Called to serve: Why Texas ranks high in encouraging young people to join military

At Copperas Cove High School in Texas, juniors Sydney Montana and Kapua Dumaran both have fathers who served in the military. Both are active in the school’s Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps and participated in a week-long camp at nearby Fort Hood.

Those qualities help explain how Copperas Cove ranked No. 7 nationally in a new Defense Department list of the top 25 communities from which 17- to 24-year-olds joined the military.

But Copperas Cove’s high rate of military participation is not the norm. Many of America’s largest cities are underrepresented, and the U.S. regions where recruits come from have become even more concentrated in recent years, a congressionally mandated panel studying military service recently found.

“Forty-five years ago, about half of enlisted recruits came from the American South and West; today, that number is nearly 70 percent,” the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service said in its initial report, which is still open for public comment.

Those findings are mirrored in the Defense Department’s fiscal year 2018 ranking of the top 25 communities from which young people join the military. The data showed that the majority of the communities were in the South.

Overall, Texas had four towns in the top 25, including No. 2 Harker Heights, No. 3 Cibolo, and No. 20 Killeen.

At the No. 1 spot was Hope Mills, N.C. Like Copperas Cove and most of the other top 25 towns, Hope Mills is near a major military base. Its high schools have well-developed Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps programs as part of their curriculum, and recruiters are welcome on campus. Like almost all of the top 25 towns, Hope Mills had fewer than 4,000 residents age 17 to 24.

Read Next

The Pentagon’s Defense Manpower Data Center calculated the top 25 by creating an index that ranked the communities based on the number of 17- to 24-year-olds who joined the military over the last five fiscal years from that town, compared to the number of residents in that age range. The Pentagon used population data from Woods and Poole Economics, Inc., an independent firm that specializes in long-term economic and demographic data.

In a second index, the Pentagon ranked cities solely on the total number of recruits who have joined the military over the last five fiscal years, an approach that favored large cities, but also showed that many of those cities are underrepresented in the armed forces.

For example, while Texas had five large cities on the second index, including No. 1 ranked San Antonio, No. 2 Houston, No. 6 El Paso, No. 16 Fort Worth and No. 21 Dallas — they had lower ratios of participation in the military compared to the small towns.

To match Copperas Cove’s ratio of enlistment, 11,887 of Fort Worth’s 17- to 24-year-olds would have signed up to join the military over the last five fiscal years. Based on Defense Department data, 2,293 actually did.

The larger cities may have relatively lower participation because there are other industries that provide job opportunities, Montana said.

But the small towns also often have other job opportunities, and yet a large number of young residents still choose the military, said Mark Waller, a county board commissioner who represents Peyton, Colo. Peyton was the No. 1 town in the Defense Department’s fiscal year 2017 rankings.

“There are plenty of opportunities for people to find jobs here. I actually think it’s a strong sense of patriotism,” Waller said. With five major bases nearby, military service is “part of their everyday lives here.”

The Defense Department said both top 25 lists included only communities with populations of at least 1,000 residents between the ages of 17 and 24. Overall, it recruits in 4,940 towns and cities that match that criteria.

The data was obtained exclusively by McClatchy and comes as the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service seeks public comment on how to expand the number of communities that encourage military service across the country.

“It’s the same families in the same communities that are providing young people for new generations of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines,” said commissioner Tom Kilgannon.

Montana said military service is just a way of life for her town, where many families have a member who has served.

“In small town schools like Copperas Cove … you get a better understanding of what the military is like, what military life is like,” said Montana, 16, who balances her JROTC commitments with an active volleyball schedule.

Copperas Cove High School JROTC instructor retired Army Chief Warrant Officer Enrique Herrera had a 40-foot repelling tower erected on campus and began weekly physical drills of the school’s cadets to make sure they could meet the Army’s fitness standards. In the 2019 graduating class, one-half of his JROTC cadets are headed into the military.

Herrera said while he encourages military service, he doesn’t sugarcoat it.

“I always tell my kids, and this is one thing I really stress: If you are going to join the military, and you are joining for any other reason -- I don’t care what the recruiter tells you — but if you are joining for any other reason than the defense of your country then you are joining for the wrong reason,” Herrera said. “In your heart, if you are not doing it for the right reasons you are going to be miserable.”

Greater reliance on small towns and rural areas to serve in the military intensified during the Vietnam War and became more pronounced in the years that followed, as the U.S. military struggled to transition to an all-volunteer force, said Larry Korb, a senior defense fellow at the Center for American Progress. The rural and small town communities that served in Vietnam became the same ones the Pentagon relied on to fill military ranks postwar.

“I do remember from my own days from active duty I think I was the only person from New York,” said Korb, who served in the Navy and was President Ronald Reagan’s assistant secretary of defense for manpower.

That hasn’t changed, Korb said. In these military communities, “it’s their children and grandchildren serving.”

While trying to expand the number of communities from which it successfully recruits, the military is also faced with a population that overall has fewer young men and women eligible to serve. In 2017 the Pentagon reported that 71 percent of young Americans would not meet military recruiting standards due to weight or physical fitness, behavioral issues or an inability to pass the military’s competency exam, the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery.

But the repeated reliance on the same communities generation after generation plays into a larger “divide that we’re seeing in our country,” said Debra Wada, another member of the national commission looking at military service. “So yes, it’s very important that we encourage and have representation from across America.”

Korb, currently co-chairman on the National Military Family Association, still sees the divide. “Where are the families from mostly? They are not in Los Angeles,” he said.

In the last five years, while Los Angeles has 224,937 17- to 24-year olds, just 2,700 from that age group have enlisted, according to the Pentagon data.

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram

Tara Copp is the national military and veterans affairs correspondent for McClatchy. She has reported extensively through the Middle East, Asia and Europe to cover defense policy and its impact on the lives of service members. She was previously the Pentagon bureau chief for Military Times and a senior defense analyst for the U.S. Government Accountability Office. She is the author of the award-winning book “The Warbird: Three Heroes. Two Wars. One Story.”