High unemployment means high military recruitment
Military recruits seek not just an adventure, but a much needed job.
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PRIVATE FIRST CLASS COUNTER is something of an ideal military recruit. At 27, he's mature emotionally. And while he's nearly a decade older than the average enlistee, his years of surfing, skating, and manual labor made him just as fit as, if not more so, many of his teenage counterparts.Skip to next paragraph
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Still, for Counter, life in uniform has been an adjustment. For starters, he's had to deal with a significant drop in status.
After working for several years in construction, he'd risen to what he describes as the equivalent of a sergeant on construction sites, even serving as second in command on some jobs. In the Army, as a private first class, he's one rank above the lowest position, and he's older than many of his direct superiors
"Going from a leadership position down to just a private and taking orders, it was a rough adjustment at first, but I adapted to it. I look at it as if I was on a construction site and that was me [giving orders to someone else]," he says, noting that he knows what it's like to be on the other side and doesn't take things personally.
Tougher, though, perhaps are the risks he now confronts. When he reported to his first duty assignment after training in July, he was sent here as a mortar man to replace a soldier who'd been killed when Taliban fighters attempted to overrun a remote outpost.
Now, from this small base just 12 miles from the Pakistani border, he often hikes into the pines and scree of the surrounding mountains in search of Taliban fighters. Sometimes the patrols stay out for days at a time. On several of these missions his unit succeeded in making contact with the Taliban, and Counter battled alongside his fellow soldiers. Though Counter says seeing combat has been predictably stressful, he's come to accept the risk as a part of the decision he made when he joined the military.
"I just trust in the Lord and hope that I'll get back home."
His family is supportive of his decision to join the military. In particular, it's improved his relationship with the mother of his child. "We had a bad breakup, so I think in her eyes I went up a few notches. It was kind of like bringing honor to her and her family," he says.
Despite the dangers, Counter says he's happy that he enlisted for a four-year tour of duty. Before joining, he couldn't even find work as a day laborer standing with his tools in line with dozens of immigrant workers in front of Donut World, down the Pacific Coast Highway from his apartment.
He started selling off his possessions – even his van and all his beloved surfboards. "It was bad," he says. "I had a little bit of money saved up and it was going fast. I couldn't find work anywhere."
After two jobless months and with all of his friends in the business offering only bleak stories about layoffs or canceled jobs, he decided to enlist in the Army last December.
After high school, he'd similarly considered joining the Marines, but never committed. "I'd probably be dead if I [had]; killed in Iraq," he says. But with what felt like few options left last year, he decided it was time to take the opportunity.
When he arrived at boot camp, he found at least three economic crisis refugees like himself in his 40-man platoon.
Aside from the nerve-racking patrols where he carries a 60-mm mortar tube with several rounds, and his humbling turns at hauling the latrine tub out of the outhouse and burning its contents, the job does have its moments. He likes pulling radio duty – responding to and sending messages, and sometimes talking to a passing helicopter.
Overall, he feels pretty good about having gone from near destitution during the holidays last year to having options for the future. Faced with the prospect of supporting a child, college had begun to seem like an impossibility. But with the new GI Bill, he says, for the first time in his life he'll have the opportunity to go to college and do more than construction work.
"I felt like I was sinking like a ship and the Army got me floating again," he says.
• Julie Masis in Boston contributed to this article.