Three of the country's poorest territories lead U.S. in volunteering for military
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Hundreds of additional recruiters are on duty. More latitude has been granted to pursue older recruits, high school dropouts, drug users and criminals. Enlistment bonuses are at all-time highs.
But hamstrung by an unpopular war in Iraq, Army recruiters nationwide have been treading water in their efforts to put new soldiers into uniform.
Still, for those who wear the eagle and torch insigne of the U.S. Army Recruiting Command, the news is not all bleak. There are, in fact, some places where recruiting has never been better.
Those places just happen to be thousands of miles away from the mainland.
Between 2004 and 2006, enlistment into the Army by young men and women from three of the nation's poorest territories - American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands - more than doubled, according to military and census data compiled by the National Priorities Project.
The three territories, the combined population of which is about 315,000 residents, enlisted 333 new soldiers into the Army and Army Reserve in 2006. By comparison, the entire state of Utah - which has a population eight times greater and whose residents are among the top supporters of the war in Iraq - enlisted 498 new soldiers in the same year. (Army enlistment relative to youth population in Utah is among the lowest in the nation and has fallen 17 percent in the past three years, according to the project's data.)
Researchers say Utah's unique religious make-up likely accounts for its low recruitment figures. Many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints train and work as missionaries at a time when their non-Mormon peers are considering military service.
But there's another thing young men and women in Utah and other low-recruiting states have going for them that those in the poorer territories don't: Economic opportunity.
And that, said Anita Dancs, research director for the nonprofit project that collects the recruitment data each year, makes the territories prime hunting grounds for Army recruiters.
"It's very clear what is going on," Dancs said. "Because of the war in Iraq, the Army hasn't recruited as many youth as it needs, so it's becoming more aggressive, focusing on youth with limited economic opportunities."
And in no place on U.S.-occupied soil are opportunities more limited than in the three territories where recruiting currently is best. In Samoa, for instance, tuna canning is the main enterprise, per capita income is less than $5,000 and, one federal report recently noted, residents exist "on an economic tier similar to Botswana."
Only about 3 percent of high school graduates from the island receive scholarships or financial assistance from the Samoan government to continue their education, according to government officials.
In that climate, Dancs said, military bonuses - Army officials say top candidates can walk away with more than $80,000 in recruitment incentives - can be difficult to pass up.
Dancs believes recruiters "are obviously trying to portray the Army as a place for economic advantages to youth who are going to be most vulnerable to that message."
U.S. military recruiters have always looked to areas of low economic opportunity to meet the needs of the armed services, said Bernard Rostker, author of I Want You: The Evolution of the All-Volunteer Force.
"Historically the military has gotten many more recruits from the South, for instance," Rostker said. "The Northeast has never been a good place to recruit, but the South always has been. . . . So the density of recruiters in the South is much higher than the density of recruiters in New York or Boston."
While the relatively small populations of America's poor territories aren't likely to make the South Pacific a "New Dixie" for recruiters, the military does appear to be maximizing its potential in those places.
The Army had nine recruiters in Guam last year - about one for every 4,000 recruiting-age residents on the island. In Utah, the ratio was 1-to-9,000 after falling dramatically between 2005 and 2006, a year in which the Army stationed more recruiters in the territories and most other states.
Rostker wasn't surprised. "You don't reinforce failure," he said. "You go where the fishing is good."
Douglas Smith, a spokesman for the Fort Knox-based Army Recruiting Command, dismissed the notion that the high rates of enlistment in the poor territories are tied solely to the dismal economies of those areas, but acknowledged that financial opportunities do play a role in any recruit's decision to join up.
"There are a combination of factors playing out," Smith said. "But obviously in the areas that have a high unemployment rate or lack of opportunities, the military probably does better.
"It's good that the Army and other services offer a way for people to pull themselves up by the bootstraps."
At the moment, of course, those bootstraps are attached to combat boots. And service members from the territories have suffered grievously in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The rate of death for American Samoan service members in the nation's ongoing wars is more than 10 times higher than the national average, according to Pentagon data. Guam and the Marianas also have death rates that, like their enlistment rates, are many times higher than any U.S. state.
Yet the number of Army recruits from Samoa nearly tripled between 2004 and 2006. And recruiters on the island appear to be making 2007 a banner year - even as the Navy, Air Force and Marines are all expanding their recruiting efforts on the island in response to the Army's successes. Still, Pataua Lavan said he doesn't feel exploited. And he doesn't believe the military is the only choice for young American Samoans, like himself, who are looking to begin a life off the island.
"But it's the option that I can see will benefit me the most," said Lavan, who was scheduled to fly to Honolulu this week to take the oath of enlistment.
Lavan's choice is a common one among his classmates. He estimated that about one in five students from his high school graduating class are enlisting in the military.
In Texas and California this week to visit Samoan and other Pacific Islander soldiers injured in Iraq and Afghanistan, American Samoa Gov. Togiola Tulafono said he was "deeply, deeply touched and impressed by the courage, dedication and patriotism of these young Americans and their families."
Tulafono, a Democrat whose own soldier daughter served a tour of duty in Iraq in 2004, said he continues to encourage young Samoans to enlist, even "in the face of war deployment and an unusually high number of American Samoan servicemen and women losing their lives, or seriously injured, from this unfortunate war."
Susing Alivia, a businessman in the Samoan capital of Pago Pago, said the island's struggling economy is not the only reason why its young men and women join up.
"This is part of our culture," Alivia told The Salt Lake Tribune last month, shortly after the death of Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Faoa Apineru, who was born on the island and buried in Utah, where much of his family lives. "Many of our children look forward to serving in the military, not only because of the financial and economic opportunities, but because of who we are. We have suffered much and we are sad, but we are also proud."
Recruiter Lima Pula, who answered the phone at the Army's recruiting office in Pago Pago, said he'd like to discuss recent recruiting successes, but said he simply didn't have the time.
Pula said he was busy signing up another new soldier.