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THE NATION | COLUMN ONE

Joining Up to Dodge a Dead End

With no hope of a good job or money for college, many heartland teens are enlisting in the military in search of economic security.

June 08, 2005|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

GLENWOOD, Iowa — Lucas Tvrdy was about to enter high school when his mother, Patty, sat down with his older sister, Jessie, and had the talk.

It was painfully simple, Patty recalled: We don't have the money to send you to college. There were no apologies, no tears. Only resignation.

Like most families in this town 30 minutes southeast of Omaha, the Tvrdys aren't poor -- but there is no room in their budget for tuition. Patty works as an administrative secretary for a small city health department; her husband, Randy, worked for himself for many years and only recently has enjoyed a steady paycheck for hauling pet food across Nebraska.

"There were many, many years we raised a family of four on $7 an hour," Patty said. "Even now, we make enough to pay the mortgage and our bills. That's about it."

Jessie, unwilling to take on thousands of dollars in college loans, decided to join the Navy. When she graduated from Glenwood Community High School in 2002, she gave Lucas her senior photograph and this advice: "When it's time, follow me."

Three years later, Lucas is doing just that. The 5-foot-11 teenager, who weighs 110 pounds when wearing combat boots, hopes to learn how to work on ship engines. Or maybe try out for the SEALs.

"It's our way of life," said Lucas, 18. "I could be sent to Iraq. I could die in Iraq. But I'd die a man with good life insurance, so my family would be taken care of."

As the conflict in Iraq heads toward a third year, military recruiters across the country are falling short in their efforts to fill the ranks. But those in struggling heartland towns like Glenwood are making their numbers.

Different reasons draw the teenagers into service: pride in following a family tradition, a sense of honor in defending their country, an overwhelming need to find a focus for their future. In the end, the primary draw tends to be economic security.

Even if they don't agree with the war, financial worries outweigh political opinions. And that has helped recruiters here enormously.

National Guard officials say they are surpassing their recruitment goals in Iowa, although recruits know they are likely to be sent to the Middle East. The Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps say they are meeting their goals. The Army has fallen short, but recruitment numbers have steadily risen each month since May 2004, said Army Lt. Col. Marisa A. Tanner, commander for the Des Moines Recruiting Battalion.

Although their job continues to be difficult, recruiters said, they are having unexpected success in other rural regions in the Midwest and in parts of the South. They cite a sluggish economy coupled with long-standing town traditions of serving in the military.

Glenwood High's Class of 2005 graduated Memorial Day weekend. Nine of its 140 seniors are headed to basic training. Some left almost immediately, while others will be gone by the end of this year.

All but one were minors when they enlisted; their parents had to sign waivers. Two are still 17.

Andy Lentz joined the Marines. Kent Herrman, Ron Rosenburg and Dan Greenwood signed up with the Army. Lucas Tvrdy, Chris Corbett, Wyatt Flint, Loleta Ashburn and Amanda Cerra are Navy-bound.

Lucas expects to leave Glenwood in December. By then, two of his closest friends will be gone.

Kent Herrman, 19, heads out today. Known at school as the tough kid with a quick wit and a quicker temper, he hopes his experience as a wrestler has conditioned his body to withstand the grueling training.

Chris Corbett, 18, will be gone by July 11. Described by teachers as sweetly naive, Chris stood less than 5 feet tall for most of his life until a recent growth spurt stretched his slender frame 6 more inches.

"I've had people tell me they think we're dumb to be doing this -- that we're dumb to go off to war," Kent said. "I think they're dumb not to want to."

Their dreams seem modest. Lucas wants to attend an automotive technical school and open a custom motorcycle shop. Chris hopes to attend cooking school and become a chef. Kent longs to get a university degree and become a police officer.

These are heady goals in a town where 9% of adults have a bachelor's degree and the median household income is $39,682 a year, according to the most recent census. In comparison, the median income for Omaha -- where many local residents go to find work -- is $44,981.

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The American Legion post takes up more than a quarter of a block on the town square. Its annual Ham and Bean Feed is a big event. Most storefronts on the square -- from the Farm Bureau to the grocery store -- have American flags in the windows.

With a population of 5,400, Glenwood is the largest town in rural Mills County, which takes its name from a young officer who died during the Mexican-American War.

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