Auburn's Army recruiting soldiers on as U.S. military presence shrinks

Unemployment in region creates strong enlistment demand
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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AUUBURN CA - Soon to be a soldier in the U.S. Army, Jake Nelson emerged from the North Auburn recruiting center with a smile on his face. For Nelson, enlisting in the Army is now only days away after he successfully completed American River College courses that provided him with 15 credits. That?s what he was told he needed last July, when he initially attempted to sign up but was told that his charter school education didn?t pass muster with recruiters. Nelson said recruiters were helpful but he also came to realize that the Army had been tightening up on its recruiting. The Associated Press has obtained internal documents that show the Army is taking new steps to reduce the size of its active-duty Army by applying tougher standards both for recruits and for soldiers who want to stay in uniform. Nelson, it turns out, was one of the fortunate ones. Nine months after first applying, Nelson said he was about to embark on a military life he first dreamed of when he was 8. ?I?ve wanted to join since I was 8 years old,? Nelson said. ?I always wanted something more with my life, serving a greater purpose and love of country.? Nelson, 22, added that he?s also drawn to military service because of the opportunity to earn money for school and G.I. Bill benefits such as home-loan assistance. ?It will be a nice feeling to finally do what I?ve always wanted to do,? Nelson said. ?But I didn?t think that it would be as difficult as it was.? The Associated Press reported that in a sharp contrast to the peak years of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the Army last year took in no recruits with misconduct convictions or drug or alcohol issues. In 2006, about 20 percent of new Army recruits came in under some type of waiver. The next year it had grown to nearly three in 10, AP reported. With new guidelines in place since 2009, the percentage needing waivers started to come down. And the Army is now planning to shrink its enlisted numbers to 490,000 troops five years from now. At the end of March the Army had 558,000 enlistees ? down from a peak of 570,000. Rod Kise, public affairs chief of the Army?s Sacramento recruiting battalion, said it?s true that bonuses prevalent during higher recruiting years have dropped but education bonuses remain under the G.I. Bill that are more service-specific. And the interest in both recruits and being recruited remains, he said. At the Auburn recruiting center tucked away in the Safeway shopping center near the Bell Road-Highway 49 intersection, a board contains photos of dozens of recruits and lists education benefits of around $50,000 that will be available to many of them. ?Regulations and standards for recruiting have always been in place and haven?t changed,? Kise said. ?But the waiver criteria has changed.? Much like bonuses, waivers and extra money available for recruits shift as demand increases and wanes, he said. ?Before the two conflicts (Iraq and Afghanistan), the nation needed more people in military,? Kise said. ?It?s a cycle. When we?re not in a conflict we need a smaller force and, financially, bonuses aren?t needed.? Kise said the Sacramento area, particularly the economically hard-hit San Joaquin area, is a strong area for recruiting soldiers. ?Unfortunately, that?s due to area?s problems with a high unemployment rate,? he said. The Sacramento battalion area covers a 112,000-square-mile swathe of recruiting territory that takes in Northern California, half of Nevada and Southern Oregon up to Klamath Falls. There are 41 recruiting stations, including Auburn?s. Staff Sgt. Raymond Bouches, at the Auburn station, said the economy is one issue that draws recruits but it seems education and college funding are priorities for Auburn, Foresthill, Colfax and Grass Valley residents looking at the Army. ?And a lot of the boys want the excitement,? Bouches said. ?After living in the woods it?s something they look forward to doing.?