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As America Celebrates Independence Day, Are Young Granite Staters Willing to Serve?

As the nation celebrates its independence — and the Revolutionary War heroes who wrested it from the British crown — new data show fewer young Americans are willing, or even able, to serve in the U.S. military today.

That includes here in New Hampshire, where the percentage of young people aged 17-24 joining the military lags behind the national average. However, the quality of military recruits from the Granite State is the best in the nation, according to a 2019 report. That is a significant finding given the declining quality of the recruiting pool.

In congressional testimony, Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville said just 23 percent of Americans in the 17-24 age group meet the minimum qualifications to serve due to obesity, drug use, or criminal record. Those would-be recruits need a waiver to join.

Not that young people, obese or otherwise, are banging down the doors to get in. NBC News reports an internal Defense Department survey found just 9 percent of eligible potential recruits have any interest in doing so—the lowest number since 2007.

“It’s fair to say all branches of the military service, including active, National Guard, and Reserve are struggling to recruit,” said Lt. Col. Greg Heilshorn, Director of Public Affairs for the New Hampshire National Guard.

And while New Hampshire’s number may be below the national average, it still has the distinction of sending the most recruits to the military than any other New England state.

Unsurprisingly, states with large populations like California and Texas provide the most military recruits. However, the states sending the highest percentage of their enlistment-age population to the military are from the south: South Carolina, Florida, Hawaii, Georgia, and Alabama top the list.

The New England region ranks at the bottom.

Heilshorn said the high quality of New Hampshire’s recruits is due in part to having so few of them. That gives recruiters time to work with the recruits and prepare them for their accession into basic training.

“We can have a greater training impact on our new recruits – a more hands-on approach preparing them for basic training and their advanced individual training, collectively known as initial entry training,” Heilshorn said. “In the New Hampshire Army National Guard, we have a Recruit Training Company, which runs our Recruit Sustainment Program. As a result, recruits are better equipped physically and mentally to excel during their initial entry training. The N.H. Army Guard has consistently ranked among the top states among quality enlistments.”

Dave Medlock, 45, of Exeter, joined the military in 1999 when he was in his early 20s. He had dreams of attending officer training school but eventually ended up spending eight years in an Army Medical Evacuation Unit, serving tours of duty in Bosnia and Iraq. He said his time in the military has had a lasting, positive impact on his life.

“Overall, it was fantastic. The best part of it was the people,” Medlock said. “I have so much respect and admiration for the people that I served with, just an amazing group of people. Serving in a Medevac unit, the goal of saving lives drew the best people imaginable.”

Medlock had family members who served in the military, which gave him a sense of duty and responsibility. His grandfather served as a colonel in World War II. A father himself now, Medlock said the younger generation does not have the same sense of patriotism.

“The youth of today have a very different attitude on what constitutes freedom and responsibilities,” Medlock said. “They don’t even think of it as a pathway.”

The culture at large portrays military service negatively, and love for America among Americans continues to decline. According to the latest Gallup Poll survey, a record low 38 percent of Americans say they are “extremely proud” to be American.

Medlock said his military service gave him the training and education to succeed as a civilian. He works as an operations director for a private plane company managing 200 pilots and close to 50 aircraft.

“The reason I have this job now, at which I make a very good living, is because of my military experience,” Medlock said.

Heilshorn said he thinks there are many factors behind the overall decline in military service.

“Our current struggles to meet annual recruiting goals stem from a number of factors including a shrinking pool of eligible young men and women, higher standards to meet for enlistment, and tight job market,” Heilshorn said.

Heilshorn said there is an ebb and flow to military enlistment and, more importantly, retention. Military branches want to keep the personnel they have trained for as long as possible. For the New Hampshire National Guard, Heilshorn said the COVID-19 pandemic helped keep soldiers.

“Generally, our total number serving has hovered around 2,700 citizen-soldiers and airmen. We’ve dipped under 2,600 and been as high as 2,800. Since the pandemic, retention has been especially strong. We believe it’s in large part due to the fact so many of our guardsmen were activated for extended tours in support of the state’s pandemic relief efforts. There’s nothing more incentivizing than for a soldier or airman to be on mission, doing their job, whether that’s overseas or right in their own community.”

New Hampshire Best New England State for Veterans

New Hampshire is the fifth-best place in America — and the best state in New England — for military retirees. Neighboring Vermont ranks dead last.

That was the finding of a new data analysis by Wallethub that reviewed overall economic opportunity, quality of life, and access to healthcare for veterans. New Hampshire was number five, just ahead of Maine (8), Connecticut (11), and Massachusetts (14). Rhode Island came in a dismal 43. Vermont was at the bottom of the list.

Part of New Hampshire’s appeal to veterans is the low tax environment. Jeremiah Gunderson, director of Veteran and Military Affiliated Services at the University of Texas at Austin, said military retirees want to be where their military pension will not get taxed.

“I find it ridiculous that we make people pay taxes after choosing to sacrifice so much of their lives in service to their nation,” Gunderson said. “As tax-funded employees of the DOD, with taxpayer-funded retirement pay, why are we taking taxes on tax-generated retirement pay?”

Radio host Jack Heath, host of the syndicated show Good Morning New Hampshire, is an outspoken advocate for veterans through his work with Fusion Cell, an organization that helps veterans transition to civilian life. He also does an annual radiothon to raise money to help veterans. This year he brought in $104,000.

Word is spreading about the opportunities in New Hampshire for military retirees, Heath told NHJournal.

“I think there’s increasingly a growing network that veterans leaving the military are hearing about,” Heath said.

New Hampshire has a high percentage of military retirees among its residents despite not being home to a large military base or installation.

Heath said veterans are attracted to the 603 way of life, but also find they can also get help making the switch from military to civilian life.

“I met a lot of veterans. They move here because of family, a lot of them have never been here. They love the state motto, they hear the quality of life is good, the schools are good, and they are surprised by the support,” Heath said.

There is no veterans service hub in the state, so Easter Seals and its Veterans Count team try to be a one-stop shop for military retirees who need help. Stephanie Higgs, clinical director for Easter Seals New Hampshire Military and Veterans Services, said many veterans need services most Granite Staters need, like access to health care, mental health care, and access to affordable housing. Unfortunately, the current labor shortage is impacting the ability of veterans to get help.

“We know some of the services vets struggle with right now are the same things civilians struggle with,” Higgs said. “The demand is greater than the capacity to meet that demand right now.”

Heath said he was surprised when he started working with Fusion Cell to learn about the difficulties many veterans have when they get out of the military. The culture change is enormous, and the military services do not prepare the retirees for life on the outside.

“It’s a culture shock,” Heath said. “I’ve seen some veterans take months or a year to really get adjusted.”

Gunderson said one problem veterans face is that their military specialty rarely translates into employment qualifications in the civilian world.

“As an example, I was a medic in the Army with two deployments to Iraq and considerable experience running a clinic,” he said. “However, when I left the military I was not qualified to do anything other than possibly EMT basic.”

Fusion Cell works to connect veterans with civilian job opportunities, getting them the support they need to succeed in the world.

For the most part, New Hampshire does a good job in offering a variety of services to veterans, both Heath and Higgs said. But while there are many programs or organizations in the state to assist veterans, there is no coordinated platform to connect the overturns to the groups. Heath said the state government should step in and serve as a liaison.

“I bust my butt trying to do it every day, but we really need the state to do a better job,” Heath said.

As for the rest of New Hampshire, Heath wants Granite Staters to be good to the veterans all around.

“Be aware of the veterans are in our community, of the families who sacrificed while they were serving,” he said.

Wreaths Across America Honors Fallen Soldiers and Keeps Their Sacrifice Alive

This December marks the 30th year that Wreaths Across American has placed wreaths on the graves of veterans in cemeteries around the country, including Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. It honors those who have served our country.

Joe Regan, director of military and veteran outreach for Wreaths Across America and an army veteran, said the international organization’s mission is to remember fallen veterans,  honor the sacrifices of military members, living veterans, and their families, and teach the next generation of Americans the value of freedom and about the sacrifices that are made on their behalf every day.

On Sunday, December 12, a convoy will go from the group’s Columbia Falls, Maine headquarters to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, arriving on the 18th. That is national Wreaths Across America Day. Nearly 3,000 cemeteries will participate in wreath events. Thirty years ago the organization began with 5,000 wreaths. Now it’s up to 2 million, with an army of volunteers all over the country. Sponsorship is $15 a wreath.

The organization began as a tradition for the Worcester family. In 1992, Morrill Worcester and his wife, Karen,  found themselves with about 5,000 extra wreaths that they didn’t sell during the holiday season. Morrill thought back to when he was about 12 and had won a competition to get a trip to Washington, D.C. One thing that always stuck with him about that trip was his visit to Arlington National Cemetery and he had the idea of laying those wreaths there as a thank you to veterans.

Now with over 3,000 cemeteries in every state of the country, it has also expanded into Guam and Puerto Rico. Before COVID, it was also in Europe, honoring veterans who are buried overseas.

“And so that opportunity to lay that wreath on the headstone of that veteran, to say the name of that person, it sounds so simple,” said Regan. “But at that moment, when you say that name, and you’re standing there, it creates that connection and that bond with that veteran, and that’s tremendously powerful.”

For Regan, who has several friends who were killed overseas, it is maintaining that connection with fallen brothers. For others, it could be a complete stranger. Many veterans had no living relatives to recognize them.

“One thing I’ve heard from a couple of different places: They say that everyone dies twice. First, when your heart stops, and then there’s the last time that someone says your name,” said Regan. “Through this program, regular citizens can keep that individual’s memory alive. The visible part of what we do is the wreath-laying. But it really is a powerful expression of our commitment to living up to the legacy of those men and women who have served our country and are the ones responsible for all the amazing things that we have.”

With about 500 partnerships with individual American Legion and VFW posts across the country, volunteers and donors come together to make this event possible every year. For every two wreaths sponsored, the third wreath will help support living veterans in communities.

“And if you look at Hollywood, there are several very notable folks there who served in the United States military. And one, in particular, my great-grandfather who served in World War I was the iconic Walter Brennan, one of only a few actors who won three Academy Awards. One thing that made him distinctive was his unique voice. And I learned from my great-grandfather that he had been in several gas attacks,” said Regan.

“That was why Walter Brennan’s voice was higher pitched, a result of damage to his vocal cords because of a gas attack. A guy like Walter Brennan, who, despite being wounded, used that and it helped define his career. And he found tremendous success. So I go back to the last portion of our mission, the teaching component. We share those stories of how our veterans who are living in communities across the country continue to give back and use the skills and the experiences they had in the military, to bring back to their civilian lives and create a tremendous amount of value,” he said.

Regan encourages everyone to find a cemetery and witness the wreaths for themselves on December 18.

You can also hear the stories of our veterans on the iHeart Radio platform, where they have a Wreaths Across America radio station, not only to highlight patriotic music but information about activities, interviews with location coordinators but also issues impacting veterans.  One of the programs, “Mission Matters,” is one that Regan hosts along with co-founder and executive director Karen Worcester explains why its mission is important.

Prior to joining Wreaths Across America, Regan ran a nonprofit that focused on supporting homeless veterans and veterans with chronic mental health issues, giving them hand-ups, not handouts.