Fred Machado, a wiry 18-year-old, walked across the Oregon High School stage at his graduation ceremony in June. Now he’s at a military facility 2,000 miles away, training to become a Marine.
The Honduran immigrant joins more than 2,700 Wisconsinites under age 25 this year entering active military duty.
Despite the dangers of military service at a time when the U.S. is fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Machado and a growing number of high school graduates in Wisconsin say they are planning to join the armed services, according to data from the state Department of Public Instruction.
A review by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism shows that in 2009, the portion of Wisconsin public high school graduates planning to join the military reached its highest level in the past decade — even more than right after the 9/11 attacks.
The DPI data provide more geographic detail – for more than 400 school districts – than are readily available from military officials, whose recruiting territories often cover large areas. DPI numbers for 2010 aren’t yet available.
Machado, who comes from a family of eight children, said he was looking for a way to pay for college while also developing a sense of purpose for his life.
“I’ve looked into scholarships, but ever since I was a freshman, the military has called to me,” said Machado, who was courted by the Navy and Air Force but finally settled on the branch that bills itself as “The Few. The Proud.”
Recruiters say the lengthy economic downturn, which has created double-digit unemployment rates in some parts of Wisconsin, and a strong sense of patriotism, especially in rural areas, have made recruiting easier.
The Janesville Marine recruiter who signed up Machado said he has been “flooded” with applicants.
“Before it was kind of tough to find people. Now … they’re coming to you,” Sgt. Jeremy McCormick said.
Statewide, 3.2 percent of graduating seniors, or 2,077 students, said they planned to enlist in 2009, but some rural districts reported much higher rates, DPI figures show. Topping the list was the Frederic School District in far northwestern Wisconsin, which reported 18.4 percent of its graduating seniors planned to enter the military last year.
By comparison, the percentages of state students planning to join the military varied from 2.4 to 3 percent since the 1999-2000 school year.
The shift toward the military was accompanied by a dip in the number of students planning to head straight into jobs after high school.
Nationally, the armed forces reported in 2009 that they met or exceeded their goals; critics noted that three of the four branches had cut their recruiting targets. In Wisconsin, the Army — by far the largest recruiter — is above its goal for the first time in five years, said 1st Sgt. Bobby Jones, who supervises the recruiting effort for Wisconsin’s southern Army command based in Madison.
Opponents of military recruitment point to billions spent on enticing young people into the armed forces and easy access to high schools as catalysts for the upswing in interest. They decry glitzy recruiting pitches that can persuade unsophisticated teenagers to sign up for potentially dangerous duty.
Recruiters insist they are up front about the hazards of military service — including the strong possibility of deployment to a combat zone.
Last spring, President Barack Obama acknowledged the flush numbers and lower goals by reducing the Defense Department’s budget for recruiting from more than $7 billion to $6.2 billion. Between 2004 and 2008, funding had more than doubled for recruiting efforts, from $3.4 billion a year to $7.7 billion.
College money draws recruit
Machado, of Brooklyn, said the potential dangers were clear because “when you enlist, you know the Marines have a history of being the first ones in and the last ones out.”
Machado said he signed up for the Marines mainly for the educational benefits, but also to demonstrate his patriotism and to make his family proud. He inked his eight-year contract after gathering all of his immigration paperwork showing he’s a U.S. citizen.
Once Machado completes four years of active service, he will have to decide whether to remain on active duty or fulfill the remaining time in the reserves. He plans to get a bachelor’s degree and become an officer.
Machado, who likes soccer and played in the school band, began meeting with recruiters as a junior, feeling the pressure to get a plan for after graduation. He logged on to the Marines’ online recruiting site and soon got a call from McCormick, whose office in Janesville is about 25 miles southeast of Brooklyn.
“He was pretty honest about everything. He said they couldn’t guarantee me a specific job,” said Machado, who arrived in San Diego for basic training in mid-July.
The new recruit also had questions about Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I don’t see myself going there,” Machado said. “I would if I’m required, if it’s needed for Marines to be there.”
But McCormick said the odds of being deployed to a combat zone are about 50 percent since roughly half of the Marine Corps has been sent to fight.
“A lot is dependent upon the job that you’re in and the unit you’re with,” McCormick said. “If you’re in the infantry, you’ll deploy more often than a truck mechanic.”
As of July 10, 31 Wisconsin Marines have died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. An additional 68 from the Army, two Air Force, and four Navy members from Wisconsin have been killed. The U.S. Defense Department said 731 Wisconsin service members have been wounded in the two wars.
Jones said his Army recruiters are up front about the odds of deployment into conflict zones.
“It’s very, very likely that you will go there,” Jones said. “You have to realize that if you do get deployed, you’ll go with a unit of trained professionals doing everything they can as a soldier to complete the mission.”
Recruiting up in Wisconsin
In the most recent ranking available from 2009, Wisconsin was in the bottom third of states in Army recruits per capita, according to the Army’s recruiting command at Fort Knox, Ky. The lower participation is due in part to the lack of a prominent military installation aside from Fort McCoy, a training facility near Sparta, said Pat Grobschmidt, an Army recruiting spokeswoman in Milwaukee.
With the new found interest in joining the military, the pressure to recruit Wisconsin high school students has eased for some branches in the past year, local recruiters say. This summer, McCormick and two other recruiters are capped at four recruits a month at their Janesville office. He said about 15 people show interest in those four Marine Corps spots each month.
Jones said there’s been a similar upswing in the Army.
“We’re a little ahead of schedule as far as graduates and seniors compared to the last two years,” Jones said. “We’ve probably seen a 15 percent increase over the past two years.”
With higher unemployment and many parents out of work, McCormick said more young Wisconsinites are seeing the military as a viable option.
Native American graduates were the most likely to sign up in 2009, state data showed. Of the 848 Native American graduates in the state, 5.3 percent said they planned to enlist. That’s higher than any other group, including Hispanics at 3.8 percent; whites at 3.2 percent; blacks at 2.5 percent and 1.9 percent of Asian students.
Parachute show draws fire
Among the recruiting tools the Army uses is showing off its elite parachute team. A recent demonstration of the Golden Knights’ prowess at the Middleton High School football field sparked protests by anti-war activists, who charged the school was being too accommodating to military recruitment.
Superintendent Don Johnson said Middleton already had an end-of-year pep rally scheduled and invited the parachute team to participate. Once word spread of the event, peace organizations launched an assault on what they called a blatant recruiting pitch that glamorized war to students at the suburban Madison district.
“I think that any presence of the military could be viewed as recruitment,” Johnson said, adding that the school limits recruiter visits to three per branch per year.
During the June assembly, nearly 100 protesters held signs saying “No recruitment in our schools” and greeted students with forms that allow them to opt out of being included on lists given to recruiters. Many of the teenagers said they didn’t know the school was required by federal law to release their contact information to the military upon request.
After the district explained the event had nothing to do with recruitment, a representative spent nearly an hour “pitching” the Army, complained Buzz Davis, a member of Veterans for Peace in Madison.
“What happened was exactly what we thought — the Golden Knights are part of the recruiting command,” Davis said. “The reason they’re spending money is to suck these kids in.”
Grobschmidt, the Army spokeswoman, said the branch makes no apologies for using the Golden Knights to spread the word about the Army.
“As far as the group that demonstrated in Middleton, one of the things we fight for is the freedom of speech,” Grobschmidt said. “They (protesters) have every right to be there … we just like them to allow us to give our message as well.”
Rural students more likely to enlist
Under federal law, public high schools must provide military recruiters with equal access to students as compared to other post secondary institutions, such as colleges. In Wisconsin, no state standard of access exists, so practices vary widely from district to district.
Department of Public Instruction data show a wide range in enlistment percentages across the state.
The average number of high school graduates indicating they planned to enter the military was 3.2 percent for 2009. Graduates in larger cities expressed less interest, with 2.6 percent of Milwaukee graduates and 0.6 percent of Madison graduates saying they planned to join the armed forces.
Topping the list were rural areas dotted around the state, many with fewer than 100 graduates. At Frederic High School, about 100 miles northwest of Eau Claire, nearly one out of five graduates in 2009 planned to enter military service.
Frederic’s Principal Ray Draxler said his school has a good relationship with recruiters and doesn’t limit visits.
“It does seem like the last couple of years we’ve had more (students) than usual head into the military,” Draxler said. “There aren’t a lot of good, high-paying jobs in our immediate area, so if you’re not going on to post-high school education, job hunting could be difficult.”
Nationally, the Army draws mostly from less densely populated areas. That leads to a disproportionate number of rural recruits, according to its national recruiting command.
Jones with the Army in Madison said his branch has much more success recruiting in rural areas. He credits a “rural upbringing with a focus on service to God, country and family.”
Peace activist criticizes access
Will Williams, a member of Veterans for Peace who served two tours in Vietnam, travels across Wisconsin informing students of the consequences of joining the military. He doesn’t like the term “counter-recruitment,” but he thinks state high schools don’t insulate students enough from heavy-handed recruiting efforts.
Williams said the boost in recruitment could be due to the easy access recruiters have to some students.
“It’s no wonder when a recruiter is allowed to come in almost at will throughout the year. The kids hear this stuff over and over,” he said. “It plays on their psyche, and many don’t understand what they’re getting into.”
Williams doesn’t tell students not to enlist. Rather, he wants to ensure they make an informed decision when joining the military. He believes the state should set a standard for the number and type of visits recruiters can make.
He pointed to Dodgeville as a model for the state. Dodgeville High School Principal Jeff Athey said he schedules recruiters to come in on specific days to connect with interested students, instead of allowing them full access to all students.
Jones said if he had it his way, recruiters could talk to any high school student anytime.
“Unlimited access is the goal, that would be nirvana,” Jones said. “But at the same time, we understand that’s not possible.”
Selling the military to recruits — and the public
Aside from the daily grind of finding recruits and keeping mounds of paperwork straight, Jones said one constant battle is public perception.
“People think that as long as our mouths are going, we’re lying,” Jones said. “They think we’re going to lie, cheat, beg, borrow and steal to get my son into the Army. That’s as far from the truth as could possibly be.”
That perception is fueled by a 2006 U.S. Government Accountability Office report citing a rise in overly aggressive tactics and even criminal activity, including falsifying documents and sexual harassment — none of it tied to any specific region. The report suggested that some overworked recruiters were resorting to unethical tactics to meet out-of-reach recruiting goals.
Jones, with the Army, said his branch has taken steps to ease the pressure, including a 2009 directive that mandated a cap on work hours.
McCormick, the Marine recruiter, said he’s sometimes unfairly compared to a used-car salesman. He insists his job isn’t to sell the Marines but help young people make informed decisions — and get the best recruits available.
“We are taught sales, but we’re not trying to sell you a cheap car,” McCormick said. “At some point in time they’ll be working for us, so we want the best of the best.”