Culture of Class
7:00 am
Wed November 16, 2011

Military service and the upwardly mobile

The country has been at war for the last decade, but less than one percent of the U.S. population has been on active military duty in that time.

That’s a stark difference from World War II, when just about everyone had a relative serving overseas.

As part of our series on socioeconomic class, we wanted to find out who joins the military these days and why. And we wanted to know whether their service to our country can help them get ahead in life.

Who joins? The Army's perspective

When I talked with the staff at the Army recruiting office in Lansing, they were adamant that people do not join the military because they’re down on their luck.

Staff Sergeant Vic Anthony Sasota is a recruiter for the Army.

 “I know there is that myth out there, that stigma, that the people who join the military…are from the lower classes, that it’s a last resort, but it’s definitely not,” said Sasota. “We have an array of different soldiers from different classes. Each person has a different story a different background from where they came.”

Sasota has been in the Army for eight years. He said his family gave him everything he needed from a financial standpoint and from a love standpoint, but he still decided to join up. He said wanted to serve. He wanted to give back.

The decision to join for a lot of the soldiers I talked to was based on a sense of duty, and a desire to serve their country, especially after 9/11.

Tom Philpott has been writing about military personnel issues for more than 30 years.

Philpott says patriotism goes a long way in explaining why people join, but pay and benefits are part of the conversation too.

"Parents all over the country who have a child interested in serving the military…I imagine a lot of the argument in the family is the package of benefits that they would receive."

The GI Bill after WWII was credited with helping to build the middle class in America.

Philpott says today’s Post-9/11 GI Bill is as good as the GI Bill of World War II. In some cases, it will pay for full-tuition and expenses at an Ivy League School. In addition to the GI Bill, there are other benefits, such as pay bonuses, health benefits, home loans, and various tax credits and incentives.

All these things are designed to attract quality recruits to the all-volunteer military.

Joining the Coast Guard

Trevor Schewe’s family is pretty typical for an average military recruit.

They own a farm outside of South Haven, Michigan, and Schewe describes his family as blue collar and middle to low income.

Schewe graduated in 2004 from Michigan State University with a degree in criminal justice, and around $30,000 to $40,000 in college loans to pay back. (Schewe was the first in his family to go to college.)

He searched at home and around the country, but he couldn’t find a good paying job.

So he started thinking about joining the military.

His Dad had been in the Army, and his brother was in the Air Force (family history in the military is another common trait for recruits). After looking at all the options, Schewe decided to enlist in the Coast Guard in 2005.

“A lot of it was just for the financial stability of it,” Schewe said. “You know, knowing you’re going to getting this amount of money, and that’s not going to go down. Your job is not going to go away. Your hours aren’t going to go away. That’s what it is. It’s going to be there on the first and fifteenth every month.”

Coming home to a recession

He was stationed in Clearwater, Florida, but after a while, life in the military started getting to him.

He began having panic attacks, and had trouble with alcohol. After 2 and half years of trying to make it work, he decided he’d had enough.

He came back home in 2008 and managed to find some work, but nothing lasted.

“The hardest thing for me is the lack of an ability to find a good job. To find something that will stick. I just never thought that would be a problem,” Schewe said. “And you know, moving back with your parents when you’re thirty years old; it’s sobering. It’s tough to do.”

He’s still looking for work, and he recently looked into getting food stamps to help him get by. Something, he says, he has never had to do before.

Schewe says, in his personal experience, his military background has not helped in his job searches.

In Michigan, the unemployment rate for veterans stood at 13.1 percent this past September, and that rate is higher for Post-9/11 veterans.

Using experiences to get ahead

A recent Pew Research study looked at what life is like when Post-9/11 veterans return home.

When they asked whether their experience in the military will help them get ahead in life, 3 out of 4 of them said yes (76% combat veterans, 71% non-combat veterans).

At this point, Trever Schewe is not thinking about getting ahead.

He just wants some stability in life. He’s planning on becoming a certified welder.

Vocational and technical education is new benefit of the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Because of Schewe’s service, the GI Bill will cover up to 90% of his costs. That’s something that makes Schewe feel lucky. He says he can use his benefits to start over again.

*Note - the U.S. Senate passed a bill last week that would give companies thousands of dollars in tax credits for hiring veterans. The House is expected to vote on that bill today. It was part of President Obama's jobs bill.

*This story was informed by the Public Insight Network

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