Military enlistments up as economy falls

College students have helped the military increase its numbers.
The MU Navy ROTC Color Guard stands during the performance of the national anthem during Columbia College's Salute to Security Day on Saturday. Several branches of the military have seen increases in enlistment among college students during the economic crisis.

As the national recession continues to deepen and the country's two wars progress, one group is seeing some positive news, military recruiters looking for new or returning soldiers.

According to studies by the RAND Corporation, once the unemployment rate reaches about 10 percent, the military sees a 3 to 4 percent increase in its enlistments.

Local recruiting centers are reporting the crisis has either kept their numbers steady or helped them rise with people looking for steady, well-paid jobs.

Sgt. First Class John Wolfmeyer, Columbia National Guard commanding officer, said his branch has seen increases from college students. He said the National Guard will retire up to $20,000 of a student's debt and guarantees that enlisted students will not be deployed for at least two years while they are enrolled in school.

Wolfmeyer also said the National Guard increased the standards for new recruits, including increasing the required score on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, the military's entrance exam, from the 31st percentile to the 50th. He said this has not affected recruitment levels.

"We have not had any issues making recruiting numbers," Wolfmeyer said. "Right now our target audience is college kids. Our numbers are up a little bit, but our mission has been adjusted accordingly with the tougher standards."

Wolfmeyer said the National Guard has not seen as great of increases as other branches because its members work part time unless they are deployed, whereas members of the Army, Navy and Air Force are paid full time for basic training and then sent into combat operations.

Marine Cadet Second Class Thomas Smith, Columbia Navy recruiting office commanding officer, said active duty retention rates have increased due to the declining economy and concerns over the war. He said the stressful pace of combat operations have affected the available pool of veterans willing to affiliate with the reserves.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the ranks of the National Guard swelled with people looking to supplement their income with weekend work and increased patriotism after the Sept. 11 attacks fueled another bump.

But as that effort has now developed into two long-term conflicts with repeated deployments of four to six months in war zones overseas, recruits motivated by patriotism became more hesitant, leading the military to underscore the economic benefits of enlistment, even before the recent financial crisis.

As the cost of health care has increased, some branches have started emphasizing the importance of a consistent, government-backed insurance plan in addition to the benefits of part-time work for soldiers who have families.

"Obviously, when the economy is in a downturn, some people who wouldn't have normally considered the Navy as a first choice do think again about the opportunity to serve and we eagerly encourage that," Smith said.

Sgt. First Class Geoffery Eeremiah, Columbia Army recruitment center commanding officer, said the trends at his recruitment center have stayed relatively consistent.

"Things have been the same for the last two years," Eeremiah said. Smith said the military, particularly the Navy, is continuing to increase and change its marketing to keep and adequate number of troops on the front lines.

"Regardless of whether the economy is doing well or not, the Navy continues to recruit highly motivated individuals to serve a cause greater than themselves," he said.

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