DILLON -- Joining the Army seemed like the right thing to do for Carson Turner's 17-year-old son.
"The Army would be a better option for him than sticking around town and trying to find something," Turner said.
Turner's son, Matt, is like many young people in Dillon County, where one in 10 workers is jobless.
In part due to the lack of local job prospects, the county's young people sign up to join the Army at a rate three times higher than the state average, an analysis of recruiting statistics shows.
Almost seven of every 1,000 young men and women in Dillon County join the active-duty Army, that analysis found. That compares with the S.C. average of slightly more than two enlistees per 1,000 youths.
Dillon County is a gold mine for Army recruiters.
The Pee Dee county ranks among the top 100 in the United States in the percentage of young people who enlist in the Army, according to National Priorities Project, a nonprofit research group that studies federal data.
But Dillon isn't alone.
The story is similar in other economically depressed S.C. counties.
Eight of the top 10 counties for Army recruiters ranked by enlistees per 1,000 young people have jobless rates higher than the state average of 6.6 percent.
The state's Pee Dee region including Dillon, in particular, is fertile territory. Chesterfield, Marion and Marlboro counties also rank among the top 10 S.C. counties in the rate of young people joining the Army.
Other high unemployment counties fill out almost all of the top 10 counties. Only two of the 10, Dorchester and Kershaw, have jobless rates below the state average.
The paint peeling from the storefronts of discount shops and payday-loan offices along Main Street are signs of Dillon County's economic woes.
The county's 24 percent poverty rate is twice the national average and well above the S.C. average of 15.6 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Education almost is as rare as jobs. Only 61 percent of Dillon's adults graduated from high school, well below the S.C. average of 76 percent, according to census statistics.
High school seniors graduating today face bleak job prospects in the county of 31,000, said Julie Von Frank, principal at Dillon High School.
Perdue Farms and Harbor Freight Tools, which employ 1,000 and 350, respectively, are the county's top private-sector employers, Von Frank said. "The good jobs are in Florence, Myrtle Beach or Lumberton (N.C)."
To find a job, about a third of the county's workers must travel outside Dillon to their place of employment.
Besides economics, there are cultural reasons why young people in the Pee Dee may be more likely to join the military, said Porter Lillis, a sociology professor at Francis Marion University in Florence.
"There's a familiarity with the military," Lillis said. "It's a rural area where outdoor work is not seen as onerous. People are raised with firearms and hunting. They're used to living out in the field.
"And we love football, aggressive sports."
Wants and needs
Army recruiters visit Dillon County's high schools regularly.
Sometimes, they hang out around the cafeterias during lunch hour, meeting students and handing out brochures and business cards.
Other times, they make presentations to classes.
The military recruiters are treated like college recruiters, said Wesley Revels, Lake View High School's guidance counselor. "Part of our responsibility is to create an awareness of work opportunities."
Lake View, one of three Dillon County high schools, is a frequent destination of recruiters such as Sgt. 1st Class Tates Langley.
Dressed in the Army's grayish-green, digitized-camouflage uniform, Langley recently lugged a backpack and thick, black attache case into an advanced composition class.
He placed a black-and-gold table cover over a desk, making sure the word "Army" was centered on the front. Then, he placed brochures and pamphlets on the desktop.
"What do you know about the Army?" Langley asked.
"They fight wars." "They get shot at a lot." "You do a lot of push-ups," students answered.
Langley didn't start with a pitch for the Army. Instead, he steered the class toward a discussion of setting life goals and coming up with a plan to achieve them.
On the classroom's electronic chalkboard, Langley wrote "WANTS." Under the word, he listed the student's answers.
"Car. More Money. More clothes. Big House. Jewelry."
At the top of the next column, he wrote "NEEDS." Below it, he added the students' answers.
"Money. Education. Shelter. Food. Clothes. Health Care."
To meet their needs, the students agreed they must keep up their grades and further their education.
Eventually, the conversation turned to how the Army could help by offering job training as well as money up to $73,836 from the Army and the G.I. Bill for college.
Langley's pitch was effective, said 14-year-old Latara Armstrong, who attended a later presentation at Dillon High.
"He gets you thinking about what you have to do to get there to reach your goals," said Armstrong, a ninth-grader.
For most students, joining the Army isn't an immediate goal, Langley said. But it may be a couple of years from now, after they've had a taste of college or tried to hold down a job.
To illustrate, Langley told the students why he joined the Army.
Langley said he wanted to go to college and become a lawyer but didn't have the money. Instead, he worked two jobs, loading and unloading trucks. He never had an entire day off.
One day, a recruiter called Langley.
"'You sound tired,'" Langley recalled the recruiter saying.
Langley explained his work situation. He'd like to have just one job, he told the recruiter, but needed to work two to make enough money.
"Why don't you come on down?" the recruiter said.
Langley, who wanted a career in law enforcement, enlisted and joined the Army's military police.
Twelve years later, he's working his way through college and hopes to become an Army officer. His long-term goal still is to go to law school.
"Sometimes, things don't work out the way you planned them," Langley told the students. "That's why you need a Plan A, Plan B and even a Plan C."
'I've had my fears'
Right now, the Army is Matt Turner's "Plan A."
He joined under a split-option contract that allowed him to attend basic training last summer at Fort Jackson and then report to a Reserve unit during his senior year in high school.
After graduation, he'll join the active-duty ranks and take computer training at Fort Gordon, Ga.
"I just feel like I'll be doing something for my country," Matt Turner said. "That will be better than sitting around home and not doing anything."
Since he's only 17, Matt's parents had to give their permission for him to enlist. They went with their son to meet Langley at the Army recruiting office in Dillon.
Carson and Brenda Turner wanted to make sure that joining the military was something their son wanted to do.
Also, with the Army fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the possibility that Matt could be sent into harm's way worried the Turners.
"I've had my fears," Brenda Turner said. "But he could be standing on a street corner and get killed.
"I never tried to talk him out of it or discourage him," she said. "If it was something he wanted to do, then I was there 100 percent behind him."
Carson Turner said his son faces a different world than when he graduated from Dillon High in 1981.
Carson Turner said he landed a good job at Mohawk Carpets, married and raised a family of three. Matt is the youngest.
Then, in the mid-1990s, Mohawk closed, and Carson Turner was out of work. Luckily, he found a job at the local hospital.
"I have mixed emotions," Carson Turner said about his son joining the Army. "But he was going to have to leave Dillon.
"This is the place where I grew up, and I had to tell my son he had to leave."