MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, I'm Melissa Block. This recession is pressing U.S. military personnel into some hard decisions. When jobs are scarce, it's tough to let go of that military paycheck and benefits. The Pentagon says that it has higher retention rates as it often does during economic downturns. Our correspondent David Greene is traveling the country, reporting on the impact of the economy throughout President Obama's first 100 days in office. David recently received an e-mail from a U.S. Army Sergeant who was agonizing over whether to reenlist.
Sergeant VICTOR VASQUEZ (U.S. Army): My name is Victor Vasquez, I'm 30 years old.
DAVID GREENE: As soon as Sergeant Vasquez wrote me, I set up a time to talk to him by phone. He's stationed in Iraq.
Sgt. VASQUEZ: On the phone bank here in what was formerly one of Saddam's houses in Baghdad. Just one of joes here on the phone…
(Soundbite of laughter)
Sgt. VASQUEZ: …talking to people back home.
GREENE: Home for Vasquez is San Francisco. He's first-generation American. His mother is from Guatemala and his dad is from El Salvador. Sergeant Vasquez joined the army three years ago. His mission is to help stabilize Iraq, but he and his artillery unit know what's happening with the economy back home.
Sgt. VASQUEZ: A lot of the guys I work with have gone on leave recently, in the last month or two or three and so, you know, everyone comes back with their stories of like, you know, how their family or their friends, you know, back home are affected by stuff. You know, and I myself came back from my leave about like a week ago.
GREENE: During his leave in San Francisco, he saw how the economy hit his family. His sister had been laid off from her job as an analyst with Gap, the clothing chain.
Sgt. VASQUEZ: You know, to see her struggle and have to deal with that, you know, was like a real eye-opening for me, and very much brought me back to the point where - you know, I realized how big of a decision this was going to be, this whole re-enlistment decision.
GREENE: He really wants to come home when his contract is up this year - go to school and think about a new career. But after seeing his sister's life derailed, he said, it's harder to give up that stable $32,000 salary. He and a lot of people around him face this same dilemma. Vasquez told me about a fellow soldier in Baghdad, Army Specialist Jeff Taylor.
Sgt. VASQUEZ: He had, oh really, really, really, like struggled, like, I mean, lost sleep over it.
GREENE: Taylor was willing to chat with me the next day. He's 22 and his contract is up next year. He is been going over his options with his wife who's back in Fort Riley, Kansas.
Mr. JEFF TAYLOR (Army Specialist): These past two weeks — just staying up, you know, discussing things with her, like what should I do? What do you want? You know and just really making sure it's the right thing for us and that we'll all be happy.
GREENE: And if you re-enlist, what's the time frame? What kind of contract would you be signing?
Mr. TAYLOR: Right now I am about to re-enlist. I'm waiting for something to come back. I'm signing up for six years.
GREENE: He's pretty much made his decision. He's taking six more years as opposed to three or four because the longer contract means a $12,000 bonus. Taylor said he's doing it for his wife and kids.
Mr. TAYLOR: I know I'm going to have food at the table, I know we are going to have money for what we need. We're be taken care of. If we were to get out in the economy — they're trying to stabilize it, but you don't really know what's going on. I look at it as a big gamble and I'm just not willing to take that risk.
GREENE: Of course, there are risks staying in the Army. Taylor has mostly avoided combat. He's been working in a mailroom in Baghdad. But he's part of a field artillery unit and over the next six years, if he's in Iraq, or Afghanistan, he knows he could see combat. And he knows that could be hard for his family. I mentioned how Taylor's wife is at Fort Riley in Kansas. As I set-up these phone interviews in Iraq, I started driving in that direction. I asked Taylor to tell me about his wife Sarah.
Mr. TAYLOR: She's very smart. She's extremely smart. She's much smarter than me. Sometimes that's not so good but she's much smarter than me and she makes really good (unintelligible) decisions. She thinks things through.
GREENE: Would it be a huge imposition if I stop by there to meet her and kind of see your kids.
Mr. TAYLOR: That wouldn't be a problem at all.
GREENE: How you doing?
Unidentified Woman: I'm good.
GREENE: I'm actually a visitor. Is this where I'm supposed to be?
Unidentified Woman: Nope. Down at the booth.
GREENE: Fort Riley is a well-secured and sprawling base on the planes of East Kansas. There's an airport, office complexes, entire communities of military housing. I pulled into a subdivision of homes that was still being built up.
Unidentified Child: Who are you?
GREENE: I'm a radio reporter.
Unidentified Child: (Unintelligible)
Ms. SARAH TAYLOR: This is Taylor and he's three and that's Cheyenne and she'll be one in September.
GREENE: They're beautiful.
Ms. TAYLOR: Thank you.
GREENE: Sarah Taylor is 23. She's just moved into a new three-bedroom house. Her husband hasn't even seen their new home yet.
Ms. TAYLOR: I unpacked the whole house. I picked up furniture. I've scheduled all the delivery dates. I've done everything by myself. It wasn't easy, with two kids plus school.
GREENE: She's studying online to do medical transcription. But right now, her husband's military salary is supporting the family. If he came home, one of them would have to find work and Sarah said a recession doesn't seem like the time to test the job market.
Ms. TAYLOR: The raises aren't happening. It's just, if you don't have an education beyond high school it's really hard to get anywhere. So we're just trying to build a foundation, kind of…
GREENE: Did he say at some point, like God, I would just like to not re-enlist and go to school.
Ms. TAYLOR: Yeah, he's done that a lot.
GREENE: Actually, Sarah got behind the decision to re-enlist before her husband did.
Ms. TAYLOR: It's stable, it's secure. And you have to really mess up to get fired. And you can't quit. So it's pretty stable. The deployments are risky. But, I don't know…
GREENE: She comforts herself and the kids by remembering that Jeff will have leaves from time to time and he'll be back for long stretches in between deployments. And she comforts herself with her laptop that was sitting in front of us on the coffee table. It connects her to her husband. They both have Web cameras. Often Sarah is focusing hers on the couple's baby daughter.
Ms. TAYLOR: He can watch her and the pride in his face is worth it, I guess, to just let him see her all day. He gets very happy and…
GREENE: Is he online right now? Or is he…
Ms. TAYLOR: He could be, I don't know.
GREENE: Turns out Specialist Taylor was online and on Sarah's screen from his room in Baghdad.
Ms. TAYLOR: He's wearing a white T-shirt, and getting ready for bed and he's…
GREENE: Can you see him sleep if you want to, like if the camera is on him?
Ms. TAYLOR: If he's facing the camera, I can see him, but if he is facing opposite and the blanket is in the way and it just kind of goes bluish. I'll just see blanket.
GREENE: Sarah's determined to be strong. In fact, she made a point of telling me that she doesn't watch her husband on that laptop all day long.
But when he's online, she feels like he is there with her and it helps.
I'm David Greene, NPR News.
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