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Downturn Drives Military Rolls Up

Natalie Hill, 18, looks over material at a National Guard recruiting kiosk at the Mall in Columbia.
Natalie Hill, 18, looks over material at a National Guard recruiting kiosk at the Mall in Columbia. (By Mark Gail -- The Washington Post)
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By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 29, 2008

Some of the largest investment firms on Wall Street are gone. The country's auto industry is on the verge of collapse. Banks are shedding jobs. But in these doom-and-gloom times, there is someone who's hiring: your local military recruiter.

The economic downturn and rising unemployment rate are making the military a more attractive option, Pentagon officials say. In some cases, the peace of mind that comes with good benefits and a regular paycheck is overcoming concerns about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which any new enlistee is likely to join.

"There's no way to sugarcoat it: We're a nation at war," said Lt. Col. Michael Bennett, who commands the Maryland Army National Guard's recruiting battalion. "But we offer a stability of income that a lot of employers can't guarantee right now."

Since the military became an all-volunteer force in 1973, recruiters have generally struggled in times of private-sector job growth and done well during recessions. But in addition to the recent downturn, they say they are benefiting from better news out of Iraq, where U.S. casualities are down, and from the election of Barack Obama (D), who has pledged to withdraw troops from Iraq.

The active-duty Army, which like other branches has increased benefits and added recruiters, said last month that it had recruited more than 80,000 soldiers during the past fiscal year, the third year in a row it has met its recruiting goals. Good news for the Army has coincided with terrible news elsewhere. The unemployment rate has jumped from 4.8 to 6.5 percent in the past 12 months, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. During that time, the ranks of the unemployed grew by 2.8 million, to 10.1 million.

At a news conference last month, David Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said the military does "benefit when things look less positive in civil society. I don't have the Dow Jones banner running up behind me here this morning, but that is a situation where more people are willing to give us a chance. And I think that's the big difference: People are willing to listen to us."

And for those listening, recruiters are likely to talk about how they're hiring, even if no one else is. Air National Guard Master Sgt. Robert Sweeny, a recruiter based in Baltimore, said that since the economy tanked, "we've changed the strategy a little bit." Instead of highlighting only college tuition assistance and job training, his recruiters also talk about "health and life insurance benefits that companies are cutting back on," he said.

Master Sgt. Veronica Womack, who processes recruits for the Maryland Army National Guard, said some soldiers-to-be have told her that the change in commander in chief was a factor in their decision to enlist.

"For the last couple of years, they were unsure about the direction the military was going in and if it was really for them," she said. One new enlistee told her that he joined because "the economy was bad, and he felt there was a real change since the election" in the direction of the country.

Another prospect, who worked in real estate, said the housing market had gotten so bad that he wanted to join for extra income, she said.

The military's recent recruiting success can also be attributed to other factors. After the active Army missed its recruiting mark by 7,000 in 2005, it raised the maximum age for recruits from 35 to 42.

Enlistment bonuses have also increased and can be can be as high as $40,000. The Army estimates that the compensation for a military police sergeant, including housing, food and health care, comes to $47,000. And the new G.I. Bill, which goes into effect Aug. 1, will cover the tuition at any public university and provide a living stipend.

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