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Why Do They Volunteer?

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

Enlistment and retention bonuses, educational benefits and other incentives are invaluable recruiting tools, but Army officials say old-fashioned patriotism is just as big a motivator in attracting soldiers to the force and encouraging them to stay.

"There are a lot of patriots out there," said Maj. Gen. Thomas P. Bostick, commander of U.S. Army Recruiting Command, said in September during a media roundtable at the Pentagon.

Despite low unemployment rates and a near-guarantee that they'll eventually deploy into combat, young men and women continue to hold up their right hands and volunteer to serve in the Army, he said. "They want to do something that is bigger than themselves -- something for their nation that they can be proud of."

Many recognize they could make more money in the private sector, he said, but join the military seeking discipline, leadership skills and the opportunity to serve their country. Nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than in the Army's sky-high retention rates, particularly among troops who have served in combat.

Army Brig. Gen. Michael T. Harrison, the 10th Mountain Division's deputy commanding general for support, told reporters that he's seen it firsthand among division members who have served in Afghanistan and in Iraq. By the end of July, the Fort Drum, N.Y., division already had met its retention goals for the fiscal year.

"In every category -- we are talking initial-term soldiers, mid-term soldiers and career soldiers -- we have exceeded our objective by more than 100 percent," Harrison said.

The Army Reserve has had similar success, exceeding its retention goals for first-termers by 55 percent with two months left in the fiscal year, Command Sgt. Maj. Leon Caffie, the Army Reserve's top noncommissioned officer, told American Forces Press Service. Retention rates for career soldiers also topped year-end goals.

"That's remarkable," Caffie said, citing equally impressive statistics among troops who have deployed to combat.

"If you look at the stats for soldiers who have been deployed in the Army Reserve, those retention rates are astronomical as well," he said. "We have done a remarkable job of retaining soldiers with combat experience, who have deployed into either Afghanistan or Iraq."

"In many cases, they stay because they are proud of the Army," Bostick said of troops both in the active and reserve components. "They feel like they are in the greatest Army on the face of the earth, with wonderful equipment, the best training, the best leadership."

Harrison agreed that being part of "a great institution" makes soldiers want to continue serving. But it goes beyond that, he said, to the relationships built and the personal gratification of service. "It is a sense of teamwork, a sense of wanting to be part of something honorable," he said. "We see that every single day. We have a bunch of proud soldiers here."

Like their active-duty counterparts, many Army Reservists re-up because they believe they're making a contribution of their country and the freedoms it guarantees its citizens, Caffie said.

"The freedom that one has in this country is unparalleled to anything else in the world. That's the reason a lot of these soldiers continue to serve today -- because they figure that one must be willing to pay to be free," he said. "They're great American patriots."

The leaders agreed that soldiers welcome retention bonuses, but don't base their decisions about service on them.

"Bonuses are not enough to make up for the challenges and demands that these soldiers and families face," Bostick said. Especially for troops who re-enlist in Iraq, "there is no amount of money that you can pay to someone that believes they are in a bad organization and in harm's way to the point where they feel their life is threatened," he said.

"This is a tough business. It's dangerous, and they realize it," Bostick said. "We pay bonuses to help encourage them to make a decision that they probably would make regardless."

At Fort Drum, Harrison said many soldiers re-enlist "without much consideration to a bonus."

"They will tell you it's important to remain part of a team that is doing something vital for this nation," he said. "And they are pretty proud of that."