Called to serve: How recruiters attract young people in Washington’s non-military towns

Navy recruiters in Bellingham, Washington, don’t have a major base nearby to showcase military life. So they find other ways to connect.

Instead, they focus on Bellingham’s higher education centers, such as Western Washington University, and how a military career can fit into a student’s plans.

“A lot of students will go, and realize that (university) education is not for them, or they are looking for a better way to fund it,” said Navy Personnel Specialist 1st Class David Fairburn.

That’s where a conversation begins, Fairburn said. “With the Navy’s education benefits, it’s really hard to beat to get paid, and have college paid for, and travel the world.”

Developing recommendations on how to attract more young people to enter military service is one of the mandates of the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service. One of the commission’s early conclusions is that the geographic gap on where new recruits come from has widened. Many of America’s largest cities are underrepresented, and the regions of the United States where recruits come from have become even more concentrated in recent years, the commission found.

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“Forty-five years ago, about half of enlisted recruits came from the American South and West; today, that number is nearly 70 percent,” the commission said in its initial report, which is still open for public comment.

Those findings are mirrored in the Defense Department’s fiscal year 2018 ranking of the top 25 communities sending 17- to 24-year-olds to join the military. While no Washington state community made the top 25 in the fiscal year 2018 rankings, Oak Harbor, Washington, by Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, was ranked No. 19 in the Pentagon’s fiscal year 2017 list.

At the No. 1 spot for fiscal year 2018 was Hope Mills, N.C. Like most of the other top 25 towns, Hope Mills is near a major military base. Its high schools have well-developed Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps programs as part of their curriculum, and recruiters are welcome on campus. Like almost all of the top 25 towns, Hope Mills had fewer than 4,000 residents age 17 to 24.

The Pentagon’s Defense Manpower Data Center calculated the top 25 by creating an index that ranked the communities based on the number of 17- to 24-year-olds who joined the military over the last five fiscal years from that town compared to the number of residents in that age range. The Pentagon used population data from Woods and Poole Economics, Inc., an independent firm that specializes in long-term economic and demographic data.

In a second index, the Pentagon ranked cities solely on the total number of recruits who have joined the military over the last five fiscal years, an approach that favored large cities. No Washington state cities made that top 25 either.

That index showed that many of the nation’s largest cities are underrepresented in the armed forces.

For example, over the last five fiscal years, 374 of Hope Mills’ estimated 2,322 population of 17- to 24-year-olds joined the military.

If Sacramento, which was the nearest large city to Washington to make the rankings, had the same ratio of enlistment, 13,178 would have entered military service instead of the 1,893 who actually did.

The larger cities may have lower rates of participation because there are other industries that provide job opportunities, JROTC high school students from the No. 7 ranked town, Copperas Cove, Texas, said.

But the small towns also often have other job opportunities, and yet a large number of young residents still choose the military, said Mark Waller, a county board commissioner who represents Peyton, Colo. Peyton was the No. 1 town in the Defense Department’s fiscal year 2017 rankings.

“There are plenty of opportunities for people to find jobs here. I actually think it’s a strong sense of patriotism,” Waller said. With five major bases nearby, military service is “part of their everyday lives here.”

The Defense Department said both top 25 lists included only communities with populations of at least 1,000 residents between the ages of 17 and 24. Overall, it recruits in 4,940 towns and cities that match that criteria.

The data was obtained exclusively by McClatchy and comes as the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service seeks public comment on how to expand the number of communities that encourage military service across the country.

“It’s the same families in the same communities that are providing young people for new generations of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines,” said commissioner Tom Kilgannon.

Larry Korb, a senior defense fellow at the Center for American Progress, said the disconnect started with Vietnam, and became more pronounced in the years that followed, as the U.S. military struggled to transition to an all-volunteer force. The same rural and small town communities that served in Vietnam became the ones the Pentagon relied on to fill the ranks postwar.

“I do remember from my own days from active duty I think I was the only person from New York,” said Korb, who served in the Navy and was President Ronald Reagan’s assistant secretary of defense for manpower.

That hasn’t changed, Korb said. In these military communities, “it’s their children and grandchildren serving.”

The repeated reliance on the same communities generation after generation plays into a larger “divide that we’re seeing in our country,” said Debra Wada, another member of the national commission looking at military service. “So yes, it’s very important that we encourage and have representation from across America.”

Korb is currently a co-chairman at the National Military Family Association and he sees the divide still. “Where are the families from mostly? They are not in Los Angeles,” he said.

In the last five years, while Los Angeles has a population of 224,937 in the 17 to 24 age group, only 2,700 of them enlisted, according to the Pentagon data. Los Angeles was No. 8 on the large cities list.

In communities that are not near a military base, such as Sacramento, connecting with students on their high school campuses - and with the high school principals - is critical, said Navy recruiter Machinery Repairman 2nd Class Matthew Schneider.

“I’m constantly going in there and having full-on conversations with the principals,” said Schneider, who is responsible for recruiting at Sacramento’s Bella Vista High School in Fair Oaks and Cordova High School in Rancho Cordova. He’s on campus nearly every day, setting up a table outside in the quad, sometimes with a loudspeaker.

“Sacramento is definitely not one of those high military areas,” Schneider said.

So on campus, he’ll start telling his Navy story. He’ll talk about the early benefits of getting technical training and a good paycheck. It resonates, he said.

Students will stop and ask him questions. “That’s the main thing we’re trying to get. We’re trying to get the questions to be asked, you know, ‘What can the Navy offer me?’” Schneider said.

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Tara Copp is the national military and veterans affairs correspondent for McClatchy. She has reported extensively through the Middle East, Asia and Europe to cover defense policy and its impact on the lives of service members. She was previously the Pentagon bureau chief for Military Times and a senior defense analyst for the U.S. Government Accountability Office. She is the author of the award-winning book “The Warbird: Three Heroes. Two Wars. One Story.”