Military Service A Stepping Stone To American Dream

The military remains an appealing path to many, and data shows most vets earn more over their lifetime. But of course military service brings some serious risks, and doesn't always pay off in the short term.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. For millions of Americans, the U.S. Armed Forces have been a stepping stone to the American Dream. Many people view military service as a path to economic security and as a way to go to college.

NPR's Larry Abramson reports that route is no longer a sure thing, and it could be threatened by tight defense budgets and by a shrinking military.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: TV ads depict the decision to join up almost as a spiritual quest.

(SOUNDBITE OF A MILITARY AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: A call to serve, it has no sound, yet I have heard it.

ABRAMSON: And many in the military will tell you a voice did tell them to join up. But that voice can whisper lots of different things. Here's what the voice promised to Army Sergeant First Class David Freeland, who's a recruiter.

SERGEANT DAVID FREELAND: You know, have a good career, get a good education, a house some day, a family some day and retire. What better place than the government, when you can do that for 20 years and then retire?

ABRAMSON: Freeland is surrounded by a bunch of future soldiers he signed up. They met up recently at an Army Reserve center in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, to celebrate the 237th birthday of the United States Army. Sargent Freeland shared some cake and a pep talk.

FREELAND: But I've been living the American Dream with my wife, kids, supporting our country, defending our Constitution and I'm proud to be there...

ABRAMSON: There are so many young men and women signing up these days, most have to wait many months before they can start. In the meantime, Sergeant Freeland stays in touch through events like this one.

Recruits like Denzel Jenkins say they definitely felt a kind of spiritual tug.

DENZEL JENKINS: The Army drew me. I like the camaraderie, I like - it was the way that the Army is structured. That's what drew me into the Army.

ABRAMSON: But there was something else too. The lure of those benefits was...

JENKINS: Big, the Army will pay for everything.

ABRAMSON: A bit of an exaggeration, but in a time of rising college costs, these future soldiers are among the few young people who don't have to worry about paying for college.

JENKINS: The Army wants you to go to school, so you'll be more valuable here in the Army and in the civilian world.

ABRAMSON: That's a big change. In the early republic, service was expected. Historian James Wright of the University of New Hampshire says few thought that healthy veterans were entitled to more than a thank you.

JAMES WRIGHT: There was no obligation to those who had served in the defense or in the Revolutionary War to establish this republic, and that really continued to be the attitude down through the 1930s.

ABRAMSON: Military benefits keep getting richer, thanks to programs like the post 9/11 GI Bill. Incentives help enable the military to turn away those without a high school diploma. According to researcher James Sherk of the Heritage Foundation, the stereotype of recruits having nowhere else to go has not been valid for quite some time.

JAMES SHERK: Recruits are more intelligent, perform better on the intelligence testing that's performed than the average population does. And they also come from family backgrounds with higher family incomes.

ABRAMSON: In the coming years, budget cuts will force the military to downsize. That will likely mean more competition for the relative security of a military career. And it could become tougher for those least qualified to get in. For those who do get in, staying in the military tends to get them closer to at least one piece of the American Dream.

Beth Asch is a researcher with the RAND Corporation.

BETH ASCH: Those who enter the military do substantially better on average than those who do not enter the military.

ABRAMSON: They earn more money.

ASCH: They earn more money.

ABRAMSON: Of course, that's only true for those who survive the hazards of military service, including post traumatic stress and higher rates of suicide. Those who leave the service face a tough readjustment to civilian life, and they face stereotypes about their mental health.

As Iraq Veteran Eric Dougherty told NPR at a job fair earlier this year, employers view him as potentially damaged.

ERIC DOUGHERTY: They're scared of me being angry. And if something happens where a situation comes out that I get mad, that I'm going to lose control and start killing everybody as if I was in the scene in Iraq.

ABRAMSON: But for many future soldiers signing up today, the dream is about more than dollars and success.

ANGELIA JOHNSON: I'm not into it for money. I want more of the experience and the structure that they offer their soldiers.

ABRAMSON: Angelia Johnson heads to boot camp in August. She says, as a woman, she thinks the Army will give her greater opportunities. In fact, she chose the military because she was making some bad choices.

JOHNSON: I found myself going more into trouble or getting into trouble more than anything else, 'cause I couldn't control my temper. So joining the military actually has taught me to control it more.

ABRAMSON: Young people like Johnson also tell you that family ties help lead them on this path. Recruits sign up because people they trust tell them that this is the way to go. That also means that many other families in other parts of the country just don't think of the military as a route to success.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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