ST. LOUIS — Rural America continues to be fertile ground for military recruiters as young people continue to see the armed forces as a way to escape poverty or lack of opportunity in their hometowns, according to an analysis by the Department of Defense data by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
The Post-Dispatch reviewed data for every active-duty, Reserve and National Guard recruit, who represent the majority of forces serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. The analysis excluded the 1 percent of U.S. counties with populations under 1,000.
On a per-capita basis, no county in America without a major Army installation has provided more soldiers than Menominee County, Wis., the newspaper found. Almost 90 percent of the county’s 4,562 people are members of the Menominee tribe. It’s also one of the nation’s poorest counties with an unemployment rate more than twice the national average.
During the Menominee Nation’s Gathering of Warriors, people stand out of respect as two dozen military veterans enter the grounds. Among those taking in the spectacle is 17-year-old Vince Crow. His grandfather served in World War II, his uncle in Desert Storm. Crow is thinking about enlisting, too.
“It’s a way to show pride,” Crow told the newspaper. “Pride for your family. Pride for your heritage. Pride for your nation. It just kind of goes along with our ancestry. Instead of protecting a village, you’re protecting a country.”
Menominee County was second in per-capita Army recruiting from 2004 to last year, exceeded only by Geary County, Kan., home to Fort Riley and the 1st Infantry Division. Four of the nation’s top 10 counties were home to large Army posts.
Residents of such areas tend to have more familiarity and interaction with the military and are more receptive to the idea of military service, the Army says. Installations host activities open to the public and are active in civic life. Also, many military retirees and families congregate in such areas.
Geary County sits amid the Flint Hills in northeastern Kansas. It is home to about 25,000 residents, as well as 16,000 soldiers based at Fort Riley. Almost 22 percent of those in the county over the age of 18 are veterans, well above the national average of almost 14 percent.
Sgt. 1st Class Shaun Keithline, who recruits in Geary County, said many of his recruits are the children of military personnel now reaching retirement age. For many of those families, he said, “the questions are not if you’re going to serve but, ‘Are you serving before or after you go to college?’ They expect to do it.”
Keithline also believes potential recruits might be influenced by the presence of soldiers around town, many of whom have returned from overseas with money to burn.
“Let’s face it: Almost every soldier is going to drive a nice car,” Keithline said. “They’re going to wear nice clothes, and they’re always going to have some cash. And that’s what kids see. And that’s what they’re attracted to — the shiny bling-bling.”
Allen McCann served for three years as the Army recruiter for the region that included Menominee County before he retired in November. In the hallways of Menominee High School, he was known simply as “Sarge.”
Almost daily, he visited the school, made classroom presentations and chatted to students in the hallways and lunchroom. Often, McCann was recruiting someone whose father, grandfather, uncle or brother had served.
In a community in which veterans are revered, McCann said, many young people long for that same respect.
“In a lot of ways, it’s like a rite of passage,” he said.
Native Americans have played a vital role in the armed forces since scouting for George Washington. There are currently 200,000 Native American veterans. Historically, they have the highest record of service per capita when compared with other ethnic groups, according to the Defense Department.
Many experts, as well as Native Americans themselves, say military service is rooted in their culture.
“It’s the closest thing that our young warriors can compare to our traditional warrior society,” said Lisa Waukau, 61, chairman of the 8,475-member Menominee Tribe.
“It’s service to the nation, service to the people, and there’s no higher calling,” she said. “The ones that will be remembered and the ones that they sing songs about and write stories about are those who have served the people.”
It comes with a heavy price. Native American veterans of the Vietnam War suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder at twice the rate of white veterans, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Contributing factors included prejudice they encountered in the military, guilt over violating spiritual beliefs and acts against civilians that triggered reminders of the brutality Native Americans suffered in the past.
Louie Kakwitch is the Tribal Veteran Service officer for Menominee County. He meets with almost every veteran who returns from Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I can tell they’re bothered,” Kakwitch said. “I can’t pinpoint it, but you know they’ve changed.”