Dominik Bonilla of Sierra Vista, Ariz., is in the process of joining the Army. Both of his brothers also serve in the Army. He is training at Fort Huachuca outside Sierra Vista and is seen here March 12. (Pat Shannahan / The Arizona Republic via Gannett)
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SIERRA VISTA, Ariz. — Except for the nonregulation uniforms — black T-shirts, jeans and a mix of sneakers and hiking boots — the two dozen young people lined up on the side of the road might have passed for one of the units stationed at Fort Huachuca.
Most already wore Army-regulation haircuts. The men were clean-shaven. They responded to the orders of a platoon leader as if he already outranked them. At the leader’s direction, they hoisted heavy packs and prepared for a 2-mile hike to test their fitness.
But these are recruits, “future soldiers” in the language of the Army, waiting for the day they will ship out for basic training. They show up for exercises like this one every week to stay in shape and stay out of trouble. Many are high school seniors and won’t leave until after they graduate. A few are older, just weeks from reporting.
“It’s warm out today, and the critters might be out,” a sergeant told the group in that clipped cadence all sergeants seem to master. “Don’t touch them. Don’t step on them. And remember to stay hydrated.”
There is rarely a shortage of new recruits — Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines — in Sierra Vista. Outside of metro Phoenix and Tucson, this community and surrounding Cochise County have posted consistently higher recruiting numbers than anywhere in the state.
The future soldiers in this group have seen friends and relatives sent overseas, seen them come home. Ten years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq sparked a decade of deployments and brought home the reality of war, Iraq is an idea that can’t be far from mind in a place like Sierra Vista.
And 10 years after that invasion, the recruits on this hike and the hundreds of others like them who sign up each year show that they still have reason to sign up — despite the war or even because of it.
Dominik Bonilla had started attending classes at Cochise College last year by the time his oldest brother pitched the idea. First Lt. Jacob Bonilla was working as a combat medic at Fort Bliss, Texas, 12 years into his Army career, with tours of Afghanistan and Iraq in his rear view.
The Bonillas had not started as a military family, but they became one because of Jacob. They moved from San Diego to Sierra Vista a decade earlier when he was stationed at Fort Huachuca. The middle brother, Mike, had also enlisted.
“Jacob was always like a father figure for me,” Dominik said. “I gave it a lot of thought. He had some good experiences and some bad, but he said when it’s all done, you know in your mind you’re doing good for your country.”
A year earlier, Dominik had hoped for an athletic scholarship to college, either in basketball or football, but those opportunities came up short. The Army could pay for his education, job training and offer long-term security.
So when his brother proposed that he enlist, Dominik could see only one reason for staying home.
A military community
Sierra Vista grew up outside the gates of Fort Huachuca, an Army base established in 1877 to protect settlers during the wars with the Apache Indians. The campaign against Geronimo, the legendary Apache chief, was based there.
The base now houses the Army’s Intelligence Center and technology command operations and is the region’s largest employer. If you don’t work at the fort, folks say, you probably know someone who does. City streets feed into the base gates and help funnel traffic in and out. Signs in businesses note military discounts.
“We’re really one community,” said Mayor Rick Mueller, an Army brat as a kid and a retired Army veteran. “We work hard to make it like that, to make sure that the military families are watched over and cared for.”
Mueller, who worked at a recruiting station during his career, said he’s not surprised the recruiters so readily fill their quotas in Sierra Vista.
“There’s a patriotism factor,” he said. “Being a military community, we have a high percentage of veterans and children of veterans. I think there’s an inbred importance of serving here.”
The four main branches of the military staff recruiting offices in a prominent part of the town’s largest shopping mall. At the nearby food court, more than 100 photos of active service members cover a wall. Recruiters meet with students at the high school, where there is a Junior ROTC program.
Recruiters emphasize job opportunities and educational assistance available to service members, promises that seem to resonate more clearly in smaller communities such as Sierra Vista, according to researchers who have studied military-enlistment records.
The researchers cite higher unemployment and scarcer job prospects in those small towns, which make military service a more viable option. In some areas, recruitment rates are as much as twice the national average, according to an analysis by the National Priorities Project, a nonpartisan group that monitors the federal budget, and the Daily Yonder, an online news site.
Higher recruiting rates also mean higher casualty rates, according to an analysis by the Daily Yonder, which found that, in 2007, rural counties accounted for 26 percent of Iraq War casualties even though those counties make up only 19 percent of the nation’s population.
Mueller said he believes Fort Huachuca’s sophisticated intelligence and technical operations have helped shape the perception of the military among young people, who may be looking for opportunities beyond the infantry.
“Because this is a high-tech installation, it’s not just being a guy toting an M-16,” he said.
On a patch of desert along one edge of the Army base, Tyler Lacey barks orders at the two dozen enlistees who have reported for their weekly Future Soldier meeting. Lacey is a senior at Buena High School and will ship out for basic training this summer.
“You will call me ‘platoon guide’ or PG,” he yells, sounding more like a drill sergeant from the movies than the future soldier that he is. “In a moment I will ask you to sound off with the platoon motto, ‘All the way every day!’ Now let me see your water bottles.”
The Army, like other military branches, begins signing contracts with new recruits as early as their junior year in high school. The new recruits can select a military occupation — helicopter mechanic, transportation specialist, electrician, medic — and receive a guarantee that they will train for that occupation once they have finished high school and report for duty.
David Prince, a 17-year-old senior at Buena High, signed up for a role in the military police.
“I had thought about it since my junior year,” he said. “The job stability, the benefits. I’ve had family members serve, so I had a good understanding of what it all brought.”
Prince, who will report for basic training Aug. 5, talked with recruiters about job opportunities in the Army and beyond, should he decide to return to civilian life after his required service time.
“You have to think about if that is something you really want to do,” he said. “I thought it was the best thing for me.”
Thomas Simpkins, an 18-year-old Buena High senior, signed up for training in the military police as well, but he enlisted for a more personal reason.
“My dad joined the Army the day after 9/11,” Simpkins said. “He felt like he needed to do something. And I do feel like it is a higher calling.”
The right decision
As Dominik Bonilla neared his decision to enlist, one of the recruiters in the Sierra Vista office prodded his interest level.
He remembers the recruiter asking, “On a scale of one to 10, where are you in your decision?”
Bonilla thought for a moment. “I’m at an eight.”
Then he explained: “Take one off because of deployment. I’ve always been a little scared of that.”
And the other? That was the one that could have made the difference, the one reason he had for staying home.
“I’m about to start a family,” he told the recruiter. “I have a baby on the way.”
Dominik lives in Huachua City with his fiancée, Jasmine, who is days away from delivering their new son. The prospect of leaving them behind for basic training troubled him sometimes. But he weighed that time against a career that would give his family lifelong security, beginning with health care for their infant son.
“It’s a little sacrifice now to build a lifetime,” he said.
“We talked about it a lot,” said Jasmine Bonilla, whose brothers and uncles served in the military. “The big issue was him leaving with a month-old baby. But it’s a start to our life together, with our son. We will start growing up together.”
Dominik talked to his oldest brother once more and finally decided to sign the papers. Both of his brothers were excited for him, and their wives have helped Jasmine, who has started to look forward to life on the Army’s road.
“My brothers told me basic training is hard, but in the end, it’s a good experience,” Dominik said. “I’m kind of nervous now, but I’m ready to get started. This was the right decision for us.”