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War, Economy Impact Military Perception of Youth in Charlotte

Marshall Alexander and his buddies from West Charlotte High School showed up at their neighborhood rec center expecting the usual pick-up game of basketball. Instead, they found a gym full of military recruiters handing out key chains. Which, for 16-year-old Marshall, was kind of a bummer. "Yeah, you know, too bad. But hey," said Alexander, with a shrug. Has he ever considered joining the military? "I did, really thought about it, but you know I don't want to go exactly on the war field," he says. A lot of other young men feel like Marshall. They're the lifeblood of the U.S. military, and they're coming of age at a time when enlisting means a good chance at combat. But Dianna Munroe thinks they're missing the point. "I think they see the bad side and the bad side is the war side," says Munroe, who runs activities at the West Charlotte Recreation Center. "They don't realize there's a lot of opportunities in terms of the GI bill, being able to get an education and the military actually pay for it." Munroe helped organize the Military Expo along with Police Officer Kenisha Mobley who patrols the neighborhood. They invited the JROTC to come run some drills in their spiffy uniforms. And they hoped for a bigger crowd than the half a dozen kids who showed. Munroe says they probably overestimated the draw of free Army key chains and a chance to talk with a recruiter. "Yeah, we did have some kids that said, 'Oh I don't want nothing to do with no military. I don't want nothing to do with no police officer,'" says Munroe. "They're not seeing the overall picture, you know, the great benefits being in the military. But Terri Johnson says, "Certainly you don't have to go into the military to get money for college." Johnson is 20 now. But when she graduated from high school in Greensboro a few years ago, she did precisely what Munroe is suggesting. She saw the military as a means to an education. "I went into the military to get the money for college, that's it," says Johnson, firmly. "I didn't want to kill, be killed. I didn't want to die for anybody. I didn't want to do any of that." She says an army recruiter promised she wouldn't be deployed until after she graduated from college. When she found out that wasn't the case, she went AWOL from basic training and now works with the anti-war American Friends Service Committee. Johnson balks at the idea of a county-run rec center introducing young people to the military. But 16-year old Marshall Alexander's mother Montina Bardlavens, has no problem with it. He may see the military as a back-up plan, but not his mother. "That would be my first choice, is to encourage him to get involved with the military," says Bardlavens. Though she admits that thought of Marshall going into combat gives her pause. However, she's a single mother in West Charlotte, and she doesn't see many other options for him. "Most of the education level of the kids over there are not high," says Bardlavens. "I just think that he's moving a little too fast with his friends." Army Recruiter Sergeant Michael Mitchell feels like there's too much of that mindset going around. And says he doesn't waste time with prospects who aren't qualified, though the army has lowered some of its standards in recent years. "We're not a rehabilitation organization," says Sergeant Mitchell. "You know, we want qualified people to join the United States army. You know, because you want to look to your front to your back to your left to your right and know there's somebody whose gonna take care of you as well as you're gonna take care of them." Military recruiters in Charlotte, and across the nation, routinely exceed the goals set by the Department of Defense. However, those goals are often lowered to be more attainable at a time when kids wonder why they should sign up if it means possibly dying young. Still, Sergeant Mitchell says he prefers to be brutally honest, telling all of his potential recruits there's a very good chance they will end up in Iraq or Afghanistan. "So you know, I got a fully motivated, fully capable individual ready to serve the country." And so far, Mitchell says there are still young men looking for a chance to fight. But there's something else going on right now that might be helping the military's recruitment effort. 27-year old Drew Farnie invited Sergeant Mitchell over to his townhouse in the University area after he lost his job in construction engineering. "I've thought about military for a while but everything was always so good, it's like 'When am I gonna leave?'" says Farne. Sergeant Mitchell says he's having this kind of discussion more and more. He's even had calls from Charlotte bank employees facing layoffs and considering the Army as a back-up plan. It's too soon to tell, but with jobs and student loans tight, the lagging economy may prove a powerful enticement for young people to join the military. Even if it means going to war.