Published on
the Dallas Morning News

Military Recruiting Rises Among Middle-Class, Suburban Youths in Dallas-Fort Worth Area

Jessica Meyers

Joshua Abele looks through a military rifle scope while holding up the rifle at a Canadian Armed Forces recruitment station at the Edmonton Indy in Edmonton, July 25, 2009. (REUTERS/Todd Korol)

Suburban areas like Collin County are being invaded by the armed forces, which are seeing a new kind of recruit - middle-class kids with high school and even college educations.

Steady income, college funding and heightened recruiting efforts during an economic downturn are attracting more affluent youth in Texas and across the country to the military.

"It just seems right," said Matt Lawson, a 17-year-old who graduated in June from Wakeland High School in Frisco. He and his 22-year-old brother, Zack, enlisted together last month.

"It's about service to the country, respect, honor, but also better opportunities," Matt Lawson said. "There aren't any jobs."

Armed-forces recruitment is up nationally, with the Pentagon reporting that all active branches met or exceeded their target recruitment goals in June. About three-quarters of new recruits now come from neighborhoods at or above the median household income. And 96 percent have a high school diploma, up from 90 percent two years ago.

The numbers don't surprise Edwin Dorn, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin's LBJ School of Public Affairs and a former undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.

"A bad economy is always good news for recruiting," he said.

"If the economy goes down enough, middle-class suburban kids begin to find the military attractive. They expected to go to college and are finding their parents can no longer afford to send them."

Collin County recruiters say they're seeing the results - filled stations and new centers sprouting up to meet demand. The Army just opened a recruiting station in Allen. The Navy has plans to open a Frisco center in a few months, and the Air Force hopes to establish one there next year.

The chairs in Frisco's Army recruiting office were all claimed on a recent morning - not an unusual sight, said Army Staff Sgt. Steve Blais, who transferred from rural Wise County several months ago to head Frisco's recruiting station.

"When I pulled the list and saw all the high school and college graduates here, I couldn't believe it," he said.

"Everything has gone up with the economy the way it is and the opportunity for steady income and paid student loans," he said. "People want nothing more than to be marketable."

Growth in Collin

Collin County is seeing the area's only sustained boost in Army enlistment.

Last year it had 2.4 active-duty recruits for every 1,000 people 15 to 24, according to the National Priorities Project, which analyzes Army data. That's up from 1.6 in 2004, with an increase each year.

Rockwall County's numbers are slightly higher than Collin's but have slipped recently. Dallas County, whose enrollment has also dropped in recent years, reached only 1.5 recruits per thousand in 2008. That puts it under the national average of 1.6.

One of the biggest appeals, Dorn said, is the revamped GI Bill, which begins this month and significantly increases education benefits. Service members who spend at least three years on active duty receive free tuition at any public college or can apply the payment toward tuition at a private university.

Dorn also credits the spike to efforts to expand the military and the withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates vowed this year to increase the size of the Army by 22,000 troops, a move Dorn said led to "reaching into the areas such as the suburbs that have not traditionally been as lucrative targets as inner cities and poor rural areas."

Reasons to sign up

At the Frisco Army recruiting office, Cody Barron, a 17-year-old Centennial High School senior from Frisco, waited his turn in a corner seat. He wants to study mechanics and said the Army was becoming an increasingly intriguing option.

"They'll help pay for college, and that's a big deal," said Barron, a baseball player who didn't expect to be offered an athletics scholarship.

"But maybe it's also about seeing what we're doing overseas and keeping us free," he added, struggling to capture a much less quantifiable motivation - patriotism.

Donald Moreland, a 24-year-old musician and graduate of Plano Senior High School, said a similar urge underscored his decision to enlist in the Air Force this summer.

"Election Day sort of tipped the scale in my mind," he said. "I've always had a keen interest in world affairs, and I suppose this way I can play a part."

But it's also the wisest career move he could make, said the aspiring broadcaster.

"Mostly it's a sort of a kick in the butt so I do something beside ride around with a band and play at honkytonks."

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