BROWNSVILLE, Kentucky — Last year, Kentucky's Edmonson County had the highest Army-recruitment rate of any county in the U.S.
Which means, since people 24 and under make up the overwhelming majority of recruits, that a higher percentage of young people here signed up than anywhere else in the country, according to Army data analyzed by the nonprofit National Priorities Project.
In a county of just 12,000 people that may not mean big numbers, but it is indicative of a much larger trend. Kids from rural parts of the U.S. are twice as likely to enlist in the military as their counterparts in cities, according to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
Sixty-four percent of Americans now say the war in Iraq is "not worth fighting," according to a recent ABC News-Washington Post poll. At Edmonson County High School, however, plenty of students not only support the war — they're ready to fight.
"I want to go fight for our nation so people can be free," said 16-year-old Greg, who plans on joining the Marines. "I know if I go to war, I am protecting my country."
Patriotism isn't the only reason kids here enlist. This used to be tobacco country, but the industry has pretty much died off. There also used to be a company locals call "the sandwich factory" in Brownsville, the largest town in the county. It's gone too.
"Because we don't have a lot of industry in the county, there are not a lot of places for students to work once they get out of high school," said Stacy Raymer, a guidance counselor at ECHS. "We have some small fast-food businesses and grocery stores, but we don't have a mall, we don't have big doctors' offices or hospitals."
For many, the military is a stepping stone to a college education — and the prospect of being sent to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan isn't stopping many young people hoping to cut down the costs of school. According to a study by Princeton University's Office of Population Research released last year, enlistment during wartime is often associated with a desire to go to college.
Take Dennis, for example. He's 17 and has wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon ever since he broke his arm as a kid. That means college and medical school, which are getting more and more expensive. Without financial help he doesn't think it would be possible.
"I wouldn't be able to study what I want to study," he said.
Dennis has already sworn into the Army reserves and will leave for boot camp after he graduates from high school. Then he will train as an operating-room specialist, an Army job he hopes will prepare him for a career as a surgeon. He says he will get a $20,000 student repayment loan from the army, plus $1,500 a month for school along with a monthly salary — if, of course, he's in school and not in Iraq or Afghanistan.
"My recruiters told me I have a 50/50 chance of seeing action in a war my freshman year of college," he said. "And if I see it, I do; if I don't I don't. I'll stay over here and go to college."
Sergeant Ricky Clemenz is a recruiter for the Kentucky National Guard, and one of the friendliest guys you'll ever meet. Edmonson County is his beat and it's not unusual to find him talking to students during lunch. When MTV News was at ECHS, he and some other recruiters were in the gym with a giant, inflatable obstacle course emblazoned with the words "Kentucky National Guard."
"We bring it into gym classes and give the students a chance to do something a little different," he said. "It does get us in front of the students and give them a chance to come face-to-face with me and ask me any questions they have about the National Guard."
Many of the questions he hears relate to the fact that the Kentucky National Guard will pay 100 percent of enlistees' tuition at state schools.
"It keeps them here at home while they go to a college that is pretty near their family," he said.
Since 2001, however, the National Guard and Reserve troops have been called upon to serve in both Afghanistan and Iraq (see "Most Americans Oppose Troop Buildup, But One Vet Is 'Optimistic' — Sort Of"). During parts of 2005, these so-called part-time soldiers made up nearly half of the troops on the ground in Iraq.
"Rural communities are definitely more highly represented in the National Guard and Reserves," said Rob Timmins, an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran and the outreach director at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
Of course, that also means a higher death rate for soldiers from rural areas. Although just 19 percent of the U.S. population lives in such areas, a report by the Carsey Institute, a family- and -community research group, found that servicemen and -women from rural areas account for 27 percent of the war dead in Iraq and Afghanistan. And although there are no specific numbers for wounded, the IAVA notes that 25 percent of veterans live more than an hour's drive from a Veterans' Administration or military hospital.
"This underscores, in very real terms, the price the young folks pay in rural America for not having opportunities," said William O'Hare, one of the Carsey report's authors.