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Military Says Harsh Economy And Patriotism Drive Recruiting Success


January 17, 2010

The four main branches of the military are meeting or exceeding their active-duty recruiting goals in Connecticut and the rest of the nation. The sturdy numbers are being driven, in part, by the tough economy, but also by a strong sense of patriotism among the young recruits and by attractive enlistment benefits.

Before even mentioning her job-hunting struggles, Kelli Mahder, 23, of Wethersfield, was clear about one impulse that had inspired her to join the Army in December: "I wanted to do something bigger than myself. I asked myself why I shouldn't do it, and I couldn't come up with a valid reason."

That kind of sentiment, echoed in varying degrees by other young recruits in Connecticut, is helping to fuel a recruiting boom for the Department of Defense.

"We certainly aren't hurting for folks right now. We're actually doing better than we have" in decades, said Navy Chief Paul DeLaughter of the New England recruiting district.

The other branches are reporting similar numbers. Nationwide, the Air Force reached its highest number of enlistments since 2004, and the Marines Corps was able to do enough recruiting in 2009 to go from 175,000 in its ranks to 202,000. The Army has exceeded its goal of 80,000 enlistments from 2006 to 2008, and it took in more than 70,000 soldiers, with a goal of 65,000 in 2009.

Idealism may be part of the story, but economics is, too.

Mahder graduated from Eastern Connecticut State University with a degree in physical education and health, and looked for teaching jobs.

"I was applying for jobs and I was getting the same response every time: 'We're looking for someone with more experience,'" she said in a recent interview at the Army's downtown Hartford recruiting station. "I didn't want to sit around and keep applying my whole life. I wanted to go do something right away."

In the Army, she'll train to be an imagery analyst, reviewing aerial photographs that provide Army personnel with critical information about enemy forces, potential battle areas and combat operations support. Mahder said she's fascinated by the prospect.

While high unemployment is contributing to the strong Army numbers, Army Capt. Parsana Deoki echoed those in the other branches of the military when he said that it's not the only reason.

"Historically, an increase in unemployment has resulted in an increase in Army enlistments," he said, but the Army is also getting a boost from an increased inclination among young adults to enlist in the last few years even during active conflicts.

Master Sgt. William Eihusen, Air Force district supervisor for Connecticut, said the Air Force is also attracting plenty of people who couldn't find a job after earning a college degree.

"We've been picking up a lot of those," he said, but he also noted that recruiting stations are still taking in a healthy mix of people who are seeking independence, a chance to travel and an education they wouldn't be able to afford on their own.

Eihusen said high retention rates are also leading to strong numbers in recent months.

"We have a lot of career-minded individuals that end up staying 20-plus years in the Air Force," he said.

Strong State Numbers

The most surprising set of state data from the four branches of the active duty military came from the Navy, which nearly doubled its enlistment goal in Connecticut this year and reached a level far above that in any other year of the past decade.

"We're seeing that people are very interested in serving in a number of different ways," said Navy Cmdr. Jeff Wilcox. "We talk about ourselves being a global force for good." He said worldwide issues like humanitarian efforts, anti-piracy and anti-terrorism are all included in the Navy's mission, and that appeals to recruits.

Sean Rosen, an 18-year-old graduate of Howell Cheney Technical High School in Manchester, wants to serve his country and get a high quality education, and both propelled him to enlist in the Navy. "[The economy] wasn't much of a concern [for me] back when I signed up," said Rosen, of Enfield. "I'm going to be in for a full 20 [years]. Hopefully things will be fixed by then."

Some recruits are prompted to join for, perhaps, more traditional reasons.

"I tried the outside world," said Carlos Peralta, 21, of East Hartford. "I went to college, I got a full-time job in a nursing home while I was studying nursing." Peralta took the nursing classes at Capital Community College after graduating from East Hartford High School in 2005.

"The job kind of interrupted my whole school course," he said. "I was working a lot of hours at night and I was tired, so sometimes I would just not go to class at all. Then I just decided to drop out of college."

In the Navy, Peralta thinks he'll have more discipline and focus to still achieve his goals as he trains to be a battlefield paramedic and, he hopes, a Navy SEAL.

And for Jon Klein, a 25-year-old West Hartford resident and recent Marine Corps recruit, the decision to join was an easy one: to provide a good life for his family. Klein admitted he was a bit lost as a teenager, and dropped out of high school at 16. But a year later, he earned his GED and started working full time. He married his longtime girlfriend last year.

"I always wanted to be a Marine, but I wasn't in the right mind-set as a kid," Klein said. "I want to make sure the people that I love and the people that I care about grow up in a safer environment."

Right now Klein plans to have a full career in the Marine Corps, but just in case he decides to retire he will pursue a degree in business management so he can open his own business working on motorcycles, a family passion.


The branches treat incentives and bonuses for enlistments differently, but they all play a part in the increases during the past few years.

"With unemployment at 10 percent, we have opportunities that the civil sectors are not offering," Wilcox said of the Navy.

The Navy's "robust health care plan," good pay and education in demanding fields like nuclear power are all bonuses for recruits, he said.

"After your service you don't have to forgo an education, which was a stigma of the past," Wilcox said.

Deoki said active duty Army recruits have a wide range of options available to them, which plays a part in it good numbers.

Recruits "have the option to choose from 212 jobs that the Army offers," Deoki said. The Army also offers to chip in for student loans and pays up to $4,500 a year for college, he said.

He said recruiters also tell potential enlistees about health care, pay, housing and access to the Post- 9/11 GI Bill, which offers benefits to any soldier serving active duty after Sept. 11, 2001.

Through the Partnership for Youth Success (PaYS) program, the Army also guarantees that when soldiers finish their service, they will get a job interview with one of hundreds of companies that participate.

"It's at least a foot in the door as opposed to starting from scratch," Deoki said.

He said the role of benefits in enlistments, especially the intangible ones, is hard to track among the 18 to 21 age group, which makes up the largest group of enlistees.

"They don't really think about needing it," Deoki said. "It doesn't become a factor until later on in life. The intangible benefits can be difficult to comprehend for that age group."

But it's not all just health care and a job, said Marine Sgt. Jessica Smith, a Springfield recruiting station spokeswoman. The Springfield regional station includes Connecticut.

"Our advertising and recruitment efforts are designed to attract applicants who seek the challenge of becoming a Marine," Smith said, rather than to obtain the tangible military benefits.

"We impress upon applicants that an enlistment in the Marine Corps is a personal commitment that challenges an individual to live a life of honor, courage and commitment."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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