August 8, 2009
By JESSICA MEYERS / The Dallas Morning News
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
"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."