Sergeant First Class Dustin Comes, who leads a recruiting station in Colorado Springs, said the high schools with the most military families are the biggest producers of recruits.Credit...Theo Stroomer for The New York Times
COLORADO SPRINGS — The sergeant in charge of one of the busiest Army recruiting centers in Colorado, Sgt. First Class Dustin Comes, joined the Army, in part, because his father served. Now two of his four children say they want to serve, too. And he will not be surprised if the other two make the same decision once they are a little older.
“Hey, if that’s what your calling is, I encourage it, absolutely,” said Sergeant Comes, who wore a dagger-shaped patch on his camouflage uniform, signifying that he had been in combat.
Enlisting, he said, enabled him to build a good life where, despite yearlong deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, he felt proud of his work, got generous benefits, never worried about being laid off, and earned enough that his wife could stay home to raise their children.
“Show me a better deal for the common person,” he said.
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 and a scattering of communities at the gates of military bases like Colorado Springs, which sits next to Fort Carson and several Air Force installations, and 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 reported having 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 do not, warning that relying on a small number of counties that reliably produce soldiers is unsustainable, particularly now amid escalating tensions with Iran.
“A widening military-civilian divide increasingly impacts our ability to effectively recruit and sustain the force,” Anthony M. Kurta, acting under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, told the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service last year. “This disconnect is characterized by misperceptions, a lack of knowledge and an inability to identify with those who serve. It threatens our ability to recruit the number of quality youth with the needed skill sets to maintain our advantage.”
To be sure, 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. For a generation, enlisting has produced reliable hardship for troops and families, but nothing that resembles victory. But the military families who have borne nearly all of the burden, and are the most cleareyed about the risks of war, are still the Americans who are 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 are not in combat fields.
But for now, rates of military service remain far from equal in the United States, 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 steer youths toward military service. In communities where veterans are scarce, influential adults are more wary.
That has created a broad gap, easily seen on a map. 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.
The main predictors are not based on class or race. Army data show service spread mostly evenly through middle-class and “downscale” groups. Youth unemployment turns out not to be the prime factor. And the racial makeup of the force is more or less in line with that of young Americans as a whole, though African-Americans are slightly more likely to serve. Instead, the best predictor is a person’s familiarity with the military.
“Those who understand military life are more likely to consider it as a career option than those who do not,” said Kelli Bland, a spokeswoman for the Army’s Recruiting Command.
That distinction has created glaring disparities across the country. In 2019, Fayetteville, N.C., which is home to Fort Bragg, provided more than twice as many military enlistment contracts as Manhattan, even though Manhattan has eight times as many people. Many of the new contracts in Fayetteville were soldiers signing up for second and third enlistments.
This was not always the case. Military service was once spread fairly evenly — at least geographically — throughout the nation because of the draft. But after the draft ended in 1973, enlistments shifted steadily south of the Mason-Dixon line. The military’s decision to close many bases in Northern states where long winters limited training only hastened the trend.
Today, students growing up in military communities are constantly exposed to the people who serve. Moms pick up their sons from day care in flight suits. Dads attend the fourth-grade holiday party in camouflage. High schools often have Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps programs in which students wear uniforms to class once a week and can earn credit for learning about science, leadership and fitness through a military framework.
Many schools encourage students to take the military’s aptitude exam, the ASVAB, in the way students nationwide are pushed to take the SAT.
That exposure during school is one of the strongest predictors of enlistment rates, according to a 2018 report by the Institute for Defense Analyses.
In Colorado Springs, the high schools with the highest number of military families are also the biggest producers of recruits, Sergeant Comes said, adding that parents aware of the military’s camaraderie, stability and generous health, education and retirement benefits often march their children into his office and encourage them to join.
“We just tell them our story: ‘This is where I was, one of six kids living in a trailer. This is where I am today.’ Good pay check. Great benefits,” he said, adding that even in good economic times, it is an easy sell. His recruiting station made its goals handily this month.
His biggest challenge is finding recruits before they are scooped up by recruiters from the Air Force, Navy and Marines, who work the same fertile neighborhoods.
The situation is markedly different in regions where few people traditionally join.
In Los Angeles, a region defined by liberal politics where many families are suspicious of the military, the Army has struggled to even gain access to high schools. By law, schools have to allow recruiters on campus once a semester, but administrators tightly control when and how recruiters can interact with students. Access is “very minimal,” said Lt. Col. Tameka Wilson, the commander of the Los Angeles Recruiting Battalion.
Predictably, enlistment rates are low.
In 2019 the Army made a push to increase recruiting efforts in 22 liberal-leaning cities like Los Angeles. As part of that, Army Secretary Ryan D. McCarthy visited officials from the Los Angeles Unified School District in December to push for greater access.
“He was doing a sort of listening tour,” said Patricia Heideman, who is in charge of high school instruction for the school district and said there was a perception the military preys on disadvantaged students. “I told him from the educator perspective, we sometimes feel they are targeting our black and brown students and students of poverty,” she said. And therefore they are less likely to push enlistment.
Recognizing it cannot sustain recruitment numbers by relying only on the South and military communities, the Army has tried to broaden its appeal. Slick ads on social media offer less of the guns-and-grunts messaging of decades past. Instead they play up college benefits and career training in medical and tech fields.
Even within one state there are striking differences in how communities view military service. Colorado Springs produced 29 times as many enlistments in 2019 as nearby Boulder, a liberal university town.
“I grew up in Boulder, and the military appealed to me but it was just not in the culture, or my family,” said Brett Dollar, who now lives in Fort Collins, Colo. “The conversation was not ‘What do you want to do after high school?’ but ‘Which college are you going to go to?’”
She attended Middlebury College in Vermont before becoming a police officer in Fort Collins and, eventually, a law enforcement dog handler.
This fall, at age 32, she decided to enlist in the Army, drawn by the chance to work with dogs in security, bomb-sniffing and rescue missions around the world. She ships to basic training in about a week.
“I’d always had an itch to serve in the military and be useful,” she said. “I think it took me being on my own for a while to realize it was a possibility.”
She said she was going into the work knowing she could soon end up deployed to a combat zone.
“The Army is ultimately a war-fighting organization — you go in knowing that,” she said. “I guess I really didn’t see that as a downside. It’s a core value of mine to try to be of service.”
Dave Philipps reported from Colorado Springs and Tim Arango from Los Angeles.