18 and Enlisted

Co-authors: 
“Just kind of, don’t know if it feels right. But I’ll have to see. I’ll see where it goes when I go in, you know. See what happens.”
Attribution/Name: 
Adam Howerton
Affiliation: 
Joining the U.S. Army
“Either you go to college, you go to the military, or you go to the mine. That’s about all there is to do around here."
Attribution/Name: 
Ryn Rollins
Affiliation: 
Joining the U.S. Army

By Sierra Jiminez
News21 / Syracuse University

Four days after her son’s high school graduation, Shannon Rollins came home from work and the two began to chat in the small mobile home where the family lives in the hills of Republic, Wash. She asked her son how his two-day trip to Spokane had gone.

And the conversation soon turned to death.

Yes, to death.

“Did they ask you where you’re gonna send your body?” Shannon Rollins asked.

“Yeah, they did, mom. I put you down.”

“Okay.”

“That was kind of weird,” son Ryn offered.

“Yeah, it is kind of weird,” his mom agreed.

“Well you know what? I don’t plan on dying.”

“Okay.”

Earlier that day, Ryn had enlisted in the United States Army as a combat engineer. While his parents knew Ryn was considering joining the Army, the final decision came as somewhat of a shock.

If deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, Ryn will be responsible for placing and detonating explosives, detecting IEDs and clearing the route from hazardous conditions for the troops that follow behind him.

***

It’s Adam Howerton’s last night in his home in close-by Oroville, Wash. Howerton sulks around, somber. He said he has regrets, he has doubt. In 24 hours his family would be making the trip to the Spokane, Wash., airport to say goodbye to a reluctant young man.

“Done a lot of thinking, you know,” Adam said. “Just kind of, don’t know if it feels right. But I’ll have to see. I’ll see where it goes when I go in, you know. See what happens.”

When Adam was a sophomore in high school, he made a life-changing decision. After scoring well on the ASVABS, an elective military placement test offered to all high school students, the 17-year-old Howerton walked into an Army recruiter’s office in Oroville, Wash., and signed an eight-year contract; he’ll be a biomedical equipment specialist, relatively safe from the front lines. Howerton’s job essentially will be to fix broken medical equipment.

For two years, the idea of joining the military had been a far-off thought. But this night, at 18 years old, Howerton was facing reality. Boot camp in Fort Knox, Ky., was just around the corner and his days as an average small-town teenager were coming to an end.

***

Students like Howerton and Rollins are not unusual in rural areas of the country such as this.

“I think the majority [of high school students] are maybe just looking for something new, something different, you know, the bigger world, the outside world,” said Tyronne Glanzer, a counselor at Tonasket High School in Tonasket, Wash. “So military is one way to go because you get tossed in there with people from everywhere.”

The cold reality, though, could indeed be death for young soldiers. Out of 172,034 military personnel recruited on average each year, more than half of the new recruits are between the ages of 17 and 19 years old. And since the beginning of the United States’ wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 5,540 military personnel have died. More than 1,500 of them were under the age of 22, according to the Department of Defense.

***

“You’re an idiot,” Shannon Rollins said to her son after he told her he enlisted in the military.

“She was worried because my family and the Olsons were pretty close,” Ryn said.

In April of 2009, Chad Olson returned to his hometown of Republic from his tour in Iraq with the United States Marine Corps. Four months later, Olson shot and killed his wife, Jessica Armstrong, and then himself. Chad had been struggling with what he had seen in Iraq; he got some counseling, but it didn’t help.

“We were friends. He was on the wrestling team. We grew up wrestling together and stuff and riding dirtbikes and everything,” Ryn said.

While debating about the military, Ryn said Olson’s fate troubled him some. But instead of avoiding the military altogether, Ryn decided that as long as he stayed away from the Marine Corps, he would be fine.

Ryn, barely 18, was the center of attention for his group of friends this summer, as he talked of what came next.

“I can plant bombs, I can defuse bombs, I can detect bombs, do stuff like that,” he said. “And then I can build a whole bunch of things, build bridges, build buildings. … I can build a lot of things. So, it’ll be fun.”

Raised for most of his life in Ferry County, where the two main careers are in agriculture or at the gold mine, Ryn saw many of his friends join the military after high school. One was Jarred Palmier.

“Growing up, you’re trapped in a small little town with absolutely nothing to do. And then you join the military and you realize you can travel the world and that the world is bigger than Republic,” Palmier said in a telephone interview from Fort Shafter in Hawaii. “I think Ryn feels the same way. I lived in Republic with him and he’d always go somewhere else because Republic is so small and there’s nothing for kids his age there.”

Palmier enlisted in the Army at 19 after a failed attempt at college.

“As soon as I got on that bus to Fort Knox (Ky.), that’s probably the most scared I’ve ever been,” the now 20-year-old said when asked how he felt before going to basic training. “I thought, ‘I don’t actually want to do this. I want to find some other route, maybe go to college or something.’”

His fear of being stuck in rural, northeast Washington state won out in the end, though.

“Some of them are very excited to go,” said Sgt. 1st. Class Terry Hill, who recruits in the Oroville and Tonasket area. “And some just want to get out of Okanogan County.

“A lot of them will have reservations about it,” Hill said. “We’re trying to sell them on the idea of something that’s intangible. You can’t touch it, you can’t feel it, you can’t smell it, you can’t see it. And so we’re trying to give them the information they need to make an educated decision on whether the Army would be a good fit for them or not.”

Hill said he’s able to recruit one or two people each month to join the Army, and about 50 percent of his recruits are between the ages of 18 and 21. This past year, Hill recruited eight graduating seniors from the local high schools.

Raised in Tonasket, Hill said he was anxious to leave as a young adult as well. At 18 years old, Hill joined the Army. But when the time came to go to boot camp, Hill’s anxieties and fears rose as high as his current recruits’ experience.

“It’s normal for someone the closer they get to their shipping date to get a little bit of anxiety,” Hill said. “Because again, it’s that fear of the unknown. They’re leaving their comfort zone. Now all of the sudden things are real, things are happening. Up to that point it was just kind of an idea. Now the realization is starting to set in.”

Hill said he aims to make 120 phone calls each workday to high school seniors and recent graduates. Although the phone calls are not always successful, Hill said the most common reasons he hears from young adults about joining the military are to explore the world outside of their small town or because they couldn’t succeed in a career or education after high school.

“It’s really hard to find a job,” Ryn said. “Either you go to college, you go to the military, or you go to the mine. That’s about all there is to do around here. And that’s just it.”

Arum Kone, an economist for the state of Washington, said the lack of opportunity in these small towns pushes teens toward the military.

“You have some interesting things going on in this area that is a little bit counter the trend for the state as a whole,” Kone said in reference to Ferry County.

Kone said the recession has been overwhelmingly hard on high school-educated males and on agricultural industries in Washington. “And so when you look at the demographics by age group of who’s in the workforce, you see that a disproportionate amount of people in the age groups of 18 to 40 really don’t live and work in that area,” Kone said. “They’ve moved to other areas to find work.”

In Republic, mining or trade schools are often default plans for high school students after graduation. Buckhorn Gold Mine, the big local industry, employs 216 people. Each position with the mine is labor-intensive — 12-hour shifts for four days straight and a mixture of day and night work.

Travis Bacon, a 20-year-old dump truck driver at the mine, said he never really thought about anything other than a labor job after graduating high school.

The summer after his senior year at Republic High School, Bacon said he worked at a construction site. Similar to a few of his high school buddies, Bacon went on to lineman school in Spokane, Wash. for almost five months, where he learned the electrical skills needed to work on powerlines and telephone poles.

“Right now I’m still looking to be a lineman,” Bacon said. “But I got a job over at the mine.”

Bacon has been at the mine for six months. He’s an underground dump truck driver, hauling ore to and from dumping locations in the mine for $19.64 an hour, the basic starting wage at Buckhorn.

“All of my buddies, three of us are up at the mine and the rest of them are linemen,” Bacon said. “That’s pretty much what we do.”

Ryn said he initially planned on applying to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz. But after looking at the price of tuition, a total of $28,600 each year, Ryn said he quickly realized he couldn’t afford to attend his dream college.

“It was either I was going to college or the military. It was just kind of 50-50,” he said. “I want to be an aerospace engineer. And that was like the top three in the nation for aerospace engineering. That’s why it’s so expensive. I didn’t want to downgrade myself into going into, like a lesser school. And so I can still probably go to that school after I get out, so I can pay for a lot more of it.”

Yet by the time Ryn had four months to go until boot camp, his once carefree, invincible attitude had changed. He was the only graduate out of a class of 27 to join the military.

“Sometimes I think about it 10 times a day,” he said when asked if he thought of dying. “Other times I don’t think about it for a week. But, I don’t know, I mean, I get kind of worried because I think of, like you hear about all this stuff and what’s happening over there and there is a possibility that you are going to die but you don’t.

“ … I’m dealing with explosives. And I mean all it takes is one explosive, and I am not in the front, front lines but I am up close because I have to be in the war zone fixing everything.

“And then once you think that, you think if I do return, am I going to end up like Chad? But I mean, it’s not going to be like that,” he said.

“Dying is something that he’s never really liked talking about to any of his friends, really,” said James Brockett, a longtime friend. “And I don’t know, most we’ve talked about is when we’ll start talking about him joining and I’ll just tell him: Don’t you die or I’m gonna come kick your ass.”

His parents just don’t believe their son could die serving his country.

“I haven’t really thought about the big picture of what’s going on right now in the Army, or the military in general,” said Steve Rollins, Ryn’s father. “So I’ve been trying to take it in little steps, you know, get him into basic training. I guess I’ve thought about everything but the middle. I’ve thought about him going to basic training, going to school, or going to his engineering schooling in the military and then … going into 4-year college (after his Army discharge). So I haven’t thought about the whole maybe three years, that’s kind of the middle part, yet. You know it’s there. I don’t want to think about it, so I don’t know if I will right now.”

***

For the first 11 years of Adam’s life, his family chose to live without electricity or running water. The closest telephone was at the bottom of a long, steep hill at the edge of town. As the Howertons’ children got older, they decided to move from the tiny town of Chesaw, Wash., to a town with a slightly larger population: Oroville.

But even in a town with more social opportunity, Adam said he still wanted to see more. College wasn’t top of mind — a good career with an opportunity to explore the world was all he was looking for.

That was the military.

But now — though Howerton’s military job seems relatively safe, his family finds the future unsettling.

“Throughout most of (high school), I never really thought of the service that much,” Howerton said. “It was like going back to high school. It was just a thing that was gonna happen. And I didn’t really think about it until it really came up and then it was like a month before, and it’s ‘Wow, wait a minute.’ That’s when I really started thinking about it.”

Before he graduated high school and turned 18 this summer, Adam began to change, his parents said. The once stay-at-home, obedient teen went out more often, they said, and his check-ins became less frequent.

His parents and younger sister sat back and watched in confusion. He began to come home late for dinner. His visits with his friends became multiple-day trips instead of just overnight.

“I mean why is it you’re supposed to take these little people and raise them and take care of them for all those years and not let any harm come to them and then when they turn 18 you’re supposed to go ‘Okay,’” said Sally Howerton, Adam’s mother.

“They can go to college and not come back. They can go and decide to tramp around the U.S. on a motorcycle and not come back,” she said. “Part of me wants to just keep saying the way fate works is your time is up when your time is up and it doesn’t matter where you are when that happens. When I was given the job of raising Adam nobody promised me that I got to keep him forever. Our kids are only on loan. And the minute he leaves here, I can do nothing.

“Actually, it’s an illusion that I could do anything while he was here.”

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