‘I wouldn’t be pursuing my master’s degree if I hadn’t joined,’ says recruit

As uncertainty surrounding the economy grows, so do lines of younger people at local recruiting offices. They see the military as a viable option to finance an education and keep
a steady paycheck.

In an economy where families may struggle to finance a student’s higher education, free tuition is a powerful recruiting tool. Sgt. Justin Lee, a local recruiter with the Army National Guard, said he is seeing an increase in people from 17 to 22 years old interested in capitalizing on that.

“I couldn’t find a way to justify spending more money in school, because I just didn’t have it,” said Erron Fritchman, 22, a Mesa State College student who enlisted in the National Guard in May.

Fritchman said he was $18,000 in debt and three years into a criminal justice degree when
he decided to switch to a medical-related field. His parents couldn’t afford to help him pay for school, Fritchman said, so he joined the military, which forgave his debt and will pay for his physician’s assistant training.

“I was kind of shell-shocked when I got in,” Fritchman said. “But I wouldn’t be pursuing my master’s (degree) if I hadn’t joined. It’s a good source of pay, too, which is getting harder to come by.”

The National Guard is a state military force that can be called by a governor into active duty to assist in state or federal emergencies.

That dual role entitles them at least partially to the same benefits given to active military, such as the new Montgomery G.I. Bill education benefits that will be rolled out in August, and an additional set of benefits specific to each state, such as free in-state tuition to public colleges and universities in Colorado, Lee said.

Misty Sellden, a career counselor at Central High School, said more graduating seniors are inquiring about military options than in years past because of the economic downturn.

“We’ve always had a strong presence in Grand Junction of military families,” Sellden said, “but the economy is shedding more light on how much college costs. Students are more aware of that now.”

Of Central’s 363 seniors this year, more than 20 already have enlisted in various branches in the military, Sellden said.

According to the U.S. Department of Defense, roughly half of active and reserve military are between the ages of 17 and 24 years old.

All branches of active and reserve-duty military met or exceeded their monthly recruiting goals for December, according to the Defense Department. The Army topped active military branches for retention by meeting 115 percent of its goals. Of reserve branches, the Army National Guard reported meeting 143 percent of its recruiting goals.

“When the economy is lacking and unemployment rises, like we’re experiencing today, jobs are scarcer and military recruitment is less challenging,” said Curt Gilroy of the accession policy branch within the Defense Department.

Gilroy said the 2009 fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, is on track with the recruiting successes the military experienced in 2008, which was the highest recruiting year in five years, he said.

For the 2008 fiscal year, active and reserve military brought in just shy of 325,000 recruits.

Lee and Sgt. Shannon Allen of the Grand Junction Army recruiting office said they have seen an increase in younger people interested in the military who have been laid off from jobs in the energy industry.

“They’re looking for a steady job, a steady paycheck, that kind of thing,” Allen said.

Lee said he left his job as a manager for a Checker Auto Parts store midway through 2008 to take a full-time position with the National Guard when the opportunity arose.

“I looked at the options of staying as a store manager or becoming a recruiter,” Lee said.

“Then the economy started getting shaky, and I went full-time. Job security is definitely a benefit.”

Another benefit Lee said he tries to sell is the part-time commitment of the National Guard, which can be a more attractive option than active branches of the military for people who have lost their jobs and need to support a family or are attending school.

“We like to advertise ourselves as serving the country and community,” he said. “The college benefits are the most utilized, but in active duty, that can be difficult. They are full-time, and they have to be extra motivated to do that.”

But the possibility of being shipped off to Iraq or Afghanistan still trumps the uncertainty of the economy.

Lee said there is a common question potential recruits bring into his office: “Am I going to war?”


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