James Lewis takes his children Shelby, 4, and Jack, 9, hunting near Potomac, Montana. “Jack has been hunting since he was five. He now carries his own .22 rifle and is on the lookout for grouse and rodents.”

People from small towns and rural communities are more likely to serve in the armed forces than those who hail from the cities. But why?

Are young people who enlist seeking tuition-free educations? Are they pushed out of their communities by high rates of local unemployment? Are they looking for a way to leave home?

Or, is it that there are more hunters in rural communities, and hunters are more likely to join the military?

The higher proportion of rural residents in the military — and among those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan — has been known for some time, but the reasons for this phenomenon aren’t completely understood. Two sociologists from the University of Connecticut have concluded that there’s a link between military enlistment and hunting. Hunters are more likely to join the armed forces.

“The ten states with the highest military fatality rates in the Iraq War during March 20, 2003 through May 5, 2007, Vermont, Alaska, South Dakota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Delaware and Arkansas, had an average of 2.06 military fatalities per 100,000 state residents and an average of 18.1 percent of state residents with hunting licenses,” write James DeFronzo and Jungyun Gill in The Rural Sociologist. “In contrast the ten states with the lowest military fatality rates during this period, New Jersey, Connecticut, Utah, New York, Massachusetts, Florida, Illinois, North Carolina, Missouri and California, had an average of 0.86 military fatalities per 100,000 state residents and an average of only 3.3 percent of state residents with hunting licenses.”

Yes, the two sociologists find, rural residents are more likely to enlist than are people from cities. In the late 1990s, Southerners were also more likely to enlist than were citizens from the Northeast. Residents of Alaska, Maine, Montana and Wyoming were also over-represented among military recruits.

DeFronzo and Gill suspected that these unexpected levels of recruitment were tied to skills and lifestyles of hunters; other scholars have “suggested that there is a sort of natural match between the rural environment and the experiences of rural life, and serving in the military.”

This is an old link. Hunting and hawking were “warlike sports which, while diverting the warrior from his peacetime duties, helped him sharpen his martial skills,” wrote one historian. The U.S. Army encouraged its recruits to hunt soon after they began formal rifle training.

This pattern led the two sociologists to explore the relationships between rates of military recruitment and the rates of hunting licenses issued state by state. Clearly, states with high unemployment sent more recruits to the military. But there was a stronger association between military enlistment and hunting licenses.

The higher the percentage of people who hunt, the higher the proportion of military recruits — and, eventually rates of fatalities in the Iraq War.

With a small plane-side ceremony, the body of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq arrives at Dallas/Ft. Worth International Airport April 30, 2008.
Photo: Julie Ardery/Daily Yonder

The sociologists suggest that the historic link between hunting and the military persists, despite the high-tech nature of contemporary warfare. And, in the days of an all-volunteer army, this relationship is important to understand.

Since there is a positive relationship between hunting and military recruitment, DeFronzo and Gill write, the popularity of hunting may affect how many people are willing to enlist. Enlistment rates fell 3.44 percent between 1999 and 2003. It may be that the war discouraged recruitment, of course. “But this drop in enlistments was paralleled by a decrease in licensed hunters during the same period of 2.67 percent,” the sociologists wrote. “Both the number of licensed hunters and military enlistments continued to decline in 2004 and 2005.”

A decline in hunters — a phenomenon addressed recently by the West Virginia legislature — could also lead to a further decline in willing recruits.

April 2008 was the deadliest month for U.S. military forces since November of last year. Last month, 51 U.S. servicemen and women died in the Iraq War (only 45 names have been released thus far; no home town was given for one of those soldiers.) Of the 44 fallen soldiers whose home towns are known, 9 came from rural communities, including Gaylord, Michigan; Teachey, North Carolina; and Mohave Valley, Arizona.

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