Friday, July 15, 2005

Our newest military recruits :)

Has U.S. military recruiting hit a brick wall? Common wisdom says yes. The war in Iraq is unpopular, the thinking goes, and daily "body count" reports are discouraging potential recruits. Clearly, our armed forces face recruiting challenges. Nevertheless, in June, the Army, Navy and Air Force all exceeded their recruiting goals. So did the Marines, who account for about 11 percent of our forces in Iraq but about 30 percent of combat deaths. What motivates our country's newest soldiers? To find out, I dropped in on the Army recruiting station in Hopkins, where Sgt. Bridgett Burns is station commander. I chatted with new recruits who were learning to march and salute before shipping out for basic training. One was Matthew Dodge, 18, a recent graduate of Eden Prairie High School. Dodge - soft-spoken, thoughtful - has been accepted at college but has chosen to join the Army to become a combat engineer. He'll do college later. Dodge believes military service will make him a stronger, better person. He can tick off the Army's "Seven Core Values": loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage. He wants to live by those principles but believes society often doesn't encourage young people to follow them. Dodge also wants to become a leader. "In high school, I was kind of quiet. In the Army, I'll have to step up -- to lead. I haven't found any other place where you're given responsibility right from the start." Dodge sees signing up as an initial step toward leadership. "I know quite a few kids who aren't prepared for college but they're going just because they think it's expected. I want to be different." Sgt. Burns, the station commander, confirms that the "Army way of life" attracts many young people. "We see quite a few kids who've been given everything. Basic training can change them in amazing ways. They go off as a civilian -- aimless, pants down to here. They come back a soldier --disciplined, self-motivated, goal-oriented." Sitting around after drills, the recruits -- excited and enthusiastic -- talk about what to expect from basic training. Three recruiters chat with them easily, alternately advising and joshing. I ask whether parents, teachers and friends back the young men's decision to enlist. Some say yes -- "100 percent" -- others shake their heads. Burns confirms the problem. "Parents' opposition is often the biggest obstacle our potential recruits face." Parental concerns about safety are understandable. But as I listen to Burns and the recruits, I begin to suspect that some parents still view the military through the prism of Vietnam and are skeptical about the value of any armed service. Others see Army life as rigid and restrictive, and want to protect their children from losing their individuality. The Hopkins recruits understand parental concerns about safety but don't want to be "protected." They see American power as a force for good in the world. Their advice for Mom and Dad? "Parents should not baby their kids. Let kids do what they believe they have to do." The recruits are also unconcerned about losing their individuality. Steeped in a "self-esteem" culture, where kids often get prizes for just showing up, they seem to thirst for challenge. These young people believe respect must be earned and are eager to earn it. They're proud to be part of a team with a noble purpose, where -- as one puts it -- "we're all working for the same objectives. I would trust these people with my life." Public support is important to the recruits. In June, for example, these future soldiers attended a Twins game, where they marched onto the field to repeat their oath of enlistment. "When I heard all the applause," says Dodge, "I knew that I'm doing exactly what I should be doing." What about the risks in Iraq? Life, the recruits reply, holds many risks. They are choosing to take a risk for a noble cause. "If I lost a leg in Iraq," says Dodge, "in a way it would be an honor, really different from losing it in a car accident." But while the recruits at the Hopkins station seek to build character and become part of a team, something larger is at work. Dodge -- like the other recruits -- explains that he's joining the Army to defend America's freedom. "I'm here because I want to show my respect for all the people who served and are serving," he says. "I know what I owe them." The recruits chatting at the Hopkins station are little different from their predecessors of centuries past. Since Valley Forge, those who have chosen to enter America's armed forces have understood the importance of vigilance in the defense of freedom and gratitude to those who have won it for us. Like their predecessors, the new soldiers shipping out from Hopkins will live and breathe the Soldiers' Creed: "I will always place the mission first. I will never accept defeat ... I will never leave a fallen comrade ... I am a guardian of freedom and the American way of life. I am an American soldier." Katherine Kersten is at

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