ST. STEPHEN, S.C. — With his 4.0 GPA and encyclopedic memory, Ryan Wyndham stands a good chance of someday getting out of St. Stephen, a rickety, impoverished town jammed between Lake Moultrie and Hell Hole Swamp.
This square-jawed member of the Timberland High School JROTC has not only his own future on his mind, but also his country's. At a time when small towns across the country are taking a disproportionate share of casualties, Mr. Wyndham, as with many of his peers, is only feeling more resolved to join the Army.
"In a small town, you simply have a deeper relationship to the people you're defending," he says. "When you're getting shot at, they become your reason for being there."
As the military faces recruitment criticisms and challenges, one bright spot for recruiters is that many potential enlistees in small towns like St. Stephen still reveal a pragmatic patriotism and a deep tie to a community's military history. And they feel responsible to honor past Americans who laid down their lives for flag and country, whether in Vietnam or World War II.
Today, "the only thing that makes [recruiting] easier for the military is when there are communities that have traditions promoting military service," says Loren Thompson, a military affairs expert at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.
Nearly half of the students at Timberland High School live below the poverty line. As a result, St. Stephen - and the rest of Berkeley County, dominated by the massive Francis Marion National Forest - is the kind of out-of-the-way place criticized for filling the military's ranks with "cannon fodder" in a much-questioned war: a place where poor, undereducated teens with few options are viewed as fertile ground for recruitment.
Yet as some studies and reports show, the debate is more complex and varies among regions and other demographic pockets, experts say.
"Most people have been focusing on military recruiters and where they set up stations in these small towns. But there's more to [recruiting] than that in towns where everybody does know everybody else and where there's a different kind of environment," says Robert Cushing, a retired sociologist from the University of Texas at Austin. But he says that even in towns that overwhelmingly support the military, questions come up: "In some [small] towns, influencers promote the military as a way to further education and get a leg up on learning a trade, but then one or two young people get killed overseas and they start to wonder, 'What are we doing?' "
In raw numbers, urban counties, like Los Angeles County, still send the most soldiers and sustain the most casualties. But when converted to per capita stats, rural towns and counties are in fact taking the brunt of the war, says Mr. Cushing.
Out of 300 graduates who signed up for the military in the past decade, Timberland High School has lost two. One marine killed in Iraq, Jonathan Gadsden, came from the nearby town of Jamestown, pop. 97. Extrapolated to New York City's population, for example, his death would have equaled more than 80,000 New Yorkers killed.
The per capita income in Jamestown proper is only about $8,000, so the military is seen as economic salvation, not to mention a way out. But the armed forces also embody values - volunteerism and sacrifice among them - that, for many young people who grow up in remote and close-knit communities, are prized. "Young people want to be good," and the military is one way they can affirm that desire, says John Eighmey, a marketing expert at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis who has studied military recruiting efforts.
Only last year, Shante Vann, according to her teachers, couldn't string two words together without being sent to the principal's office. After coming from busy Kansas City, Mo., to this town of grizzled fishermen and unkempt cemeteries, she was bored and angry. But after being placed in the JROTC for character education, she found an unexpected talent: She didn't mind calling people out, telling them to drop and give her 10 push-ups if they smart-talked.
Now, she has a new goal: to become an Army drill sergeant. It's a gambit her parents support, she says. Still, the debate over the justness of the war and its growing casualty toll stirs across kitchen tables here.
"I have one girlfriend who says, 'Don't go. You're going to get yourself killed,' " says Ms. Vann. "But I'd rather die on the field of battle than out here on the street or in a car accident. If I do, I want the flag [at the funeral]. I want it all."
Travis Hartley didn't have much of a military tradition in his family. But what started with a boy's fascination with overflying jets continued at JROTC, where he "liked everything" about the dress, the rituals, the attitude, and the overriding pride. "I'm very patriotic. I love this country, and I felt like I owed something back to the guys who sacrificed their lives in World War II, Vietnam, Korea," he says at home in Jamestown while on leave.
After his leave ends, he is transferring to Moody Air Force Base in Georgia, where the young lieutenant has the best chance to be sent overseas as part of a rescue unit. "I want to go to Iraq," he says. "I'd rather die over there than live just a regular life."
His mother, Linda, is doing bills at the kitchen table and lifts her head at her son's comment. She says a military funeral gives meaning to a life beyond the politics of the day. But she also says about his bravado: "You'll feel differently when you have kids."
Would-be recruits say they also sense a paradox of proximity: Unlike many parents and teenagers who live in larger, more urban communities, they not only know the soldiers going into danger, but also feel the joy when they come back safe and sound. A sign at a local National Guard armory reads: "Ain't it great to be back from Kuwait!" And when deaths do occur, teens say they witness the reactions of townspeople - a mix of sadness and quiet pride.
When a vice principal's National Guard unit was called up last year, "Kids here sent cookies. They felt a sense of ownership," says Jimenez Filomero, a Timberland principal. In the end, he says, "It's good for the community to see these kids succeed. They go away and they come back all grown-up."