ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA // Jake Lawrence admits that if he had had the choice between a high-paying job and joining the army, he most probably would have chosen the job. But in today's economic climate, with a record number of college graduates unable to find work, that was not an option for the 24-year old with a master's in communications.
And so in October, Mr Lawrence enlisted and soon will head to basic training, then Officer Candidate School and after that quite possibly Afghanistan. "I can't lie. If I was somewhere making six figures, I likely would not be turning to this," said Mr Lawrence, whose father is a career army officer. "I think a lot of people would say that as well. But when you have an opportunity, sometimes you've got to take it and run with it."
Despite two wars abroad and a hesitant public, 2009 was a banner year for military recruiters in the US. During the fiscal year, which ended on September 30, the defence department met all of its goals for the first time since the advent of the all-volunteer force in 1973, bringing in about 169,000 active duty recruits. This trend extended into October and November, even as the White House debated over how many additional troops to send to Afghanistan. President Barack Obama announced his decision on Tuesday night; the number he chose was 30,000.
While several factors influence each individual's choice to join the armed forces, the struggling American economy is no doubt helping to drive a boon in recruiting. Indeed, Pentagon officials and recruiters acknowledge that high unemployment figures and a largely jobless recovery from the global recession have seriously improved the recruiting climate. "I would like to say it was due to the extremely hard work of my soldiers getting the army message out to the public," said Army Capt Joseph M Miller, Potomac recruiting company commander, who served two tours in Iraq. "But I would also have to admit that the economic situation helped fill our ranks a little. A big category of increased enlistments was the college graduates."
At the recruitment centre in Arlington where Mr Lawrence signed up, the most prominent banner advertised up to US$50,000 (Dh183,000) in benefits for two or more years of enlistment. As unemployment rose last year, the army did particularly well, bringing in 70,045 active duty recruits - 5,000 higher than its stated goal - and 23,684 army reservists. The army also exceeded its quality goals, attracting more men and women with high school, college and postgraduate degrees.
Kim Sungjae was one of those highly qualified recruits. Born in South Korea, Mr Kim, 26, moved to the US about a decade ago and received a master's degree in accounting. But last spring he had fears about finding work and staying in the US. "I was an international student so I couldn't really find a job [with] the financial crisis," said Mr Kim. Thanks to the Pentagon's new Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest programme, which targets legal foreigners with special medical or language skills, Mr Kim, who speaks Korean, was able to join the army. In September he became a US citizen.
However, both Mr Kim and Mr Lawrence noted that joining was about more than financial rewards and citizenship. "At the end of the day you're part of something bigger than yourself. You're doing something that potentially helps other people. To me, serving in any type of capacity like this, no matter what branch, what service, it's a selfless act. It's a matter of putting others above yourself," said Mr Lawrence, who grew up on various military bases around the country.
The financial incentives to join are nevertheless quite clear, particularly during an economic downturn. According to Bill Carr, undersecretary of defence for military personnel policy, the average enlistment bonus is about $14,000, on top of the $9,000-$10,000 the defence department spends per recruit in advertising and their salaries. Of all the military units, the army spends the most, sometimes more than twice as much as the average.
During a press conference in October, Mr Carr acknowledged the dip in employment as "a force" behind the high number of recruits in 2009. He added that last year's recruiting efforts were so successful that the Pentagon was cutting its recruiting budget by 11 per cent this year, from more than $5 billion. But for a military stretched thin by nearly a decade of engagement in two separate theatres, continued success is essential.
Although Mr Obama has begun scaling down US forces in Iraq, more than 100,000 troops remain. And, as the president announced on Tuesday, that within six months the number of US forces in Afghanistan will be nearly 100,000 as well. Mr Lawrence seemed unfazed by the prospect of being deployed to a conflict zone. "You realise the risk and the rewards that can come from it. To me it's just going to another job."
The staff at the recruitment centre in Arlington - tucked in a suburban shopping mall and bedecked with Go Army posters and other patriotic paraphernalia - had helped with the transition, Mr Lawrence said. "I walk in anytime I want to and if they're here I sit down for 30 minutes and we talk. They've made it really comfortable and easy to prepare for the experience." Some commentators, however, are concerned by the ongoing pas de deux between domestic economic troubles and military escalation abroad.
"The United States is broken - school systems are deteriorating, the economy is in shambles, homelessness and poverty rates are expanding - yet we're nation-building in Afghanistan, sending economically distressed young people over there by the tens of thousands at an annual cost of a million dollars each," Bob Herbert wrote on Tuesday in The New York Times, in anticipation of Mr Obama's announcement.
But in the wake of a series of poor recruiting years, the military is looking to capitalise on the success of 2009. Each service has set similar goals for fiscal year 2010 to those they met in 2009. And if October and November are indications of the current recruiting climate, they can expect to meet those missions. * The National