WHO FIGHTS AMERICA'S WARS? New Army recruits are increasingly coming from the same communities in the U.S., deepening the divide between those who serve and those who don't.

AuthorPhilipps, Dave
PositionNATIONAL

Sergeant First Class Dustin Comes is in charge of one of the busiest Army recruiting centers in Colorado. He joined the Army, in part, because his father served. Now two of his four children say they want to serve too. And he won't be surprised if the other two make the same decision once they're a little older.

"Hey, if that's what your calling is, I encourage it, absolutely," says Sergeant Comes, who wears a dagger-shaped patch on his camouflage uniform, signifying that he has been in combat. Soldiers like him are increasingly making the United States military a family business. The men and women who sign up overwhelmingly come from counties in the South, from a scattering of communities at the gates of military bases, and from places where the tradition of military service is deeply ingrained.

More and more, new recruits are the children of old recruits. In 2019, 79 percent of Army recruits had a family member who served. For nearly 30 percent, it was a parent--a striking point in a nation where less than 1 percent of the population serves in the military.

For years, military leaders have been sounding the alarm over the growing gulf between communities that serve and those that don't. They warn that depending on a small number of counties that reliably produce soldiers is unsustainable, particularly now amid seemingly endless wars and frequent upheaval around the world, such as the recent flare-up with Iran.

This widening gap "threatens our ability to recruit the number of quality youth with the needed skill sets to maintain our advantage," Anthony M. Kurta, a senior official for the Department of Defense, said last year.

68,000 New Recruits

The idea of joining the military has lost much of its luster in nearly two decades of grinding war. The patriotic rush to enlist after the terrorist attacks of 2001 has faded, as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have claimed the lives of more than 7,000 American troops. (As this issue was going to press, the U.S. signed a preliminary peace deal in an effort to try to end the Afghanistan war.)

For a generation of soldiers, enlisting has produced considerable hardship, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (P.T.S.D.) and lifelong physical injuries.

But the military families who have borne nearly all of the burden, and are the most clear eyed about the risks of war, are still the most likely to encourage their sons and daughters to join.

With the goal of recruiting about 68.000 soldiers in 2020, the Army is now trying to broaden its appeal beyond traditional recruitment pools. New marketing plays up future careers in medicine and tech, as well as generous tuition benefits for a generation crushed by student debt. The messaging often notes that most Army jobs aren't in combat fields--de-emphasizing the dangers, including death, that can come with enlisting.

The Army has targeted ads on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitch (Amazon's livestreaming gaming platform). It also has formed its own e-sports teams to play in video game tournaments as a way to promote the Army to young gamers (see "Selling Service," p. 14).

A Widening Gap

But for now, rates of military service remain unequal in the U.S., and the gap may continue to widen, because a driving decision to enlist is whether a young person knows anyone who served in the military. In communities where veterans are plentiful, teachers, coaches, mothers, uncles, and other mentors often speak highly of military service. In communities where veterans are scarce, influential adults are more wary.

"Those who understand military life are more likely to consider it as a career option than those who do not," says Kelli Bland, a spokeswoman for the Army's Recruiting Command.

That has created a broad gap, easily seen on a map (below). The South, where the culture of military service runs deep and military installations are plentiful, produces 20 percent more recruits than would be expected, based on its youth population. The states in the Northeast, which have very few military bases and a lower percentage of veterans, produce 20 percent fewer.

Despite what many people assume, main predictors are not based on class or race. Army data show service spread mostly evenly through middle class and lower-wage earners. Youth unemployment turns out not to be the prime factor either. And the racial makeup of the force is more or less in line with that of young...

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