TAMPA — Joshua Lovett had just talked to Publix about ending his long unemployment drought. The former Marine loaded back into the beat-up Suburban a cousin gave him and headed home.
As he drove his eyes caught the words “U.S. Army" on a strip mall. He pulled over.
Since leaving the Marines, he had seen the construction industry go bust, helplessly watched his Jeep Wrangler break down, begged his father for meal money.
There was no hesitation. He walked into the recruiting station and re-enlisted.
"Think about it," said Lovett, who shipped out Monday. "You're going to have a job, medical, dental, a paycheck, a free place to live. ... They even give you food to eat. It's the perfect job."
More and more young military veterans are realizing the same thing. Unable to find civilian jobs during the recession, they are returning to recruiting stations knowing where there's war there's work. Caught between unemployment or deployment, veterans are weighing both possibilities and choosing the latter.
"We do benefit when things look less positive in civil society," David S.C. Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness said at a news conference last fall. Last year, the Pentagon reported its strongest recruiting year in four years despite America being embroiled in two conflicts overseas.
Military members, between the ages of 18 and 42, know when they are discharged that they can always go back to Uncle Sam if they need a job.
"In my back pocket, if I ever need to use it, I can come back into the military service again," said Army Sgt. Robert Jones, a Tampa recruiter.
The Navy and Air Force reported that early-and mid-career sailors and airmen re-enlisted at a higher rate in October than during the same month in 2007. The Army has steadily surpassed its retention goals since at least 2001, and the rate of retention has been climbing since 2006, Wayne Hall, Army spokesman said. Last fiscal year, the Army retained 73,913 soldiers after setting a goal to retain 65,000.
The Army, the largest branch of the armed services, has become the landing place for many re-enlistees because it has more jobs and career fields than the other branches.
Re-enlistees, fortunate to have escaped injury or deployment once, know that they might be asked to risk their life in return for the steady paycheck. But some fear the economy more than the war, which is no longer an unknown quantity as it was earlier this decade.
"The war's like a household name right now," Sgt. Jones said, noting that violence in Iraq is down.
"I actually volunteered to go to Iraq," said Lovett, who felt left out as a Marine when he was attached to a maintenance division that wasn't deployed.
Asked whether he was worried he might come back wounded in battle, he said, "For me, I really wouldn't care as long as I was doing my job."
A self-described country boy who was never interested in college, Lovett left the Marines after his four-year commitment because he felt he was too far away from home, stationed in Barstow, Calif.
He began working in construction when he was discharged and then moved to logging when work became scarce. He lived with his father, a state forestry worker, on state land. When his father was promoted to another post, Lovett had to move out.
He rented a home in Bushnell until he couldn't make rent. He walked 3 miles every day to area businesses begging for work and once desperately begged his father for meal money after eating his last Hot Pocket in his freezer.
His father gave him cash to help him survive, but eventually Lovett moved in with his mother in Tampa, which landed him near the Army station.
He'll be earning $1,584 a month in the Army, where he wants to be a Blackhawk helicopter mechanic. It's less than the $2,000 a month he earned during the boom times in construction, but those times are gone. He chose the Army over returning to the Marines because of the career options the service branch provides.
As he sat in the recruiting office on a recent day, reviewing paperwork for his four-year re-enlistment, another man came in the glass doors.
Accompanied by his girlfriend, and their 3-month-old son, Greg Plaisted, 33, said he missed the camaraderie and stability of the military.
He left the Marines in 2005 and has been working in private security since, going from job to job.
Overhearing him, Lovett yelled out, "Semper Fi."
Both Marines had found their bunker.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.