Military News

Called to serve: Why Georgia ranks high in encouraging young people to join military

About 30 miles south of Macon are two of the nation’s hot spots for recruiting the next generation of young men and women into the military: the small towns of Kathleen and Bonaire.

Both Georgia towns were on a new Pentagon list of the top 25 communities with the highest ratio of 17- to 24-year-olds who join the military.

But Kathleen and Bonaire’s high rate of military participation is not the norm. Many of America’s largest cities are underrepresented, and the U.S. regions where recruits come from have become even more concentrated in recent years, a congressionally mandated panel studying military service recently found.

“Forty-five years ago, about half of enlisted recruits came from the American South and West; today, that number is nearly 70 percent,” the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service said in its initial report, which is still open for public comment.

Those findings are mirrored in the Defense Department’s fiscal year 2018 ranking of the top 25 communities from which young people join the military. The data showed that the majority of the communities were in the South.

Overall, Georgia had four of the top 25 towns: Hinesville at No. 8, Kathleen at No. 17, Kingsland at No. 23 and Bonaire at No. 25.

At the No. 1 spot was Hope Mills, N.C. Like most of the other top 25 towns, Hope Mills is near a major military base. Its high schools have well-developed Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) programs as part of their curriculum, and recruiters are welcome on campus. Like almost all of the top 25 towns, Hope Mills had fewer than 4,000 residents age 17 to 24. Almost all of the communities were located in the South or Southwest.

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The Pentagon’s Defense Manpower Data Center calculated the top 25 by creating an index that ranked the communities based on the number of 17- to 24-year-olds who joined the military over the last five fiscal years from that town compared to the number of residents in that age range. The Pentagon used population data from Woods and Poole Economics, Inc., an independent firm that specializes in long-term economic and demographic data.

In a second index, the Pentagon ranked cities solely on the total number of recruits who have joined the military over the last five fiscal years, an approach that favored large cities, but also showed that many of those cities are underrepresented in the armed forces.

For example, if Miami had the same rate of military participation as the top-ranked town, 28,879 of the city’s 17- to 24-year-olds would have enlisted over the last five fiscal years. Instead, 2,599 did.

The larger cities may have lower rates of participation because there are other industries that provide job opportunities, JROTC high school students from the No. 7 ranked town, Copperas Cove, Texas, said.

But the small towns also often have other job opportunities, and yet a large number of young residents still choose the military, said Mark Waller, a county board commissioner who represents Peyton, Colo. Peyton was the No. 1 town in the Defense Department’s fiscal year 2017 rankings.

“There are plenty of opportunities for people to find jobs here. I actually think it’s a strong sense of patriotism,” Waller said. With five major bases nearby, military service is “part of their everyday lives here.”

The Defense Department said both top 25 lists included only communities with populations of at least 1,000 residents between the ages of 17 and 24. Overall, it recruits in 4,940 towns and cities that match that criteria.

The data was obtained exclusively by McClatchy and comes as the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service seeks public comment on how to expand the number of communities that encourage military service across the country.

“It’s the same families in the same communities that are providing young people for new generations of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines,” said commissioner Tom Kilgannon.

That’s the case for Kathleen and Bonaire too.

“This community has always supported the military here,” said Tommy Stalnaker, chairman of the Houston County Board of Commissioners, which represents both towns.

Stalnaker also said the communities have strong Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps programs in their high schools, such as in Kathleen’s Veterans High School, where those students “can begin to study and train” for a military career. Ninety-four of Kathleen’s 1,002 residents age 17 to 24 have enlisted in the military over the last five fiscal years.

Greater reliance on small towns and rural areas intensified during the Vietnam War and became more pronounced in the years that followed, as the U.S. military struggled to transition to an all-volunteer force, said Larry Korb, a senior defense fellow at the Center for American Progress. The rural and small town communities that served in Vietnam became the same ones the Pentagon relied on to fill military ranks postwar.

That doesn’t surprise Stalnaker.

“I’ve been told that the South is a drawing point for people going into the military,” Stalnaker said. “People wonder why. I think it’s because a lot of areas in this part of the country are just very patriotic and very appreciative of the military.”

The repeated reliance on the same communities generation after generation plays into a larger “divide that we’re seeing in our country,” said Debra Wada, who is also a member of the national commission looking at military service. “So yes, it’s very important that we encourage and have representation from across America.”

Efforts to expand the communities from which young military recruits join comes at a time when the Pentagon is also battling a population where there are fewer young men and women eligible to serve. In 2017 the Pentagon reported that 71 percent of the nation’s youth would not meet military recruiting standards, due to weight or fitness issues, behavioral issues or an inability to pass the military’s competency exam, the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery.

When recent recruits from some of the top small towns were asked why they thought there weren’t higher rates of enlistments from larger cities, the answers were telling.

“Kids out here spend a lot of time working and serving people,” said Sean Gallagher, 18, who recently graduated from Peyton High School in Colorado and was getting ready to report to the Army at Fort Benning, Ga., for basic training. “I think it really gives them a drive to want to help people and expand the skills they’ve cultivated since their childhood.”

Gallagher’s uncle and grandfather served in the military. From Gallagher’s graduating class of 60, he estimates that as many as 15 are going to enter the military. Peyton, Colo., located near multiple Air Force bases, was the No. 1-ranked town on the Pentagon’s fiscal year 2017 list.

The national commission is expected to release its final report in March 2020. The report is currently open for public comment, here.

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Tara Copp is the national military and veterans affairs correspondent for McClatchy. She has reported extensively through the Middle East, Asia and Europe to cover defense policy and its impact on the lives of service members. She was previously the Pentagon bureau chief for Military Times and a senior defense analyst for the U.S. Government Accountability Office. She is the author of the award-winning book “The Warbird: Three Heroes. Two Wars. One Story.”