In June, the wiry 18-year-old walked across the Oregon High School stage at his graduation ceremony. Now Fred Machado is at a military base 2,000 miles away, training to become a Marine.

He joins more than 2,700 Wisconsinites younger than 25 entering active military duty this year.

Despite the dangers of military service at a time when the U.S. is fighting two wars, in 2009 the portion of Wisconsin public high school graduates planning to enlist reached its highest level in the past decade — even more than right after the 9/11 attacks — according to data from the state Department of Public Instruction.

Recruiters say the lengthy economic downturn, which has created double-digit unemployment rates in some parts of Wisconsin, and a strong sense of patriotism, especially in rural areas, have made recruiting easier.

The Janesville Marine recruiter who signed up Machado said he has been “flooded” with applicants.

“Before it was kind of tough to find people. Now ... they’re coming to you,” Sgt. Jeremy McCormick said.

Statewide, 3.2 percent of graduating seniors, or 2,077 students, said they planned to enlist in 2009, but some rural districts reported much higher rates, DPI figures show. (Numbers for 2010 aren’t yet available.) Topping the list was the Frederic School District in far northwestern Wisconsin, where 18.4 percent of graduating seniors planned to enter the military.

The percentages of state students planning to join the military has varied from 2.4 percent to 3 percent since the 1999-2000 school year. The recent shift toward the military has been accompanied by a dip in the percentage of students planning to head straight into jobs after high school, data show.

In Wisconsin, the Army — by far the largest recruiter — is above its goal for the first time in five years, said 1st Sgt. Bobby Jones, who supervises the recruiting effort for Wisconsin’s southern Army command based in Madison.

Critics of military recruitment point to billions spent on enticing young people into the armed forces and easy access to high schools as factors in the upswing in interest. They decry glitzy recruiting pitches that can persuade unsophisticated teenagers to sign up for potentially dangerous duty.

Recruiters insist they are upfront about the hazards of military service — including the strong possibility of deployment to a combat zone.

Machado, a Honduran immigrant with seven siblings, said he was looking for a way to pay for college while also seeking to demonstrate his patriotism and to make his family proud.

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“I’ve looked into scholarships, but ever since I was a freshman, the military has called to me,” said Machado, who was courted by the Navy and Air Force but finally settled on the branch that bills itself as “The Few. The Proud.”

He’s aware of the potential dangers: “When you enlist you know the Marines have a history of being the first ones in and the last ones out.”

Once Machado completes four years of active service, he will have to decide whether to remain on active duty or fulfill the remaining time in the reserves. He plans to get a bachelor’s degree and become an officer.

The new recruit had questions for McCormick about Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I don’t see myself going there,” Machado said. “I would if I’m required, if it’s needed for Marines to be there.”

But McCormick said the odds of being deployed to a combat zone are about 50 percent since roughly half of the Marine Corps has been sent to fight.

Among the recruiting tools the Army uses in its recruiting efforts is showing off its elite parachute team. A recent demonstration of the Golden Knights’ prowess at the Middleton High School football field sparked protests by anti-war activists, who charged the school was being too accommodating to military recruiters.

During the June assembly, nearly 100 protesters held signs saying “No recruitment in our schools” and greeted students with forms that allow them to opt out of being included on lists given to recruiters. Federal law requires public schools to provide equal access to students for all post-secondary institutions, including the military and universities.

Pat Grobschmidt, an Army recruiting spokeswoman in Milwaukee, said the branch makes no apologies for using the Golden Knights as a recruiting tool.

“As far as the group that demonstrated in Middleton, one of the things we fight for is the freedom of speech,” Grobschmidt said. “They (protesters) have every right to be there. ... We just like them to allow us to give our message as well.”

The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with its partners — Wisconsin Public Television, Wisconsin Public Radio and the UW-Madison School of Journalism & Mass Communication — and other news media.

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