For some, enlisting in the Army is a matter of family tradition, a way to pay for college or a free ticket around the world. But for others, like Shayne Foster and Amanda Shreves, both 18, it was something that they just did. It just happened, in part because there seemed to be few other options.
"When I got into high school, I didn't know what I wanted to do," explains Foster, a senior at Mount Spokane High School. "I saw lots of friends that were clueless, too, and I didn't want to be that way."
If Shreves hadn't found the Army, she says, "I would have probably been a bum."
Locally, recruiters say the still-sputtering economy has created a large pool of young people like Shreves and Foster, many of whom have turned to the Army after short and unsatisfying stints in the labor force. The trend is also occurring on a national scale, military officials say, so far relieving worries that the war in Iraq could hinder recruiting efforts.
Indeed, all the armed services met or exceeded recruitment goals for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30. The Army, which enlists more active-duty and reserve troops than all the other services combined, signed up 115,000 new soldiers, according to Department of Defense records.
Here in the Northwest, the costs of Operation Iraqi Freedom have recently been exacted on a local level. On Oct. 30, the Washington National Guard's 81st Armor Brigade was mobilized for duties in Iraq. And last week 20-year-old Robert Theodore Benson, a North Central High School graduate, was killed at a checkpoint in Baghdad.
Still, despite the turmoil and mounting casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, local recruiters continue to fill their ranks with relative ease.
"When the economy dips, we just offer too much in terms of job security and job training," says Capt. John Richardson, who oversees the Army's recruiting efforts in Eastern Washington and North Idaho.
The Army has recently increased signing bonuses to as much as $20,000 for hard-to-fill jobs, like intelligence analysts. It has also boosted college aid: The Army will cover up to $50,000 in education expenses and pay back up to $65,000 in student loans. "We're always hiring qualified people," Richardson says.
In fact, so many have been lining up to join that Army recruiters across the country have already enlisted 46 percent of their recruiting goal for the next year. As a result, applicants signing up this week would likely have to stay until May or even later before they could leave for boot camp.
"We're telling kids that they'll have to wait," Richardson says. "Many are disappointed. They're like, 'I want to start this chapter of my life.'"
Army Up; Guard Down -- In the fiscal year ending in September, the Army enlisted 356 people across what is known as the "Spokane Recruiting Company," a large swath of land stretching from Canada to the Oregon border, east to Montana and west halfway to Yakima. The Army's enlistment accounted for more than 40 percent of all military recruits in the region.
During the same period, local Navy recruiters enlisted 183; the Marines, 141; and the Air Force, 172, according to Defense records.
Of course, applicants are more likely these days to see combat action than they had been in years past, recruiters acknowledge, and for many, that fact ranks high on the list of concerns. To allay those fears, recruiters say they try to put the threat in perspective.
"Statistically, I can show you how you've got a better chance of getting killed while driving a car in Spokane," says Sgt. Michael Lehman, a Coeur d'Alene recruiter.
The tenor of parents' anxieties often fluctuates with media reports on the war, but answering questions of the people who influence prospective enlistees -- parents, coaches and guidance counselors -- is something recruiters have grown accustomed to.
"We're dealing with parents who grew up in the Vietnam era and the draft," says Sgt. Michael D. Eisele, a recruiter on the North Side. "Many people don't understand there's not a draft any more. Still, on the phone, parents will say, 'Are you trying to draft my son?'"
While the regular Army and the other armed services are successfully augmenting their forces, the Army National Guard is struggling. (Each state enlists its own troops, who report to state militias unless called to active duty.)
Enlisting and retaining these part-time citizen soldiers, who are generally older and have civilian jobs, is becoming trickier as they are repeatedly called up to serve extended tours in Iraq and Kuwait, military officials say. Washington's 81st Armor Brigade will spend 12 months in Iraq conducting stability and support missions.
Lt. Col. Michael Jones, national director of marketing and advertising for the Guard, says the problem stems from the overall strain on military resources. Already, he says, 40,000 Guard troops have served in Iraq. Many of them will soon be eligible to leave the military.
"We've got to aggressively get ahead of these soldiers," Jones says. "These are the ones with experience that we need to retain."
The Guard failed to recruit 62,000 soldiers this year -- missing its goal by nearly 8,000 -- but because fewer dropped out than expected, the Guard maintained its overall troop level at 350,000.
In Spokane, however, recruiters for the Washington National Guard say they continue to find plenty of reinforcements, although a few people have cited Iraq as their reason for dropping out. There are four local recruiters, each of whom is expected to enroll three people a month, says Sgt. Kenneth Pearson.
"I used to think that the Guard wouldn't be called up unless the Chinese invaded," Pearson says, "but that's not the case anymore. You've got to expect it now."
Motivating Forces -- For some, the promise of seeing combat is a selling point. Take Riley Mack, for example. "It kind of makes it more interesting," says Mack, 22, who lives in Hayden, Idaho.
Mack comes from a military family, the kind with long stories that begin "My dad and his brothers joined, and his dad and his brothers joined, too." Mack leaves for boot camp on Feb. 26; he will be trained in the regular Army as an imaging analyst, a specialist who deciphers satellite photos used in military strategy.
He is motivated by a desire "to do something for my country" and he believes in the mission.
"When the Twin Towers got hit, people wanted to do something about it," Mack says. "But now it's kind of like people want to stop. I don't understand it."
Jason Cooley, 21, of Spokane, is moved by similar impulses, but was sold on the personal perks -- especially the job training. "It's a sad reality, but most employers expect you to have experience before they'll even give you a job," he laments. He plans to study law.
But for Amanda Shreves, the one who thought she'd become a "bum" if not for the Army, the path was more circuitous. "In high school, it was kind of like, 'No, I'm anti-military, bad!'" she explains. Then she participated in some Army activities in school and enjoyed them. Now she'll become a food service specialist. She's grateful.
"I will have a steady job with benefits," she says. "I will learn a trade and be serving my country.