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Where recruiting runs strongest

Indiana is among the states - often in Midwest and South - that rank highest, a trend driven by economic opportunity

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Those in states that have proved difficult for recruiters insist a lack of new enlistees does not mean a lack of love for country - or even the military. In Vermont, which has experienced some of the greatest drop-offs in recruiting among the Army, Reserve, and Guard, Lt. Col. Darryl Ducharne of the Army National Guard says he has felt only support. "There's a lot of patriotism out there," he says.

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Others say drawing a direct line between patriotism and recruitment rates would be misleading. The real link is economic. "It's not political philosophy. It has to do with why a military career would be appealing," says Mr. Thompson. "It is a step up for those that are disenfranchised, but not an attractive alternative for those who are already established in society."

For Sergeant Lacks, it has turned out to be nothing short of a calling. His life was not so different from those of the kids from the Indianapolis projects that he works to recruit - a broken home and the temptation of drugs and gangs. He still recalls sleeping in stairwells and the day his mother told him that she had no money for his college education.

Not long after, he was on a bus to Fort Benning in Georgia. Now, the roles have reversed. "I can take a kid who has nothing and give him direction," says Lacks.

On this day, Lacks coasts into a housing complex in the Guard's minivan to pick up one of the six recruits that he's close to enlisting. With his baseball cap tipped askew and outsized clothes hanging loosely from a lanky frame, the youngster is the image of urban America. But his attitude defies any stereotype. Around Lacks, he is courteous, deferential, even. Then again, Lacks has not come for just a signature. He has come to show how he can make the young man's life better.

There is always the hint of the sergeant in his voice, but he is as much counselor as commander. When the young man suggests he wants to play basketball, Lacks gently redirects the conversation. " We can put you into college, but you're going to have to teach yourself how to jump. You need a Plan A, B, and C. If one doesn't work, then you go on to the next."

He asks the boy to write his plans down. The boy nods. He wants to be a mechanic. The Guard can get him into a technical school, Lacks responds. It is a recurring theme: The Guard is a way out.

Two generations ago, the Army was a way out for the children of factory workers and laborers in the Northeast. Now the upper echelons of the military are fretted with generals from the region. Today, blue-collar jobs have shifted out of the Northeast, and the rising generation of military leaders is increasingly coming from the American South.

Today, says Thompson, "there's no question that in place like the Carolinas and Mississippi, military service is not only respected but commonplace."

Yet even as the South continues to provide the most recruits, the Midwest has had slightly greater success in avoiding a drop-off in recruiting.

For example, the Minnesota Army National Guard is at 112 percent of its year-to-date goal, ranking No. 1 in the country. One reason is that the Minnesota Guard has had to work hard for its recruits because it lacked large bases, and therefore large numbers of troops who were likely to enter the Guard once they left the Army.

"Good old-fashioned hard work - that's the thing that works the best," says recruiting commander Lt. Col. Dirk Kloss.

That philosophy, beyond region or political affiliation, he and others say, is the surest guarantor of recruiting success. It has certainly worked for Lacks. He has already won two trips - one to Las Vegas and one to Hawaii - for meeting recruiting goals. But even then he doesn't have an off button. In Las Vegas, he made four poolside recruiting calls.

"Some people don't work as hard as I do," he says. "But you've got to be constantly, constantly recruiting."

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