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Called to serve: How this small North Carolina town became #1 in military recruiting

The small town of Hope Mills, N.C., achieved a rather outsized distinction this year: it’s the top-ranked town in America for young adults joining the military.

North Carolina as a whole has top billing too, based on the number of 17- to 24-year-olds who join the military relative to the population in that age group. It has more towns in the top 25 than any other state, with six total receiving the following rankings: Hope Mills No. 1, Cameron No. 5, Spring Lake No. 13, Richlands No. 14, Hubert No. 15 and Raeford No. 16.

But Hope Mills’ high rate of military participation is not the norm. Many of America’s largest cities are underrepresented, and the regions of the United States 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.

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 from fiscal years 2014 to 2018 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 Charlotte had the same ratio of its 17- to 24-year-olds serving as Hope Mills,15,358 would have joined over the last five fiscal years, many more than the 1,630 who actually did, based on the Pentagon’s data.

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.

In Hope Mills, potential recruits have grown up seeing military life up close because many of the JROTC programs partner with the bases, or they have a family member serving. The high school students see other tangible benefits, too, like young service members driving new cars as they gain some financial stability. Based on Defense Department data, 374 of the town’s 2,322 residents age 17 to 24 have joined the military over the last five fiscal years.

“We’re right next door to Fort Bragg,” said Hope Mills Mayor Jackie Warner. “You can go visit the base. You can go see a change of command. At Sicily Drop Zone you can go watch the 82nd Airborne paratroopers drop.”

They have also repeatedly heard from parents, church or community leaders the personal fulfillment they can draw from a military career.

“Since we’re close to a military base, as a kid, you always see adults as soldiers,” said Logan Martin, 18, a 2019 graduate of Hope Mills’ Jack Britt High School. In his graduating class of about 500, Martin said he is among about 50 students who are military-bound.

Martin was in the high school’s JROTC program and his father and brother were both in the Army. Martin enlisted in the Army Reserve last year and completed basic training during the summer before his senior year of high school. Instead of a post-high school summer at home, Martin heads to advanced individual training in a few weeks.

“I plan on going to college, and then after that, going officer, and going active,” Martin said.

Living by a base normalizes a military career — and the benefits that can come with it, said North Carolina Marine Corps recruiter Gunnery Sgt. Nathaniel Morgan. “A lot of the men and women who come to us see how service in the Marine Corps helped their parents, they see the benefits they’ve been reaping.”

But it also continues trends that started decades ago between who serves, and who does not.

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.

“I do remember from my own days from active duty I think I was the only person from New York,” said Korb, who served in the Navy and was President Ronald Reagan’s assistant secretary of defense for manpower.

That hasn’t changed, Korb said. In these military communities, “it’s their children and grandchildren serving.”

Korb, currently co-chairman on the National Military Family Association, still sees the divide. “Where are the families from mostly? They are not in Los Angeles,” he said.

In the last five years, while Los Angeles has a population of 224,937 in the 17 to 24 age group, only 2,700 of them enlisted, according to the Pentagon data. Los Angeles was No. 8 on the large cities list.

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, another member of the national commission looking at military service. “So yes, it’s very important that we encourage and have representation from across America.”

This year, one-half of the 28 seniors from the JROTC program at Copperas Cove High School in Texas are military-bound. Copperas Cove was ranked seventh.

“In small town schools like Copperas Cove … you get a better understanding of what the military is like, what military life is like,” said Copperas Cove High School junior Sydney Montana, 16. The school is close to the Army’s sprawling Fort Hood, where Montana and her fellow JROTC cadets had recently attended a week-long camp on base.

Kilgannon said that over the commission’s two-year nationwide review “one of the things that I have come away with is that awareness of military service in many schools is either resisted or not prioritized.”

In communities without a nearby base, such as Sacramento, Calif., connecting with high school students and principals is critical, said Navy recruiter Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew Schneider.

“I’m constantly going in there and having full-on conversations with the principals,” said Schneider, who is responsible for recruiting at Sacramento’s Bella Vista High School in Fair Oaks and Cordova High School in Rancho Cordova. He’s on campus nearly every day, setting up a table outside in the quad, sometimes with a loudspeaker.

On campus, he’ll start telling his Navy story - about how he grew up in a Navy family, then enlisted right after high school. He’ll talk about the early benefits of getting technical training and a good paycheck. It resonates, he said.

Students will stop and ask him questions. “That’s the main thing we’re trying to get. We’re trying to get the questions to be asked, you know, ‘What can the Navy offer me?’” Schneider said.

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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.”
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