If you’re looking for Michael March, he’s probably in the basement, slogging on the treadmill. Or he may be doing push-ups in front of the TV.
At 38, he wants to be prepared when he begins Army basic training later this week.
“I know I’m going to get picked on as the old guy in boot camp,” he said. “I don’t want to be last.”
Traditionally the Army has attracted the young, many of them fresh out of high school. They join for the promise of adventure, the chance to be part of something bigger, and a free college education. But as the number of jobs dwindles across the country, more Americans are enlisting later in life, drawn by the promise of steady work and generous benefits.
Although March may not be as fit as he was in his teens, his recruiters in Torrance say he brings to the Army experience and maturity that younger soldiers lack.
Not long ago, the Los Angeles Recruiting Battalion struggled to find applicants who met the minimum education requirements: a high school diploma or equivalent. Now, says the station commander, Staff Sgt. A.J. Calderon, he has people turning up with master’s degrees.
“I’ve been a recruiter for four years, and I’ve never seen that before,” Calderon said. “This is definitely a good thing for the Army.”
More than 1,800 recruits who were 30 or older signed up for the Army in the first half of the 2009 fiscal year that began last October, a 59% increase over the same period last year. The Los Angeles Recruiting Battalion enlisted 63 of them, a 50% increase. An additional 713 people 30 or older joined the Army Reserve, including 22 in Los Angeles.
Although the pace slowed over the summer, recruiters say they continue to get inquiries from people well over 30, many of them facing financial hardship because of the loss of a job or reduced work hours.
March, who is from Torrance, signed up in April. If he was feeling anxious about the decision, he did not show it when he walked into the busy office in a Torrance strip mall two weeks ago to meet with his recruiter before shipping out to Ft. Sill in Oklahoma. He had already shaved his head, and he smiled broadly when he was asked to stand in front of an American flag for a commemorative snapshot.
March had drifted between jobs for years as he tried to raise the money to complete a computer science degree. In 2007, he was offered a position managing the bars at the Tulsa County Fairgrounds in Oklahoma and thought he might make a career in the food and beverage business. But last November, he was laid off. Already deep into debt, he returned to California and moved in with his father.
“I figured I would get a job in a hotel, but there was nothing out there,” he said. “I had resumes out on every job search engine. I was interviewing three, four times a week. No one would offer me anything that I can support myself on.”
It took him three months to land a job making pizzas for $10 an hour, about what he was earning when he graduated from high school.
“That’s when I decided I could either rack up more loans while I complete my degree, or I can have the military pay for it,” March said.
March thinks it’s likely he will be sent to Afghanistan, where U.S. casualties are mounting. He’s decided the benefits outweigh the risks. In addition to a free education, the job comes with attractive health, retirement and housing options. March had also accumulated sufficient college credit to enlist as a private first class, which means more pay.
Four years ago, the Army would not have been an option for a man his age. The cutoff for new recruits without previous military experience was 35. But in June 2006, the Army, then barely meeting recruiting goals, raised the age to 42, the highest among the branches.
The Army has the military’s largest quota to fill, and along with the Marine Corps, its members have borne the brunt of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although the Army has met its annual recruitment goals every year since 2006, officers say it was difficult until recently -- especially in large cities like Los Angeles, where there are many other options for young people.
But rising unemployment and recent cuts to the state welfare system have helped make the Army more attractive to people of all ages, recruiters say. They also credit security gains in Iraq and the expanded education benefits contained in the new GI Bill, which took effect this month.
With more applicants, the Army can be more choosy. In March, it stopped issuing waivers for recruits who committed serious crimes as adults or who tested positive for drugs or alcohol use.
The decision to raise the cutoff age brought in 1,329 additional active-duty soldiers in 2007 and 1,243 in 2008. But they remained a relatively small portion of the 80,517 men and women who enlisted last year.
Recruiters in Torrance said they have been receiving more inquiries since the fall, when major financial institutions collapsed and unemployment spread rapidly. As March went over a pre-boot camp checklist with his recruiter, two other people over the age of 30 dropped by.
Laurel Smith, 33, a divorced mother of two from Lomita, wanted to know if she could earn some money in the Army Reserve while searching for full-time work. Smith was laid off from two administrative posts this year. Then she learned the state was reducing her medical coverage to help close a massive budget deficit.
“It looks good on the resume to have the military experience,” said Smith, whose father was in the Air Force.
Brian Bolte, 40, served as a tank gunner in the Army Reserve after high school but left in 1990 to start his own printing company. He got married, had a daughter and bought a home in Redondo Beach. Last year, the bottom fell out of the printing business and he lost half his income.
Bolte had already weathered three economic downturns and decided it was time for a career change. So he went back to the Army to see if he could enlist as a military policeman and pursue a degree in criminology.
“I have faith the economy will turn around,” he said, “and hopefully I will be in a good position in five years when I come out.” Like March, he worries about keeping up with younger soldiers and has started training twice a day. But that is less of a concern to the Army.
“Today’s older adults are probably in better physical shape than previous generations,” said S. Douglas Smith, spokesman for the Army Recruiting Command at Ft. Knox, Ky. At the same time, he said, “these older recruits would bring a wide variety of life experience and maturity that our more youthful recruits might not have.”
For Calderon, who runs the Torrance station, the only drawback is that older recruits tend not to stay in the Army as long.
“The young ones tend to . . . make it more of a career,” he said. “The older ones go in, get the benefits and leave.”
March is planning to stay only long enough to clear his debts, pick up some new skills and finish his degree.
“A piece of paper means a lot, believe me,” he said. “It only took me 20 years to figure it out.”