The roughly 175 seniors who graduated from Beddingfield High School in Wilson this month are preparing to start college or enter the workforce. And at least 15 of them will go to military basic training this summer.
Recruiters across the country are struggling to convince young people to join the armed forces. But the Army recruiting battalion that covers 80 percent of North Carolina says it is leading the nation in new recruits, a testament to the state’s strong military ties and an increase in Hispanics choosing to enlist.
The number of Hispanic recruits in the Army’s Raleigh Recruiting Battalion grew 66 percent from 2014 to 2017. That drastically outpaced the 8 percent growth rate of North Carolina's Hispanic population for ages 18 to 24 during much of that period.
At Beddingfield High in Wilson, roughly 50 miles east of Raleigh, most of the recent graduates who have enlisted are minorities. They say they want to serve their country – and they see the military as a path to success, especially if they can’t afford college tuition.
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“Everything I have now is because I was born here,” said Adolfo Moran-Garcia, 18, a first-generation American and Army recruit. His parents emigrated from Mexico before he was born.
“Some people are scared of the military,” he said. “I wanted to do something for myself and for this country. I want to give back.”
As the U.S. population has become more diverse, so too has the Army. In 1997, Hispanics made up 10 percent of active-duty Army personnel. In 2016, they made up 16 percent, which was comparable to the the civilian population of Hispanics ages 18 to 44, according to the Department of Defense and U.S. Census Bureau.
Hispanics in North Carolina and elsewhere are enlisting as the country engages in renewed debates about immigration. President Donald Trump says he wants a wall to separate the United States’ southern border from Mexico to prevent people from entering illegally.
Crystal Avellaneda Robles, a first-generation American and a recent Beddingfield High graduate, says she is joining the Army in part because she understands the benefits of being a U.S. citizen. Her sister is a “dreamer” who was brought to the country illegally, and the future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals is unclear.
“Some people don’t have the same privileges I do,” Robles said. “It’s easier for us who have that advantage. I want to give back to this country. It’s something that a lot of people want, but not everyone can have.”
‘You have the choice’
Half of the children in America know little to nothing about the military, according to the Department of Defense, and young people who know a veteran are more likely to enlist in the armed forces.
Almost 80 percent of recruits have a relative who served in the Army, making it more and more a “family business,” said Barton Hutchinson, chief of advertising and public affairs for the Raleigh Recruiting Battalion.
North Carolina has long enjoyed a strong military tradition. Fort Bragg, home of the 82nd Airborne Division, has more than 50,000 active-duty Army personnel, and Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville trains Marines.
“Given the military’s sizable presence in North Carolina, the pool of people with those connections and that understanding is quite large,” said Peter Feaver, a political science professor at Duke University who served on the National Security Council staff at the White House from 2005 to 2007. “That probably explains the recruiting success.”
The Raleigh battalion spans most of the state, from west of Hickory to the Outer Banks. It includes cities such as Raleigh and Charlotte, as well as large swaths of rural areas.
Wilson, home to roughly 50,000 people, is known for Barton College and the popular Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park, 2 acres of art installations made of everyday items in the city’s historic downtown.
Eighteen percent of people in Wilson County have a college degree, according to the 2016 U.S. Census, and 22.3 percent live in poverty. Statewide, 29 percent of people are college graduates, and 15.4 percent live in poverty.
Many Wilson residents work in manufacturing or retail, and the Beddingfield High recruits say some graduates end up selling drugs or staying with their parents.
“My family doesn’t have the money to do almost anything else, so if I didn’t go into the job force, if I didn’t want to go work at McDonald’s, I needed to find something else, which is military,” Moran-Garcia said. “I’m going to be the second out of my family to graduate high school. I wanted to do something different and show my family you have the choice.”
The popular JROTC program at Beddingfield High had 101 members this school year. Twenty-six were seniors, and at least 15 of those have enlisted in the military – mostly the Army.
“It’s attractive to someone who has aspirations to do something bigger than Wilson, bigger than North Carolina, bigger than what they see,” said Sgt. Walter Singletary, who leads the program. “We aren’t recruiters, and mostly we teach them things they can use in life.”
Many of the Beddingfield High recruits don’t have the means to pay for college, said Sgt. 1st Class Tyshawn Phillips, who works as an Army recruiter in Wilson. The idea of being able to send money home to help their families while receiving job training and earning a degree can be appealing.
The Army spent $162 million on college tuition assistance for soldiers this year.
The Raleigh Recruiting Battalion has also seen an increase in the number of white and African-American recruits.
The number of white recruits grew 16 percent from 2014 to 2017, and African-American recruits grew 9 percent.
Those figured outpaced the growth rate of the overall population during that period: The number of whites ages 18 to 24 increased 3.6 percent, and the number of blacks in that age group increased 4 percent.
Nationally, blacks made up 17 percent of all active-duty service members in 2016, more than their 14 percent share of the comparable population. Hispanics made up 15 percent of the active-duty military, below their 20 percent share of the comparable population.
After years of curbing back its numbers, the Army set an ambitious recruitment goal for 2018 – 80,000 new soldiers. The goal was lowered after only 28,000 signed up in the first half of the recruiting year.
A strong economy, low unemployment rates and high enlistment standards are factors leading to fewer recruits.
But the Raleigh Recruiting Battalion is more than two-thirds of the way to its year-end recruitment goal, leading the country in meeting its benchmarks for most of the first six months. So far, more than 2,270 recruits have signed up for the Army or Army Reserve.
The military provides a firm foothold for young people who may otherwise lack direction, said Staff Sgt. James McCollum with the Raleigh Recruiting Battalion. McCollum and others have worked with students to help prepare them for the Army.
“There are four things people need: purpose, guidance, direction and motivation,” McCollum said. “I believe that each of these recruits has had individual adversities, and I think that for them, joining the Army gives them a purpose and allows them the opportunity to have a goal.
“Then it gives them a step ahead so they can reach those goals.”
A strong love of country is an undeniable draw for students of immigrant families, according to the future soldiers of Beddingfield High.
“We want to give back to this country,” said Robles, who is joining the Army. “I know a lot of people don’t want to do it, but someone has to. If it weren’t for those people, who would protect us?"