than just showing West Side apartments all day. Since her business was flailing anyway, she joined the National Guard in 2008 and couldn't have been happier with her decision.
The economy has also served as a powerful retention tool. I know many service members with families to support who have served for eight, ten, or twelve years, and have been considering making a career change, but who have decided that the outside economic situation is just too risky.
As Staff Sgt. Marcus Ochoa, a recruiter in Nagadoches, Texas, puts it in the article, joining the military is an entire way of life that requires sacrifice and change. Fortunately, Ochoa says that most new recruits seem to get that.
"There are niceties--education, travel, job security, those things," he said. "But they shouldn't be the reason people join. Do it because you want to serve your country. That's the right reason."
I couldn't have put it better myself.
Photo credit: U.S. Army