LEXINGTON, S.C. – Bored with life on his family's South Carolina horse farm, Willard McCormick decided that military service was the right plan for his future. And when the Army dangled its new, $20,000 recruiting bonus in front of him, the decision got a lot easier.
"I wasn't going to go right away, but I heard about the bonus and decided to jump on it," McCormick, 19, said a couple of days after signing up.
The new bonus comes with a "Quick Ship" provision that cuts the average 40-day wait time between sign-up and departure for basic training.
McCormick, who leaves for basic and infantry training at Fort Benning, Ga., on Sept. 6., said the accelerated departure doesn't bother him or his family.
"My three brothers are ready for me to go," he said with a smile.
Since the bonus was unveiled in July, more than 6,200 recruits have signed up to begin basic training before Oct. 1, a move that boosts end-of-fiscal year recruiting numbers, Army officials said.
"People are calling here saying $20,000 is more than they've made in the past two years," said Staff Sgt. Brent Feltner, 27, commander of a strip-mall recruiting station in this central South Carolina town.
Feltner said most recruits are happy to leave early. "Maybe they want to get out of South Carolina, get away from Mom and Dad," he said.
The Army's offer stands out to many in a state where the unemployment level is fourth highest in the country, at 5.9 percent in July, up from 5.5 percent in June. It was 6.2 percent in July a year ago.
Plus, the bonus comes on top of other benefits, such college tuition assistance, and medical and dental care.
"There's not a job out there that they can enter with zero experience, that will help them pay for college," Feltner said.
Half the bonus is paid out on completion of basic training and training in individual specialties, some of which can take at least a year, Feltner said. The remainder is to be doled out over the course of active-duty enlistment, which must be for at least two years, although some specialties require longer enlistments.
The accelerated sign-up program does not shorten training time or send soldiers into the field before they've had their specialized training, said Douglas Smith, spokesman for the Army Recruiting Command at Fort Knox, Ky.,
The Army has offered bonuses before -- some ranging from about $10,000 to $15,000 -- but $20,000 is the largest amount Smith said he's seen in his 26 years with the military.
"We've had a good August. It's been a good tool to use," said Smith, who added the bonus will help the Army reach a goal of recruiting 80,000 soldiers in fiscal year 2007.
After missing its monthly recruiting goals for two consecutive months, the Army announced in August that it had slightly exceeded its target for July. It signed up 9,972 people, up from the 9,750 it was hoping for.
Despite the possibility of being sent to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, those opting for the Army bonus seem to have already made up their minds to join the military -- they just haven't settled on which branch to join, Feltner said.
"It helps to solidify their decision," he said.
Sgt. John Tate, another recruiter in the Lexington office, said the Army's job options, not just the bonuses, play a big role in recruiting. One female recruit who signed up recently opted to become a paralegal with a subspecialty in airborne parachutist training.
"She wanted to jump out of planes, but she also wanted inside, office work," Tate said.