As sustained combat in Iraq makes it harder than ever to fill the ranks of the all-volunteer force, newly released Pentagon demographic data show that the military is leaning heavily for recruits on economically depressed, rural areas where youths' need for jobs may outweigh the risks of going to war.
More than 44 percent of U.S. military recruits come from rural areas, Pentagon figures show. In contrast, 14 percent come from major cities. Youths living in the most sparsely populated Zip codes are 22 percent more likely to join the Army, with an opposite trend in cities. Regionally, most enlistees come from the South (40 percent) and West (24 percent).
Many of today's recruits are financially strapped, with nearly half coming from lower-middle-class to poor households, according to new Pentagon data based on Zip codes and census estimates of mean household income. Nearly two-thirds of Army recruits in 2004 came from counties in which median household income is below the U.S. median.
Such patterns are pronounced in such counties as Martinsville, Va., that supply the greatest number of enlistees in proportion to their youth populations. All of the Army's top 20 counties for recruiting had lower-than-national median incomes, 12 had higher poverty rates, and 16 were non-metropolitan, according to the National Priorities Project, a nonpartisan research group that analyzed 2004 recruiting data by Zip code.
"A lot of the high recruitment rates are in areas where there is not as much economic opportunity for young people," said Anita Dancs, research director for the NPP, based in Northampton, Mass.
Senior Pentagon officials say the war has had a clear impact on recruiting, with a shrinking pool of candidates forcing the military to accept less qualified enlistees -- and presumably many for whom military service is a choice of last resort. In fiscal 2005, the Army took in its least qualified group of recruits in a decade, as measured by educational level and test results. The war is also attracting youths driven by patriotism, including a growing fringe of the upper class and wealthy, but military sociologists believe that greater numbers of young people who would have joined for economic reasons are being discouraged by the prolonged combat.
The Pentagon Zip code data, applied for the first time to 2004 recruiting results, underscores patterns already suggested by anecdotal evidence, such as analysis of the home towns of troops killed in Iraq. Although still an approximation, the data offer a more detailed portrait of the socioeconomic status of the Americans most likely to serve today.
Tucked into the Piedmont foothills of southern Virginia, where jobs in the local economy are scarce as NASCAR fans are plentiful, Martinsville is typical of the lower-income rural communities across the nation that today constitute the U.S. military's richest recruiting grounds.
Albert Deal, 25, had struggled for years to hold onto a job in this rural Virginia community of rolling hills and shuttered textile mills. So when the lanky high school graduate got his latest pink slip, from a modular-homes plant, he took a hard look at his life. Then he picked up the phone and dialed the steadiest employer he knew: the U.S. Army.
Two weeks later, on Oct. 27, Deal sat in his parents' living room and signed one enlistment document after another as his fiancee, Kimbery Easter, somberly looked on.
"This is the police check," said Sgt 1st Class Christopher A. Barber, a veteran Army recruiter, leading Deal through the stack of paperwork. "This is the sex-offender check . . ." Barber spoke in a monotone, sounding like a tour guide who had memorized every word.
Left adrift, young people such as Deal "are being pushed out of their communities. They want to get away from intolerable situations, and the military offers them something different," said Morten G. Ender, a sociologist at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
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.
But McNeely, Deal and Easter are uneasy over the prospect that the job will lead to Iraq. "That bothers me a lot," said McNeely, saying that his wife also likes to have Deal "in hollerin' distance."
Kadence spits up, and Deal rushes to get a rag to wipe off her mother's pants. Easter now supports Deal, after being angry at first over his plans to join the Army. Still, she hesitates to marry him before he leaves for boot camp. Deal, who wants a job as a tank driver, says he hopes he won't deploy.
"Believe me, I don't want to go over there." But, he said, "that's the risk I take."
At the 'Anchor' School
It's just after lunch at Magna Vista High School south of Martinsville. Sgt. Michael Ricciardi strides through the door and is ushered inside by a smiling woman signing in visitors. He is soon joking with kids heading to class, including several future soldiers.
"This is pretty much my 'anchor' school," said Ricciardi, Barber's partner, who spends hours each week handing out Frisbees and footballs in the hallways. "They know me pretty well."
In contrast to some schools around the country that limit access to recruiters, Magna Vista, where half of students receive financial aid or free lunch, welcomes them. School officials give recruiters a list of seniors to contact, and encourage upperclassmen to take a vocational test required by the military.
"We expose them to the fact that the military is there," said guidance counselor Karen Cecil. "We're setting the stage for [students] to know it's an option" especially as a way to afford college, she said.
Indeed, like many heavy recruiting areas, Martinsville has more people seeking Army jobs than are qualified for them. Army recruiters here turn away scores of interested youths because they fail vocational tests, physicals or legal background checks. To fill its ranks nationwide, the Army in fiscal 2005 accepted its least qualified pool in a decade -- falling below quota in high school graduates (87 percent) and taking in more youths scoring in the lowest category of aptitude test (3.9 percent).
Support for military service among parents has dwindled nationwide, but many parents here view it as an opportunity, often phoning recruiters to urge them to enlist their children.
Senior Miyana Gravely, 17, had long talks with her mother before asking for approval to join the Army and go to boot camp last summer. "You can do it. I don't want you to grow up and say, 'Mama wouldn't let me,' " Gravely recalls her mother telling her.
Gravely sees soldiering as a ticket to an active life somewhere else. "I don't want to be one of the people still sitting around Martinsville," she said, adding she is contemplating airborne training and "wouldn't mind" going to Iraq.
Being black and female, Gravely contradicts a national decline over the past four years in the willingness of both blacks and women to consider military service -- a shift polls attribute to the U.S. anti-terrorism effort and perceived discrimination. Blacks fell from 22.3 percent of Army recruits in fiscal 2001 to 14.5 percent this year; Hispanics rose from 10.5 percent to 13.2 percent, and whites, from 60.2 percent to 66.9 percent. Women dropped from 20 percent to 18 percent.
Gravely is active in the school's large Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps (JROTC), which draws 300 of the 1,200 students each year and works closely with recruiters. JROTC programs are prolific in Virginia and across the rural South.
"The parents heavily support it. We've kept a lot of kids from getting kicked out of school," said JROTC instructor John Truini.
The program gives students military ranks and strips them away if they break discipline. "I don't want to say [we] control the kids, but we have influence over them," Truini said.
Davey Brooks, 17, grew up on a small farm; he says JROTC "changed everything about my life." He joined JROTC in hopes the military could fulfill his dream of learning to fly -- "like 'Top Gun,' " he says.
Now, Brooks is "battalion commander" and leader of a nine-person Raider Team -- modeled after Army Rangers -- which competes in military skills such as evacuating casualties and orienteering. He plans a 20-year Army career.
"I want to be in the Army and fly whatever I can get my hands on," Brooks said. He is eager to go to Iraq as a pilot, although he admits to one drawback: He's scared of heights. "But when I'm up there," he predicts, "I'll feel like I'm free and I'm in control of everything."