BOZEMAN, MONT. — With peach fuzz still on his cheeks, a wedding ring on his finger, and an infant daughter at home, 20-year-old Bill Cooper considers what he's leaving behind yet has no reservations about fighting in an increasingly unpopular war.
Last week, Mr. Cooper finished taking final exams at Montana State University where he is studying to become a teacher. Soon, this part-time infantryman with the Montana Army National Guard will depart for advanced combat training. By autumn, he and other members of his mortar platoon expect to be on the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Statistically, Cooper is just one of the 47,000 US reservists and regulars being summoned as possible battle-zone reinforcements for America's all-volunteer armed forces. Yet as a soldier from Montana, where there has been a recent spike in enlistments, he draws upon a special cultural affinity for serving his country in camouflage fatigues. Here, joining the military remains an important rite of passage.
"In small-town Montana, there is a strong sense of community identity, and part of that identity involves an expectation that young men and women will do something for their country," says David Swingle, the headmaster of an alternative high school in Bozeman who recently curated an exhibition about the state's military history at the Museum of the Rockies.
Thousands of young war hawks like Cooper say they don't need the story of Pat Tillman, the former NFL player killed in action, to remind them of what duty and patriotism mean.
"We're an independent lot here in Montana," says US Sen. Conrad Burns (R), who served in the Marines. "We're self reliant, and we enjoy our freedoms but we understand those freedoms don't come without a price."
Gung-ho and unwavering, these native sons and daughters hail from a state that has the highest number of military veterans per capita in the US. From tiny Alzada and Two Dot to Yaak and Virginia City, 1 of every 10 of the Treasure State's 850,000 residents has worn a uniform, including Cooper's father before him.
Montana's military legacy, Mr. Swingle says, has been punctuated with heroism and tragedy since the days of the frontier. During World War II, an entire starting line-up on the MSU college football team was killed in action. At war's end, Montana endured one of the highest casualty rates among the states - echoing World War I when an accounting mistake resulted in twice as many young Montanan men being called up. More recently, Montana held another distinction: It was the final state to lose its first soldier in Iraq. First Lt. Matthew Edward Saltz of Bigfork, who joined the Army as an ROTC recruit at MSU, was killed when his Humvee was hit by a roadside bomb in Baghdad on Dec. 22, 2003. He was mourned across the state.
"Montana is a very unusual place. The young people who serve in uniform have a higher sense of purpose and the public recognizes it," says retired four-star general Robert Mathis, who was second in command of the entire US Air Force.
Last month when members of the 495th support battalion returned to Kalispell they were met by thousands of people who lined the road leading from the airport to the armory downtown.
"People have called our intervention in Iraq another Vietnam, but in Montana there is no comparison between what soldiers encountered during that war versus the reception they are receiving now," says Lt. Col. Steve Martinka, the lead Army National Guard recruiting manager in Montana. Despite national concern over the US course in Iraq, prospective recruits in Montana have hardly been dissuaded.
"At least in this state, we're finding people who ... want to be deployed," says Mr. Martinka. "They simply want to serve."
Army Guard Master Sgt. Karl Mahn, who helped recruit Cooper, says Montanans, like others in the West, possess a hardiness that boot camp drill instructors love. Spending much of their lives outdoors, rural kids are adept at fixing machinery. They are proficient marksmen because of big game hunting, and have a high level of physical endurance because of high plains temperature extremes.
No one understands that grit better than local hero Eric Hastings, a retired Marine Corps colonel who grew up in Bozeman, then became a decorated fighter pilot, and ended his career as chief of staff during the Desert Storm campaign. He believes Montanan youths are patriots who understand the need to protect home-grown American values.
"I suspect a lot of it has to do with the wide open spaces where you can see things a little clearer and where, early on, there's a requirement to take personal responsibility for your life," he says.
Mr. Hastings, whose own grown son is a Marine recruitment commander in Los Angeles, notes a cultural distinction that exists between southern California and Montana. In some well-to-do California suburbs, high schools have forbidden recruiters from even stepping foot on campus. In Montana, however, they are welcomed into classrooms.
Montanans don't have much money and unless opportunities are handed down to them by their parents, they face the reality of having to find a job," he says, noting that serving in the military isn't a considered a career move of last resort, it is an opportunity to achieve personal honor.
In remote eastern Montana, where depopulation has hit farming and ranching communities hard, weekend maneuvers with the Guard also functions as a social activity, bringing families and the community together.
But the geographic isolation also brings a dearth of FM radio stations and an abundance of AM airwaves dominated by prowar defenders of the Bush administration. Yet another element - besides family military heritage, economic incentives, and boredom - that curator Swingle says feeds hawkish enthusiasm.
"What they hear everyday in the pick-up truck is a nationalistic point of view that isn't challenged very much," he says.
For sergeants Dave Lee and Scott Owens, best friends who grew up together in Shelby, attending college was made possible by military scholarships.
A champion wrestler in high school, Mr. Lee says that teenagers from competing high schools may square off against one another on sports teams, but military service unites them.
"It's exciting for us to be joining this war," says 22-year-old Mr. Owens, who served in Bosnia and has aspirations of becoming an elite ranger as his older brother did. "We have a chance to be part of history."
Still, he admits that becoming a soldier bound for war has meant having to do things not typical for most of his Generation Y peers, such as writing a last will and testament.
"I'm not worried about death because I've got buddies covering my back," Lee adds confidently, clenching Owens in a one-armed hug. "War doesn't scare me. I signed up for the adventure. I look forward to seeing the world."