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Youths in Rural U.S. Are Drawn To Military

Sgt. Michael Ricciardi talks with high school senior Davey Brooks, who plans to join the Army.
Sgt. Michael Ricciardi talks with high school senior Davey Brooks, who plans to join the Army. (Ann Scott Tyson - Twp)

To be sure, some young people who need jobs or college money also seek adventure and a chance to serve their country. Others come from towns with large bases or populations of veterans interwoven with a military culture that helps keep enlistments high. And a rising percentage of youth from wealthy areas is signing up, presumably for patriotic reasons.

But nationwide, data point above all to places such as Martinsville, where rural roads lined with pine and poplar trees snake through lonely, desolate towns, as the wellspring for the youth fighting America's wars.

"They are these untapped kids," Enders said "that nobody found."

A Dwindling Job Market

Barber palms the steering wheel of his gray Dodge Stratus as he drives northwest into the steeply undulating backcountry surrounding Martinsville, where he commands a recruiting station.

Barber's territory spans 862 square miles in one of the country's most productive recruiting regions. Roaming in and out of cell-phone range through tiny towns, Barber and his partner post Army brochures at mom-and-pop groceries, work the crowd at NASCAR races at the local track, and log more than 100 miles a day meeting potential recruits.

In fiscal 2005, the Army's worst year for recruiting since 1999, they signed up 94 percent of their target, a relatively high number in one of the Army's top recruiting regions.

"We were pretty much dead-on," said Barber of Miami, attributing his success in part to the region's shrinking job market and the inability of families to afford college. Unemployment in Martinsville was 12.1 percent in 2004. Median income is $27,000, with a poverty rate of 17.5 percent, 2000 census data show.

"The job market is dwindling, and it's hard for a young man or woman to find something other than the fast-food business," Barber says on the way to the one-story home of Mike McNeely, Deal's stepfather.

Still, many young people such as Deal exhaust other options before considering the Army, making today's recruits older on average. "These kids have tested the labor market and gone on to college but didn't perform well," said Curtis Gilroy, director of accessions for the Pentagon. From 2000 to 2004, the number of teenagers joining the military dropped, while 20- to 25-year-olds rose from 31 to 36 percent.

As his fiancee stares impassively at a TV soap opera, Deal cradles Kadence, her fussy 6-month-old daughter, and explains how he turned to the Army after doors kept slamming in his face.

"I tried anything and everything" to land a job, Deal said, ticking off glass and furniture companies and a local telemarketing firm. "No one ever called back." Divorced and the father of a 3-year-old son, Deal decided to call the recruiter because "it's a job to do," he said. "It's something to make a life of."

Sitting in a kitchen decorated with religious figurines, McNeely, 50, agrees. "You're not looking at a lot around here in terms of a future," said McNeely, who is disabled. He adds that the textile and furniture factories where he once worked have vanished or downsized.

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