by Ted Roelofs | The Grand Rapids Press
Sunday January 11, 2009
Army Spc. Alex Stewart had a choice: Roll the dice with a dismal
economy or put his life on the line and extend his military commitment.
The Grand Rapids resident concluded the Army is a safer bet.
"I want a stable life for my wife in a very shaky economy," Stewart
said. "There were no other options."
And so two years after he joined Army and shipped off to Afghanistan
with the 82nd Airborne Division, Stewart signed up for five more.
The 32-year-old did so even though the division suffered 87 deaths in
2007, highest toll in the 20,000-member unit since fighting in Iraq
and Afghanistan began.
"I figure if I do another five or 10 years in the Army, the economy
will turn around and I can get a truck-driving job," Stewart said.
He is stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., while awaiting assignment to
Germany. But Stewart is aware he could be sent again into combat, a
chance he is willing to take.
Drop in casualties figures in
Thousands of other soldiers are making the same decision, as bad
economic tidings adds up to good news for the military.
The Army's retention rate for early-career soldiers has climbed 20
percent in the past four years. In the Navy and Air Force, early- and
mid-career sailors and airmen re-enlisted at a higher rate in October
than during the same period in 2007.
In 2006, the Marine Corps' retention rate was 24 percent. Two years
later, it jumped to 35 percent.
Similar trends apply to new recruits. In Michigan, Army and Army
Reserve enlistments have grown from 2,614 in fiscal 2006 to 2,978 in
Army Maj. Joel Heath, in charge of recruitment for the Grand Rapids
region, said a military hitch is a much easier sell when the market
is tumbling and job losses mount.
"They want the educational benefits the military provides. Some are
seeking adventure and just to get away from Michigan," Heath said.
"We are seeing quite a few individuals enlist that are in their 30s
and have a family and are looking to provide a better form of
stability for their family."
At the same time, the drop in casualties in Iraq has made the
military seem less risky.
In 2008, 314 U.S. troops died there. It marked a significant drop
from the 904 who died in 2007, 822 in 2006 and 846 in 2005.
The military paid a price in those more perilous years, as
active-duty enlistment fell 6,600 short of the goal in fiscal 2005.
It was the Army's largest shortfall in 26 years.
To compensate, the Army lowered admission standards to accept more
recruits without high school degrees, pushed the maximum age for
enlistment in the Guard and Reserves from 34 to 39 and bumped its
active-duty enlistment bonus from $20,000 to $40,000.
Benefits are a lure
But the dreary economic landscape might be a more potent recruiting
tool than any of those measures. Michigan has lost more than 80,000
jobs in 2008 and the University of Michigan forecasts it will lose
108,000 more in 2009.
For Grand Rapids resident Andrew Maxim, 17, the Army seemed the best
option after he dropped out of Northview High School and appraised
his job prospects.
"I kind of wanted to do something with my life. That, and the
Michigan economy. I mean, come on."
Maxim leaves for training in March, where he expects to be schooled
as an artillery systems operator. Maxim plans to be in the Army eight
or 12 years, perhaps switching specialties to "something to do with
computers" at some point.
After that, he sees himself relocating out West.
He pins that to a Michigan economy he calls "horrible. I can't see it
going anywhere. When I get out of here, I am not going to come back."
Maxim was guided in his decision to join the Army by his parents; his
brother, a Marine; and by Army Sgt. John Maess, his recruiter.
Maess, an eight-year veteran, himself decided to re-enlist in October
for six more years. He had thought of leaving to enroll in a criminal
justice program but decided the Army was more secure.
Its generous health care coverage, housing stipend and job security
were not lost on Maess.
"Thinking of going back to school and trying a job with the economy
the way it is, actually made my choice easier of going back into the
service," Maess said.
In for the long haul
Maess, 27, is assigned to recruiting duty at the Army's office near
Celebration Cinema North in Grand Rapids until September.
But as a soldier who served a year in Iraq beginning in the March
2003 invasion, he realizes he could be reassigned to combat.
"It's part of the job," Maess said. "If I didn't know the risks when
I was enlisting, I would not have done it."
Maess said he might stay in for 20 years, when he could retire with a
He said he found the right fit.
"Honestly, I feel for the people in the state of Michigan and all
over the United States," Maess said. "The unemployment rate has just
jumped through the ceiling.
"It is very, very trying out there," he said.
At age 51, Wyoming resident Richard Lovegrove faced a different calculation.
Lovegrove racked up 17 years in the Navy, leaving in 1997. But he
never attained the economic security he hoped for in civilian life,
moving from work as a paramedic to several retail jobs.
He joined the Army National Guard in November, a three-year
commitment that should qualify him for military retirement benefits.
"The economy had a lot to do with it," Lovegrove said. "That and
seeing the value of my 401(k) dive like crazy."
Like other military couples, he and his wife, Lori, are girding
themselves for the prospect he could be sent to Iraq or Afghanistan.
"There is a concern in the back of my mind that that could happen. As
a family, we are preparing for that."
Grand Rapids resident Anna Jonkman joined the Army National Guard for
six years in late 2007, as she completed her final year at Hope College.
Back then, the job market didn't seem particularly enticing for her
major -- dance performance and choreography.
It might be worse now. Jonkman, 22, is convinced she made the right choice.
"It looks even better than it did before. I get health care, dental,
a regular paycheck that you can count on," she said.
"I can go active military if I want to. I can stay in the Guard."