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Military enlistment a popular option during recession

Michael Lyons thought he had a career plan: Continue working as an equity trader on Wall Street and finish 20 years of service with the Army National Guard.

N.J. Army National Guard Lt. Col. Mike Lyons at work in his office at the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs Headquarters in Lawrenceville. (Photo by Sgt. Wayne Woolley)
N.J. Army National Guard Lt. Col. Mike Lyons at work in his office at the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs Headquarters in Lawrenceville. (Photo by Sgt. Wayne Woolley)Read more

Michael Lyons thought he had a career plan: Continue working as an equity trader on Wall Street and finish 20 years of service with the Army National Guard.

Then came layoffs. His well-paying civilian job was gone.

So Lyons, 45, of Princeton, turned to full-time employment in the New Jersey National Guard, where he found job security and benefits.

He is among tens of thousands of men and women who looked at the vagaries of the civilian job market and chose the military.

With the nation's economy suffering and unemployment hovering near 10 percent, many are remaining in uniform longer than they planned.

The Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines exceeded their retention goals last year and this year despite the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Army met 124 percent of its goal last year, compared with 102 percent in 2001.

"At this stage, I like the safety and security of a military position," said Lt. Col. Lyons, the New Jersey National Guard's director of construction and facility management. "There are a lot of unemployed traders out there."

"I love what I do," the 25-year veteran said. "It's rewarding."

Recruitment also has risen, officials said. The Army met 104 percent of its goal for active-duty service in March, April, and May. And it achieved 132 percent of its goal for the Army National Guard in March and April, prompting recruiters to scale back efforts in May to avoid exceeding their required numbers for this year.

Employment opportunities, job security, patriotism, and free college tuition are among the chief reasons many have chosen the Army, officials said.

But groups such as the American Friends Service Committee in Chicago see the higher recruitment and retention numbers as an unfortunate by-product of the recession.

When prospective recruits seek advice about joining, said Darlene Gramigna, the committee's Truth in Recruitment program director, "I tell them, 'Here are some things you should know. . . . There are still wars going on. Nothing has changed. If you think you're going to college, you may go to war first.' "

"It's like signing a contract," she said. "I don't recommend students join . . . and young people are highly recruited."

Army recruiters, of course, emphasize employment opportunities.

"You can do more in the military than you can do any place else," said Lt. Col. John Sheard, 45, commander of recruiting and retention for the New Jersey Army National Guard. "People are getting in or staying in because of opportunities.

"We have 250 different jobs. There's not a profession we don't have," he said. "We have lawyers, doctors, aviators, electricians, engineers, and journalists. Or you could be a helicopter pilot, like me."

Whether the interest in the all-volunteer military is the result of the bad economy or free tuition, it comes at an unusual time, officials said. The nation is simultaneously battling a recession and two long-term wars. The military draft, which hit a low in popularity during the Vietnam War, ended in July 1973.

"A 1 percent change in civilian unemployment yields a 0.6 percent increase in Army recruiting, historically," said Douglas Smith, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Recruiting Command at Fort Knox, Ky. "We take no delight in civilian unemployment. It's not good for the country."

At the same time, "we know the economy is one element" of the military's success in filling the ranks, he said. "People know it's harder to get a civilian job. A number of them have a break in their civilian career."

Patriotism also is high among reasons for military service cited by recruits, especially after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, said Lt. Col. Harry Woodmansee, commander of the Mid-Atlantic Recruiting Battalion at Lakehurst, N.J.

"Nine-11 brought us all together," he said. "The jobs, benefits, and education always help to bring people in, but patriotism has a lot to do with it."

The military's success comes despite a smaller pool of eligible men and woman. About 75 percent of people ages 17 to 24 are ineligible because they can't pass the "three M's," as the Army describes them - mental, medical, and moral requirements. Ten percent of the rest go to college, leaving 15 percent for recruiting, Defense Department spokeswoman Eileen Lainez said.

"In a tighter job market, young men and woman may be more receptive to learning about the opportunities the military has to offer," Lainez said.

The average active-duty junior enlisted member - with a high school diploma - earns about $43,000 a year, not including bonuses, medical care, and government-paid retirement, officials said. A reservist of the same rank earns about $4,300 for a year of weekend drills and two weeks of summer training.

But the recruiter who lays out the benefits "can't guarantee that you won't go into combat," said Janine Schwab, a peace-building and conflict-resolution program analyst for the American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia. "He can't assign you once you're in the military. Whatever he told you is moot.

"You can end up in Iraq or Afghanistan. When you're 18 or 20, you don't know how your life is going to change, how your feelings about war will change."

But thousands of recruits have weighed the options and chosen the Army.

"I had no interest at all in joining the military when I was in my senior year of high school," said Tiffany Mohammed, 27, a New Jersey National Guard active-duty first lieutenant from Wilmington. "I wanted to go to college, didn't have any money, and they were offering 100 percent college tuition."

She joined the Delaware National Guard in 2000 and switched to New Jersey for a better chance to advance. In January, she returned from a yearlong deployment in Iraq, where she was the commander of a forward support company that fueled aircraft.

"I can't see myself in the civilian sector now," said Mohammed, who finished college and plans to go to graduate school and eventually earn a doctorate. "I plan on doing 30-plus years" in the Army.

"I've been in the military for 10 years, and it has completely changed my life for the better. My peers can't come close."