When Brandon Lenhart of Sylva was laid off from his construction job, he looked for work for four months but didn’t have any luck.
Finally, he turned to one place that is always hiring — the military. With unemployment on the rise, Uncle Sam’s call of “We Want You” is becoming more attractive.
“A lot of companies aren’t hiring, and people are turning to the military as an alternative,” said Kenneth Teague, Air Force master sergeant with the recruiting office in Knoxville, Tenn. “It has steady pay, benefits, a retirement plan.”
With the war in Iraq calming down and President Barack Obama pledging to bring troops home, the military seems like a better idea to many young adults than it has the past several years.
Starting out in the Army, Lenhart will make $18,000 a year and also receive housing, medical insurance and food.
Lenhart said two out of every three soldiers he met at the military entrance processing station were unemployed.
“Basically it’s a guaranteed job, and even after you’re out they take care of you,” said Lenhart.
Lenhart, 23, thought about joining up after high school but decided not to because the war was too dangerous. But now with a new president and declining combat action, he is willing to give it a shot.
“It seems like Obama is a good guy,” Lenhart said. “It seems like the war is winding down.”
Recruiting numbers up
In the first three months of the military’s fiscal year, which began in October, 5,943 more people have been recruited to the armed services compared to the same period of time last year.
But some think it may be too early to tell if the poor economy is causing people to turn to the military for work.
“We’ve had strong recruiting for several years, and now people want to say it’s because of the poor economy,” said Department of Defense Spokesman Lt. Col. Les Melnyk.
But there is plenty of evidence that suggests the poor economy is driving more to the military.
Air Force recruiter Michael Beutler of Sylva said lately there have been numerous people coming to his office saying they want to join because they can’t find a job. College students unable to secure jobs after graduation are joining the armed forces to give themselves additional leadership skills to help them stand out, according to Marine recruiter Sgt. Jesse Ross of Asheville.
But joining the armed forces just because you need a job is not enough, said Teague.
“You have to want to serve the country,” said Teague. “If you don’t, you won’t be happy.”
Army recruiter Jamie Wagoner of Sylva also thinks the poor economy is boosting recruitment.
“I don’t know how many 18-year-olds I’ve talked to who said, ‘I can’t find a job at a fast food restaurant,’” Wagoner said. “They say ‘I need to do something for myself to get out of this.”’
But many can’t get in the military because they are unable to meet the academic or physical requirements.
Wagoner said he is having difficulty finding people who can score high enough on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, and others have medical problems or law violations, he said.
“Of any 10 people, two are qualified,” Wagoner said. “People are confused and think anyone can get in.”
Those who are qualified may be eligible for a signing bonus of up to $40,000 to join the Army.
However, now that the economy is bad, signing bonuses may no longer be needed to entice people to join the services, Wagoner said.
“There are still bonuses, but they are definitely less,” said Wagoner.
There is other evidence that suggests the poor economy is luring people to the military.
According to U.S. Army Recruiting Command Spokesman Douglas Smith of Fort Knox, Ky., this is the first year since 2005 in which the Army met its recruiting goal the first three months of the year.
The Army’s goal is to recruit 80,000 new active duty soldiers this year. Last year the Army recruited 80,517.
Smith noted that over the years the Army has met its recruiting goals in terms of the number of soldiers, but the Army has fallen short of meeting its goal that 90 percent of recruits have a high school diploma.
“The wartime environment is part of the issue,” Smith said.
Last year the high school diploma percentage improved to 83 percent, and now that more people may be interested in the military the goal could be achieved.
The poor economy is also causing some people who have been in the armed forces in the past to re-enlist.
“I definitely like waking up every day knowing I’m going to get a paycheck,” said Wagoner.
In fiscal year 2008, the Army exceeded its retention goal with 73,913 soldiers reenlisting.
Spc. Ronald Rittenberry of Waynesville had been out of the Army for two and a half years before deciding to re-enlist earlier this month.
The Iraq war vet makes $2,250 a month in the military compared to $1,200 a month at his job working security at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.
“I was stuck in jobs making $10 an hour,” he said. “I make better money in the Army than any job as a civilian.”
Rittenberry also joined back up because he simply loves the Army.
When he was being processed back into the military, Rittenberry said there were 57 others who had previously served.
“Some came back because of the economy,” he said. “Others got married and it didn’t work out with their wives.”
He agreed that some people may join now that the war has calmed down. He served in Iraq from 2003-2004 and said it is much less violent now.
“It’s a completely different war now than when I was over there,” he said.
The chance that he may go back to war doesn’t worry Rittenberry, who is now stationed at Fort Benning, Ga. “It’s part of the job detail,” he said.
A recruit’s story
With student loans and other bills, Robert Ehlers is barely making it as a cook at a Murphy restaurant.
“It’s hard to make ends met,” said Ehlers, who joined the Air Force last week.
Ehlers has an associate’s degree in culinary arts and hopes to cook in the Air Force. The small town of Murphy doesn’t give him much opportunity to expand his culinary horizons, but in the military he can travel the world and sample cuisine from different cultures.
In the volatile job market it will also be good to have the job security, he said.
His dad agreed: “You don’t think about how hard it is in the military when you think how tough it is in civilian life to make it.”
As Ehlers sat in the Air Force recruiter’s office last week with his mom, dad and sister, he said he is comforted by the fact that the war has subsided and that Obama plans to bring the troops home.
“I keep it in the back of my mind that he wants to pull the troops out,” Ehlers said.
He brought his family along so they could ask the recruiter any questions before he signed the final papers to enlist.
His mother said she is frightened that her son may go to war, but his dad, Jack, a Vietnam veteran, said, “I went to war, and I didn’t have a choice. I made the best of a bad situation.”
With both of his grandparents serving in World War II and his father a Vietnam vet, Ehlers says he loves America.
His father, though, doesn’t think the United States should be in Iraq.
“That war is the silliest damn thing,” he said. “It’s just like Vietnam.”
Over the past year, Ehlers said he has fallen into a rut and was no longer a go-getter.
“This is the first thing I’ve been excited about in a long time,” he said.
The military can also help pay down Ehlers’ $44,000 in student loans, and will also pay his tuition if he pursues a bachelor’s in culinary arts.
Basic training, a tough eight and a half weeks of physical and mental tests, is facing Ehlers. When he begins basic training his head will be shaved almost bald. Ehlers’ dad shared a humorous story about his days in the military when a soldier asked for a little hair to be taken of the sides and all the hair was shaved.
The father also warned that Ehlers should not wink or smile at the drill sergeant.
“You’ll be doing more damn pushups,” the father said.
Looking at her son with loving eyes, Ehlers’ mom said, “You’re going to look cute in a uniform.”
Another recruit’s story
Sitting next to his father in the Air Force recruiting office in Sylva, Chris Scharf explained that he is joining the armed forces because he lacks focus in life.
Scharf was only 13 years old when the war in Iraq began and now could be headed there himself.
“I didn’t have any discipline,” said Scharf, 19, of Maggie Valley. “I know I need to be straightened out a little bit.”
The recruiter, Beutler, said he was the same way. “I was a very wild child before the Air Force,” Beutler said.
Beutler asked Scharf a series of questions, including whether he has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, asthma, problems with credit, law violations or a drug history. Scharf answered no to all the questions.
The recruiter then asked Scharf about his future plans.
Scharf said he wants to get married and have his own house and boat.
“I want the great American Dream,” Scharf said.
The Air Force can make that dream come true by providing stability, job security and an education, the recruiter said.
Scharf tried college but didn’t have the drive. Concerned about his son’s future, Scharf’s father, Gary, wants his son on a “career track,” possibly in the fields of physical therapy or bio-medicine.
“I want to prepare him for life,” his father said.
“You’re going to have a guaranteed job in the Air Force,” Beutler said.
With the largest community college in the world, the Air Force can provide Scharf with a solid education for free, Beutler said.
As a member of the Air Force, Scharf also wants to form tight relationships with other airmen, adding that he likes encouraging others.
“When you join the Air Force, you join a big brotherhood of airmen,” said Beutler.
Scharf is the first in the family to join the Air Force, and his dad is proud of him.
As a patriotic American, Scharf said he would be proud to serve the country in war.
“I believe in what this country stands for,” Scharf said.
The recruiting strategy
Sgt. Beutler picks up the phone and says, “Sounds like you made a decision.”
Beutler just landed another recruit.
“Congratulations on your decision,” he says.
Beutler picked up the recruit like he does so many others —just by talking to people when he is going about his daily life.
He saw this recruit at the Wal-Mart about six months ago and stopped and talked to him about the Air Force.
Beutler may also talk to people at the gym, grocery store or the movie theatre, and he visits high schools.
Sylva had lacked a strong Air Force recruiting presence until Beutler arrived about a year and a half ago. He covers Jackson, Macon, Cherokee, Swain, Haywood, Clay and Graham counties.
Beutler was named rookie recruiter of the year in 2008 for an eight-state region for recruiting 32 to join the Air Force in 2008 when his goal was just 18.
Beutler said he creates a no-stress atmosphere.
“There is no pressure,” he said. “I only want you to join if you are committed.”
It has been said that the standards to join the armed forces have been lowered to get more people enlisted, but Beutler said the Air Force has not loosened its requirements.
In fact, the requirements may be more difficult because the Air Force is now requiring credit checks and is more stringent on criminal background checks, he said.
Recruiters are up against a lot of negative misinformation from anti-military blogs about the military, Master Sgt. Teague said.
“ I think it’s had an effect,” Teague said.
For accurate information people should go to airforce.com, he said.