A receding wave of enlistmentsby Mark Zdechlik, Minnesota Public Radio
Following the 9-11 terrorist attacks, patriotism surged in the United States. So too did interest in serving in the U.S. military. Many new recruits enlisted to help fight the unfolding war on terrorism. Five years later the Department of Defense is struggling to meet recruiting goals, especially for its largest branch -- the Army. And some soldiers are questioning whether the focal point of the war -- Iraq -- is worth the sacrifice.
St. Paul, Minn. — Speaking from Fort Hood in Texas Army specialist Charley Maib, who grew up in Eagan, recollects what was going through his mind the morning of the 9-11 attacks.
"You know what I was seeing, it immediately occurred to me that the odds were, even though I hadn't enlisted, that was going to end up going to war, because it was an act of war that I was seeing and that really frightened me," Maib said.
Now counting the days until his second tour of duty in Iraq, Maib says he's not surprised Army recruiters are having a tough time.
Four years ago, Maib says, he was hawkish about the looming U.S. invasion of Iraq. He led the Inver Hills Community College Republicans and volunteered for Norm Coleman's Senate campaign. He joined the military in October 2002.
"I got to thinking that it really wasn't fair for me to tell these college-age kids and to tell folks that their sons and daughters should go to war; it was OK for them to die and put themselves at great risk and not do that myself," Maib said. "I really felt I needed to put my money where my mouth was."
Maib says he's found the U.S. efforts in Iraq to be a costly humanitarian mission much more than a war on terrorism. And he's concluded the effort is not worth the lives of American soldiers.
"What we are doing in Iraq is good for the Iraqi people," Maib said. "They are poor, impoverished people and it is good to help those people. Is it worth the lives of young Americans? Because let's face it: that's who's out there on the front lives; your young guys. Is it worth their lives to make sure that some Iraqi kids have backpacks, or that they're able to eat OK or that they have clean water? We aren't out there every day routing out terrorists. When they rear their head, we take care of them, but on a daily basis we're not fighting a war on terror. We're rebuilding schools. We're rebuilding water plants. We are taking food to people. And that's not war."
Nonetheless, Maib says he does not regret joining the military. He says he's learned a lot in the Army. However, he says had he known what he knows now, he would not have stepped out of civilian life to join the war on terrorism.
"I am flabbergasted when I heard the president say the other day that he never said that Iraq has a connection to 9-11 and on ever insinuated that they had a connection to al Qaida when I distinctly remember that being said," Maib explained. "If we knew at the time that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction, was not training al Qaida soldiers then no, I wouldn't have seen any reason to invade Iraq."
Maib will be back on the ground in Iraq in October. That's the same time that Tyler Bendel will be heading home to Minnesota after a year in the war zone.
It was three years ago that Tyler Bendel, now 21-years-old, decided join the Army Reserve. Speaking from a military base in southern Iraq, Bendel says he wanted to help battle terrorism.
"I was just thinking to myself that I just wanted to do whatever means possible to help my country," Bendel said. "I know that they needed more people and stuff like that."
At the time Bendel was a Pizza Hut manager in Cottage Grove.
"I took a little vacation to go to my brother's basic training and from there I got back ... I told my boss that I am going to join the military and he really didn't have anything to say about it and from there pretty much just led me to where I am at now," recalled Bendel.
Bendel has been in Iraq for nearly 11 months.
"My job in the military is to fix weapons and being the only person that fixes weapons at my base, I kind of feel like I helped out for what I can.
Bendel says he doesn't regret his decision to enlist. He's sure the work he's doing is making fellow U.S. troops safer.
"What did I do today? I helped a Marine who wanted his shotgun fixed and we had a couple more people on convoys that I had to fix some 50-cals. A 50-cal is a machine gun," said Bendel.
Bendel's twin brother Ryan -- the first to enlist -- has yet to be called up for Iraq duty.
For Dawn Koosmann, her sons' decisions to become soldiers have inextricably linked the family to world affairs.
Koosmann says she and other military families are compelled to pay close attention to the news because current events could dictate her sons' future. She sees a division in America between those with direct military ties and what she refers to as "everyday life" people. Five years after the terrorist attacks, it is not business-as-usual for military families.
"It is kind of amazing and some people don't even want to talk about it," Koosmann says. "It's just not a main thing in their lives and it does change a lot of things for us as families of soldiers as far as our ideas of how we are living right now and what our future is going to be."
This rise in enlistments has given way to the reality of post 9-11 military life; long deployments to dangerous places. That's cut into what had been an increase in interest in serving in the armed forces following the attacks.
"It was significant, but it wasn't durable," says William Carr, a deputy undersecretary at the Department of Defense who's in charge of staffing the armed forces.
"It did last for a number of months and it was extremely helpful to the military, but it wouldn't be accurate for me to say that it then continued on without change," Carr says. "It did begin to return to normal levels within about a year."
In fact, in the third year following the attacks, the Army missed its recruiting goal.
The military's 2007 fiscal year starts October 1. Carr says officials like to go into the new year with 25 percent of the new recruiting goal already met. This year they'll start with less than half that.
At this year's State Fair, just like years previous, Minnesota Army National Guard recruiters were on the lookout for potential soldiers.
Chatting up an inquisitive 15-year-old boy, Staff Sgt. Ronald Stenger explained why the American flag on his uniform was pointed backwards.
"Colors don't run, so at a time of action we're putting the blue forward," Stenger said.
The Minnesota Guard leads the nation in recruiters. Still for Stenger and other recruiters, luring in soldiers is increasingly difficult.
"I think it's a tougher sell due to the deployments that are going on but at the same time people do realize that we still do need soldiers. We still need the citizen soldier," said Stenger.
Back in Iraq, Tyler Bendel says he thinks the U.S. is helping Iraqis, but he acknowledges the troops want out and hope the Iraqis themselves will soon be able to take over responsibility for their nation's security.
"I'm just ready to get out of here," said Bendel.
The relief of having Tyler back could very well give way to future deployments for both of her sons.
"You know we're looking at North Korea and we're looking at the things that are going on in the Middle East and I think there's a lot of issues that are going on that can still request my sons' service and that kind of puts you, uneasy," Dawn Koosmann says.
For now Iraq remains the centerpiece of the Bush administration's war on terrorism. Koosmann says she stands behind the military's efforts but thinks the mission in Iraq now has more to do with fixing the country than combating terrorism.
- Morning Edition, 09/11/2006, 7:20 a.m.