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High unemployment means high military recruitment

Military recruits seek not just an adventure, but a much needed job.

By Correspondent / November 12, 2009

Pfc. Blaise Counter, a California construction worker who lost his job in the recession, says the Army saved him from financial ruin.

Tom A. Peter

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Paktika Province, AFGHANISTAN

As a construction worker in southern California, says Blaise Counter, life was pretty sweet. Working on what he describes as "corporate millionaire homes," his $1,300-a- week paycheck allowed him his own luxury – a modest shared apartment in upscale Laguna Beach, where he could surf every day. And there was enough left over to support his 5-year-old daughter by a former girlfriend.

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But when the "corporate millionaires" hit the skids in the recession, so, too, did legions of workers – like Mr. Counter – who served them. And that's how – less than a year after losing his job and his apartment amid the palms – he finds himself today living in a steel shipping container on the front lines of the war in Afghanistan at a tiny outpost along the border with Pakistan.

He signed up for the only steady work he could find – the US Army. Now a private first class, the avid surfer is hundreds of miles from the nearest beach, pulling latrine duty once a week in between dangerous foot patrols and manning mortars. But he's making about $1,900 a month, tax-free, plus room and board and medical care.

In the mellow singsong of the California surfer patois that adds an oddly cheerful flavor to his momentous decision, he explains: "I have a little girl, so I had to think about her and the possibility of never coming back to her. At the same time you've got to pay your bills and you've got to keep living." Counter is among thousands of Americans hit hard by the financial crisis who are finding financial refuge in the military, where in spite of the stark prospect of going to war, the work is steady and the pay and benefits are decent.

Economic hard times are a driving force in what the Department of Defense is calling the best recruitment year since 1973.

"We're pleased to report that for the first time since the advent of the all-volunteer force, all of the military components, active and reserve, met their number as well as their quality goals.… [T]hat's the first time that's been achieved for every component since the start of the all-volunteer force in 1973," said Bill Carr, head of personnel for the Department of Defense. In his October report on 2009 recruitment, he attributed part of the success to high unemployment rates in the US, in addition to increased spending on recruits and better military salaries.

ACROSS THE SERVICES, THE MILITARY MET all its goals and, after years of lowering standards during the peak of fighting in Iraq, this past year attracted one of the most educated groups to the military in nearly a decade.

All the services modestly exceeded their recruiting goals, with the Army having the most success, making 108 percent of its target. In sum, the US Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force brought in nearly 169,000 new recruits, while the National Guard and Reserve forces brought in about 138,000.

There is some question as to the significance of the military's record-level recruiting year. Some have pointed out that the services exceeded their goals only after lowering them, so in actuality fewer people joined the military this year than last.