VALDOSTA – Army 1st Sgt. Brian Jones of New York was in his last few weeks of basic training at Fort Knox, Ky., when Sept. 11 happened.
“We were at the grenade range,” Jones said. “The drill sergeants came out and made us stop everything and made us sit and wait for what seemed like hours.”
They eventually asked if any of the soldiers were from New York and a couple raised their hands, according to Jones.
The Army told them there had been an attack on New York. Army officials said they didn’t have all of the details but would do their best to let the men try to contact their families.
Jones said he joined the Army straight out of high school, after getting married and having a child, so he could help support his family.
After about 48 hours of busy phone lines, Jones reached his mother who worked in Manhattan and his wife. Both were OK.
Jones said he and his fellow soldiers were uncertain, thinking they might have picked a bad time to join the Army.
“I was fearful that we were going to war,” Jones said. “But we felt prepared, we felt honored like this is the time to step up for our generation.”
Eighteen years later, 1st Sgt. Jones helps head the Valdosta recruiting company, encouraging today’s young people to sign up for service.
For the first time in 13 years, the Army missed its recruitment goal by about 6,500 soldiers in 2018. The numbers are not available yet for 2019 but Jones said the recruiting company here doesn’t see those recruitment problems.
“There is more of an appreciation for the military down here. There is a mindset that it’s an awesome opportunity, a lot of these kids have never left Georgia,” Jones said.
Out of 246 recruiting companies in the Army, the Valdosta company ranks number four, according to Jones.
As for any fear of the ongoing conflicts and the world stage after Sept. 11, Jones said teenagers looking to join, rarely, if ever, bring it up.
When 9/11 does come up, it's usually from parents.
“I tell them your son is going to be trained up, your daughter is going to be trained up and protected by other soldiers. They’re never going out their alone,” Jones said. “We don’t sugarcoat anything. It’s a dangerous job and we know it.”
Jones said when it comes to getting young people to join, he tells his recruiters to be open and honest because kids today are well informed.
“Kids question you on everything nowadays because now they have more access to intel. I always tell my recruiters, don’t sugarcoat. They’ve already done the research before they come into our office,” Jones said.
Caralynn Hall and Acacia Oldsen are both 2019 graduates from Valdosta High School who have signed up with the Army and are awaiting shipment date for boot camp.
Hall said she discussed enlisting with her mom several months before graduation because she wants to get a good job, get out of Valdosta and travel and help support her family.
“My papa served in the Army in Vietnam and I chose the Army because of the job choices and just the wide range of jobs offered,” Hall said.
She is going to be an IT and communications specialist and said it should help her find a job outside of the Army.
As far as the risk of possible deployment, “it factors in a little bit into my future and what I may have to deal with while I’m in the Army but I’m OK with it,” Hall said.
Hall said her recruiter was always honest and truthful with her and played a big part in her signing up with the Army.
For Oldsen, she always planned to join the military.
“I’ve always wanted to go into the service, half my family is Air Force and half is Army,” Oldsen said. “I joined because of the job choice, travel opportunities, school obviously they help pay for and I want a good job when I get out.”
Oldsen is going to be an animal care specialist in the Army, she said, and plans on staying in 20 years and earning a degree that can be used later in the civilian world.
She said her recruiter never promised anything that couldn’t be delivered and said she doesn’t worry too much about the ongoing conflicts in the world.
“I think being in the Army we obviously learn how to be a soldier and leadership and we all learn how to be a team and we will get through it and serve the country and do what we have to do,” Oldsen said.
The Few, the Proud
Gunnery Sgt. David Berryhill, Marine Corps station commander for recruiting station in Valdosta, has been recruiting future Marines for four years.
He has noticed one change during his years of recruiting.
“The biggest difference I’ve seen in the last year is I’ve had an influx of females coming through,” Berryhill said. “It’s unheard of. I had 10 females in my delayed entry program last year.”
Berryhill said recruits here say they want to join the Marine Corps for mostly the same reasons as the Army hopefuls.
“We live in small town USA and they’re just out to get out of here and do things for themselves,” Berryhill said.
Berryhill said the Marine Corps has consistently maintained and reached its number of recruits but he is quick to point out he isn’t interested in numbers.
“I don’t recruit numbers. I recruit people,” Berryhill said. “If you have numbers, numbers don’t build walls, numbers don’t go to combat, numbers don’t fix aircraft – people do.”
Jeffrey Lancaster of Live Oak, Fla., was born in 2000. He graduated boot camp at Parris Island in May and is now a Marine.
“I knew I wanted to be a Marine but I didn’t know I was actually going to step forward and go for it until I graduated and thought about what I wanted to do with my life,” Lancaster said.
He considered college but decided college could come later and the Marines could help with that.
He didn’t really consider a civilian job.
“I didn’t think any jobs would interest me the way the Marine Corps does, especially coming from Live Oak,” Lancaster said. “There’s not a lot of good jobs there.”
He said his parents and uncle have supported his decision.
Lancaster said he is not sure of his long-term goal. His contract requires him to serve four years active duty and four years in the reserves and he will evaluate and see what he wants to do from there.
As for possible deployment, Lancaster said he was informed in his decision.
“I knew what I was signing up for in the long run," he said. "I knew there was a chance I might see combat.”
Shelby Platt of Echols County graduated in May.
“If I didn’t go to college, my choice was military,” Platt said. “I like the challenge and wanted something that could challenge me and push me past my limits.”
At her parents suggestion and after talking to a recruiter at her high school, Platt decided to attend a Marines physical-training session held behind the recruiting station. She said that’s where she fell in love with the Marine Corps.
Platt’s recruiter, Sgt. Rodriguez, was approachable and answered all of her questions thoroughly, she said.
“He told me yes there will be times when it’s rough but there is also good times,” Platt said.
She said she knew exactly what she was getting into by joining the Marines.
“You don’t see many female Marines and when you do they’re the baddest of all; I want to be a part of that,” Platt said.
As for conflicts and possible deployment, Platt is matter of fact and said death is coming one way or another. She knows she will be trained so she has no reason to be scared of it.
Platt leaves for Parris Island to begin that training in October.
Tech Sgt. Napoleon Gifford has been an Air Force recruiter for two years in the Valdosta office.
Originally from Douglas, Gifford joined the Air Force in 2005.
Gifford said he wanted to go to college at first but money was an issue.
“I was really afraid of student loans, I didn’t want to put that burden on my parents and I knew that the Air Force would provide me with the ability to pay for education,” Gifford said.
He said Air Force recruiters always meet their mission here for a designated number of recruits and sometimes exceed it. Having Moody so close helps, he said, because people are familiar with the Air Force.
Being from the area, Gifford said he likes recruiting here.
“I like being able to help out all the people around here," he said. "I like being able to let them know there's a big wide world out there and a lot of things you can do with the Air Force and a lot of opportunity the Air Force can provide for you.”
Gifford said he is surprised potential recruits rarely mention ongoing conflicts or the possibility of deployment.
“I think they just see it as it's part of what we do,” Gifford said. “It’s the world they were born into so they just see this as part of our daily roles.”
One recruit currently working with his office is 17-year-old Morgan Collins. Collins is in her senior year at Brooks County High School with a graduation date of May 2020.
Collins said she started looking at joining just a few months ago.
“My dad was in the Navy and my brother was in the Marines so it kind of ran in the family so I felt I needed to carry that on as the first female to join,” Collins said.
She said she wants to stay in the Air Force as long as she can and hopes to gain a lot of experience, learn new things and get to visit new places.
As for possible deployment, like others of her generation, she doesn’t let it worry her too much, if at all.
“It’s what comes with the job and it’s kind of expected,” Collins said. “If that's what the job calls me to do, that’s what I’ll do, protecting my country.”
Collins said her recruiter, Tech Sgt. Gifford, has been trustworthy and has helped her with her decision to join.
“Anything he’s told me, he provides evidence with it,” Collins said.
Collins leaves in July 2020 to begin her Air Force career.
Update: This story was previously called 'Tomorrow Soldiers.' It was changed to reflect what ran in print. 9/11/19 10:48 a.m.