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Middle-class American youth are entering the military in significant numbers today, drawn by more competitive pay, a battered civilian job market and the buzz surrounding an improved GI Bill education benefit.

The Department of Defense announced last week that for the first time since the draft ended and the all-volunteer force began 36 years ago, every service branch and reserve component met or exceeded its recruiting goals, both in numbers and quality, in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.

A closer look at socio-economic data from recent year groups of recruits shows a rising number drawn from middle-income and higher-income families. Dr. Curtis Gilroy, director of accession policy for the Department of Defense, explained it by noting the military remains an institution held in high regard, pay has grown steadily more competitive and violence has fallen sharply in Iraq. This leaves parents, teachers, coaches and other “influencers” more willing today to recommend military service.

Patriotism, too, is an important factor, he said. But the first reason he gives for 2009 being a “banner year” for recruiting is the weak economy.

The recent downturn “resulted in the largest and the swiftest increase in overall unemployment that we’ve ever experienced,” Gilroy said. In March 2007, the overall unemployment rate was 4.4 percent. In just 18 months it spiked to 9.8 percent, creating a boom for military recruiting.

The worst job market collapse in decades combined with a host of other factors creates a near perfect environment for signing military volunteers, temporary though that experience is likely to be, Gilroy said.

In an interview Tuesday, Gilroy said the socio-economic data dispels the myth that recruits hail disproportionately from families in poverty or surviving on modest incomes. He cited a Heritage Foundation study showing that from 1999 to 2007, the percentage of non-prior-service recruits entering the military from families in the nation’s poorest neighborhoods fell from 18 percent down to 10.7 percent. Recruits from families living in richest one-fifth of neighborhoods rose from 18.6 percent to 24.9 percent.

Recruits in 2006 and 2007, the latest years for available data, were modestly overrepresentative of neighborhoods where average family income is $40,000 or more. Neighborhoods with family incomes below $40,000 were underrepresented among recruits signed during those two years.

Bill Carr, deputy undersecretary of defense for military personnel policy, noted at a briefing last week that recruit pay has been raised steadily in recent years, enough that it now represents exceed earnings for 90 percent of civilian youth of like age, education level and experience.

That helps to account for the middle class shift toward military service, Gilroy said. It’s a trend almost certain to be enhanced by the improved education benefits, offered as of August this year, under the new GI Bill.

It would be hard to label the current recruiting environment “perfect,” considering that war continues in Iraq and will intensify in Afghanistan. Another negative factor is the rising incidence of obesity among America’s youth which constrains the pool of eligible youth, Carr explained.

But Staff Sgt. Joseph Wicker, an Army recruiter in Lumberton, N. C., said he is seeing the beneficial effects of a distressed economy, the Post-9/11 GI Bill and competitive military pay and benefits.

In September, he and other Army recruiters in Lumberton, about 40 miles from Fort Bragg, met 145 percent of their monthly recruiting goal. A lot of that interest was sparked by the new GI Bill, he said. About 30 seniors from a local high school, nearly 10 percent of the graduating class, enlisted in the Army this year and others enlisted in sister services, Wicker said.

He estimated that 85 percent of recruits show keen interest in the new GI Bill and many also are drawn to service by thin job prospects as civilians. In the military, Wicker said, older recruits see “a stable job, stable income. The younger generation [is] seeking a way to pay for college.”

A new recruit can earn about $20,000 in basic pay their first year along with room and board plus, if married, tax-free housing and food allowances, which can boost total income by a third depending on assignment.

Forty percent of recruits in fiscal 2009 also were paid a signing bonus which can vary from $1,000 up to $40,000, Wicker said. In 2008, the average bonus was $24,300 for new soldiers, $16,600 for sailors, $11,000 for Marines and $9,000 for airmen. Those averages dipped slightly in 2009.

Wicker said his first months in recruiting in 2007 were tough. But by July that year, interest in military service had begun to climb.

“I don’t know what sparked it but everybody started paying more attention to what we had to offer,” he said.

Even prospective recruits express interest in a feature of the new GI Bill that allows benefit transfers to family if members settle into careers and use in-service tuition program for their own educational goals, Wicker said.

“Many young people,” said Gilroy, “are looking at the military as a viable career option. They are not going to get rich … but they certainly are going to be provided with an adequate standard of living. We know the compensation package is most competitive with civilians … This is not your father’s military or your grandfather’s military. This is today’s military.”

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