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.
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.
However, the military has also managed to attract an undeniably more qualified core of recruits. The number of Army recruits with a high school degree was up 11 percentage points from last year. Across the services, 96 percent of recruits had a high school diploma, the strongest percentage since 1996. Additionally, the services saw the best showing on their math and verbal aptitude test since 2004 with 73 percent of recruits scoring above average.
For the US military, high unemployment rates have always meant a good thing for recruiting, says Lindsay Cohn, a political science professor who specializes in military personnel issues at the University of Northern Iowa. As far back as the Civil War, people have been turning to the military when the job market goes south.
"All kinds of people are losing their jobs, and all kinds of people of different levels of education and different levels of experience are going to look to the military to support their family," she says. "So you also get a quality spike when [an economic crisis] happens."
THAT QUALITY SPIKE IS NOTICEABLE, says Sgt. Greg Grayson, commander at the downtown Boston Army recruitment office where a jovial crew of soldiers in camouflage and several life-size cutouts of smiling soldiers greet visitors. "There has definitely been an increase in degree-credentialed applicants," he says. "They're done with school and the job market is not what they thought it was going to be."
Grayson says that since July his office has signed on an average of two candidates with bachelor's degrees each month – six in October. That compares with just two every three months a year ago. The office's total recruitment per month runs between nine and 12.
On an October afternoon, Vincent Cortigiano, a college dropout from Cleveland who came to Boston for the state's free healthcare and has cobbled together a living with temporary jobs, came in to sign up.
He says he couldn't afford to stay in college and chose the Army as a way to avoid going into debt.
Educated, slightly older recruits like Mr. Cortigiano, says James Allard, the Army's chief of public affairs for New England recruiting, have been "a definite positive impact on recruiting over the past year" both in terms of quality and quantity.
For those looking to the military to support their family, now more than ever recruits can make a sound living. Gone are the days of soldiers living on food stamps. Now they are among the top earners in the US for those with their education and experience.
"There's an old saying: You never get rich by joining the military. And indeed, you can't. But you will operate in the 70th percentile of earners of your time in the workforce and education," said Mr. Carr. For young recruits it's even better, he said. Those who join the services fresh out of high school are in the 90th percentile of earners in their demographic.
Additionally, the revamped GI Bill has attracted many hoping to use the military to boost their educational qualifications. Previously, the GI Bill offered soldiers only enough to pay for a small portion of their college expenses. The post-9/11 GI Bill, however, now pays full tuition at a public university in addition to providing money for housing and if the soldier decides not to use it, he or she can pass it on to his or her child.
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.
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.