When it comes to joining the military, Miami and big cities are no match for small towns

If Miami had the same rate of military participation as the top-ranked town in the United States, 28,879 of the city’s 17- to 24-year-olds would have enlisted over the last five fiscal years.

Instead, 2,599 did.

Finding ways to attract more young people to consider military service is one of the mandates of the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service. Many of America’s largest cities are underrepresented, and the regions of the U.S. where recruits come from have become even more concentrated in recent years, the commission found.

“Forty-five years ago, about half of enlisted recruits came from the American South and West; today, that number is nearly 70 percent,” the commission said in its initial report, which is still open for public comment.

Those findings are mirrored in the Defense Department’s fiscal year 2018 ranking of the top 25 communities from which young people join the military. The data showed that the majority of the communities were in the South.

At the No. 1 spot was Hope Mills, N.C. Like most of the other top 25 towns, Hope Mills is near a major military base. Its high schools have well-developed Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) programs as part of their curriculum, and recruiters are welcome on campus. Like almost all of the other top 25 towns, Hope Mills had fewer than 4,000 residents age 17 to 24.

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The Pentagon’s Defense Manpower Data Center calculated the top 25 by creating an index that ranked the communities based on the number of 17- to 24-year-olds who joined the military over the last five fiscal years from that town compared to the number of residents in that age range. The Pentagon used population data from Woods and Poole Economics, Inc., an independent firm that specializes in long-term economic and demographic data.

In a second index, the Pentagon ranked cities solely on the total number of recruits who have joined the military over the last five fiscal years, an approach that favored large cities, but also showed that many of those cities are underrepresented in the armed forces.

In that index, Miami was No. 11. But its level of participation in the military was not proportional to its population, based on the data.

The larger cities may have lower rates of participation because there are other industries that provide job opportunities, JROTC high school students from the no. 7 ranked town, Copperas Cove, Texas, said.

But the small towns also often have other job opportunities, and yet a large number of young residents still choose the military, said Mark Waller, a county board commissioner who represents Peyton, Colo. Peyton was the No. 1 town in the Defense Department’s fiscal year 2017 rankings.

“There are plenty of opportunities for people to find jobs here. I actually think it’s a strong sense of patriotism,” Waller said. With five major bases nearby, military service is “part of their everyday lives here.”

The Defense Department said both top 25 lists included only communities with populations of at least 1,000 residents between the ages of 17 and 24. Overall, it recruits in 4,940 towns and cities that match that criteria.

The data was obtained exclusively by McClatchy and comes as the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service seeks public comment on how to expand the number of communities that encourage military service across the country.

“It’s the same families in the same communities that are providing young people for new generations of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines,” said commissioner Tom Kilgannon.

The repeated reliance on the same communities generation after generation also plays into a larger “divide that we’re seeing in our country,” said Debra Wada, another member of the national commission looking at military service. “So yes, it’s very important that we encourage and have representation from across America.”

While trying to expand the number of communities from which it successfully recruits, the military is also faced with a population that has fewer young men and women eligible to serve. In 2017 the Pentagon reported that 71 percent of young Americans would not meet military recruiting standards due to weight or physical fitness, behavioral issues or an inability to pass the military’s competency exam, the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB).

Florida is home to many major Air Force and Navy bases and its top-ranked towns by ratio of enlistment were located near them. On the Pentagon’s index were No. 4 Navarre and No. 6 Crestview, by Eglin Air Force Base, and No. 12 Merritt Island near Patrick Air Force Base.

On the large cities list, Jacksonville, home to several Navy installations, was No. 4 and Orlando was No. 12. Tampa, home to MacDill Air Force Base, was No. 19 and Fort Lauderdale was No. 20.

“What it really goes back to is that the issue of awareness and exposure for youth and their propensity to serve in the military,” Kilgannon said.

He said the commission is considering increasing the Defense Department’s outreach into communities that have not traditionally been recruiting strongholds, and increasing access to practice ASVAB tests to help students prepare.

Part of that is addressing physical fitness. At Copperas Cove High School in Texas, JROTC instructor retired Army Chief Warrant Officer Enrique Herrera had a 40-foot repelling tower erected on campus and began weekly physical drills of the school’s cadets to make sure they could meet the Army’s standards. In the 2019 graduating class, one-half of his JROTC cadets are headed into the military.

While the education benefits are an attractive incentive to sign up, he makes sure the students are also considering the sacrifice.

“I always tell my kids -- and this is one thing I really stress -- if you are going to join the military, and you are joining for any other reason -- I don’t care what the recruiter tells you -- but if you are joining for any other reason than the defense of your country then you are joining for the wrong reason,” Herrera said. “In your heart, if you are not doing it for the right reasons you are going to be miserable.”

Larry Korb, a senior defense fellow at the Center for American Progress, said the disconnect between which U.S. geographic areas are more likely to join the military started with Vietnam, and became more pronounced in the years that followed, as the U.S. military struggled to transition to an all-volunteer force. The same rural and small town communities that served in Vietnam became the ones the Pentagon relied on to fill the ranks postwar.

“I do remember from my own days from active duty I think I was the only person from New York,” said Korb, who served in the Navy and was President Ronald Reagan’s assistant secretary of defense for manpower.

That hasn’t changed, Korb said. In these military communities, “it’s their children and grandchildren serving.”

Korb, currently a co-chairman at the National Military Family Association, sees the divide still. “Where are the families from mostly? They are not in Los Angeles,” he said.

In the last five years, while Los Angeles has a population of 224,937 in the 17 to 24 age group, only 2,700 of them enlisted, according to the Pentagon data. Los Angeles was No. 8 on the large cities list.

In communities that are not near a military base, such as Sacramento, Calif., connecting with students on their high school campuses, and with their high school principals, is critical, said Navy recruiter Machinery Repairman 2nd Class Matthew Schneider.

“Sacramento is definitely not one of those high military areas,” Schneider said. So on campus, he’ll start telling his Navy story about the technical training he received and the paychecks that came with it.

Students will stop and ask him questions. “That’s the main thing we’re trying to get. We’re trying to get the questions to be asked, you know, ‘What can the Navy offer me?’” Schneider said.

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Tara Copp is the national military and veterans affairs correspondent for McClatchy. She has reported extensively through the Middle East, Asia and Europe to cover defense policy and its impact on the lives of service members. She was previously the Pentagon bureau chief for Military Times and a senior defense analyst for the U.S. Government Accountability Office. She is the author of the award-winning book “The Warbird: Three Heroes. Two Wars. One Story.”