It started with a pamphlet.
In his sophomore year at Seneca High School, his future still uncertain, Hunter Pepper picked up an informational brochure touting the U.S. Marine Corps. It stirred something in the high school wrestler—a desire to join a culture of excellence and extend a family tradition stretching back decades to his grandfather’s service in the Navy.
“It just started with the idea of wanting to be a part of something bigger than myself,” says the 18-year-old Tabernacle resident.
Now a Seneca graduate, Pepper is eagerly awaiting the start of his military career. He dreams of joining the Force Reconnaissance Company or Special Forces, while completing a degree in criminal justice. But for now, Pepper says, he can’t wait for the Marines to help him improve on everything from self-confidence to physical fitness.
And he’s not alone in that sentiment. Hundreds of other young men and women from the area are joining the military right out of high school. They are part of a surge of applicants, both locally and nationally, that are seeking to participate in military service.
“There’s definitely a lot of interest right now, based on the economy,” says Petty Officer Randall Damm, a Navy recruiter who covers Camden and Gloucester counties. “Any time the economy is bad, people look to join the services.”
As New Jersey’s unemployment rate hovers stubbornly above 9 percent, the state’s military recruiters have been having a banner year. After all, a 1 percent increase in unemployment tends to result in a 0.6 percent boost in Army recruitment, according to Army records. And, high unemployment especially affects young candidates coming out of school, who must decide between finding a job, applying to college or joining the armed forces. So far this year, all four active service branches have met or surpassed their total recruitment goals.
Moreover, they’re becoming increasingly discerning in the quality of candidates they accept—a significant change from the peak of the war in Iraq, when the Army was missing its recruiting goals month after month, by as much as 40 percent. In 2010, 98.6 percent of military recruits from New Jersey had high school diplomas—the highest number in the nation. And, even those with higher education are contemplating joining up. Nationally, the number of college graduates entering the military increased by 17 percent from 2008 to 2009.
Tech. Sgt. Walter A. Campbell, a Haddonfield-based Air Force recruiter, espouses what he calls “the whole person concept.” He looks for recruits that meet a broad range of criteria, rather than focusing on education levels alone.
“Just because you have a college degree,” says Campbell, a 17-year serviceman, “it doesn’t necessarily put you at an advantage over a high school graduate.” That’s a refreshing change for South Jersey’s new high school graduates, otherwise faced with a brutal job market. While passing the entrance test and medical exam is paramount for all of the military branches, displaying a serious commitment to service is almost as important, Campbell says.
Although interest in joining up has increased, recruiters say their jobs haven’t gotten any easier.
“Unfortunately, a lot of those [extra] candidates don’t quite fit the bill,” says Staff Sgt. Robert Maratta, a Marine recruiter based out of Marlton. “I have to make sure the kids aren’t doing it for the wrong reasons. Just the economy alone—I don’t think that’s a good enough reason to explore the Marine Corps.”
Not all enlistees are impulsive, however. Haddon Township resident Brian Jurek didn’t make his decision lightly.
“It’s what I wanted to do my whole life,” Jurek says, sitting in the Haddonfield Air Force recruiting office. His father, Steve, served in the Air Force for 20 years, and Jurek’s friends and family have supported his decision.
“Most people are actually really glad for me,” says the 17-year-old. He hopes to begin in the Air Force Security Forces, which encompasses the military police and base security services.
For others, the decision isn’t quite so simple. Joining the military wasn’t a lifelong goal for Rebecca Freedman, 17. But after seeing friends join, the notion of doing something challenging and different appealed to her.
“I wanted to do something that I had to work for and be proud of, rather than just get good grades,” says Freedman, a rising senior at Williamstown High School. She hopes to become a comptroller with the Air Force during her initial six-year contract.
While young recruits expect the military to improve their discipline and help them grow, not everyone is ready to join out of high school. Brandon Hallenbeck, 23, also of Williamstown, says he was interested in the Navy while still in high school but didn’t sign on until just this year.
“I’m very grateful I didn’t join right out of the gate,” says Hallenbeck, who spent the years since high school working and taking classes at Burlington County College. “I think about being an 18- or 19-year old kid going into the military, and everything being very overwhelming. I don’t know if I would have been able to handle the stress.”
In the past, however, some recruiters have been maligned for allegedly giving the hard sell to malleable young minds. Maratta, like other recruiters, says he shuns such aggressive tactics. Instead, he likens his role to that of a guidance counselor. “I’m not a salesman,” he says. “I’m a Marine.”
When it comes to young recruits—especially those who are uncertain about enlisting—Campbell looks to keep their parents involved. “What I try to do is bring their families in here, and let them hear the same thing I’m telling the recruit,” he says. “This way, there are no misconceptions.”
The goal is that recruits will buy in completely and be at peace with their decision. For many recruits, that’s a step they’ve already reached. Says Pepper about his decision to join the Marines: “I was just really determined to do it.”
Expanding Roles for Women
Lt. Col. Jill Nitz admits the military was “the furthest thing from my mind” when she was going to college for nursing. But a talk by the campus Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) about scholarship opportunities spurred her to enlist with the Army. She found that the training appealed to her athletic disposition as a competitive swimmer, while the leadership opportunities fit her personality. Nitz became an active duty nurse in 1984—and since then, times have changed. “The biggest thing I’ve seen,” says Nitz, the officer in charge of the Rowan University ROTC program, “is the doors opening to many professions for females.”
While women currently make up less than 15 percent of active duty soldiers in the military, “there has been an increase, in certainly the last 15 years, of women joining the military,” says Beth Asch, a senior economist with the Rand Corp. specializing in defense manpower. And that increase has occurred across all four branches of active service.
The changing role of women in the military has certainly been felt locally; the most prominent example is that of Brig. Gen. Gina M. Grosso, who is the Joint Base and 87th Air Base Wing commander at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in Burlington County.
But there is still progress to be made. “I would argue that women have a very different career in the military,” says Asch, pointing out that they are less likely than men to stay in the service.
A current hot topic in military circles is the rule that women cannot serve in combat roles on the frontlines, (though they can serve in combat support roles). Rebecca Freedman, a 17-year-old Air Force recruit form Williamstown, thinks that policy should be eliminated. Even so, she says, she sees her future in the military as filled with possibilities. “Just about every option felt open to me,” she says.
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 5 (August, 2011).
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