SUPERIOR, Mont. – Longtime guidance counselor Dan Lucier studies hallway-mounted photos of past graduating classes at Superior High School, pointing to the teenagers who joined the military.
There are usually one or two in each class of about 30 students who graduate from the one-story wooden school in Superior, a town of 900 residents in the forested northern Rockies.
But the class of 2003 was the most striking for its military service, coming two years after the attacks of Sept. 11 and just months after the country went to war with Iraq. Three graduates of Superior High enlisted in the military, so many that the county briefly held the distinction of producing the highest number of Army recruits per capita in the nation.
One became a military doctor, one is a sergeant currently serving in Iraq, and the third became a bomb disposal expert who lost both arms when an explosive device she was trying to dismantle detonated. The three made their decisions to join the Army independently, but their experiences form a tiny, unique microcosm of young Americans who signed up for the military after 9/11.
Their service also demonstrates how the legacy of 9/11 rippled across the nation, from ground zero and into small towns like Superior thousands of miles away.
Dr. Tim Park, 26, a member of that class of 2003, said he joined the Army out of a sense of patriotism.
"When you hike up one of our community's surrounding mountain trails, look out onto the grand vista below, and then go home to your warm, peaceful neighborhood sitting next to the lazily flowing Clark Fork, it's hard not to fall in love with your country," Park wrote in an email from San Antonio, where he is a captain and surgery resident at Brooke Army Medical Center.
Ten years after Sept. 11, recruiting numbers are down, but Superior remains a patriotic place. Many homes fly the American flag. The bridge across the Clark Fork River was renamed the Mineral County Veterans Memorial Bridge after 9/11. The county courthouse contains a homemade display of photo portraits and news clippings about residents who have served or are serving in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The display includes photos of Park, plus former Superior High basketball star Mandi Metzger and Mary Dague, all members of that Class of 2003. Metzger is a staff sergeant, currently deployed in Iraq. Dague lost both arms to a roadside bomb and now lives in the suburbs of Seattle, where she is an inspirational figure to her friends.
Park said he was not surprised that Superior led the nation in recruiting. People raised in close-knit communities often see serving in the military as a noble job, he said.
"I was taught at an early age to not take anything for granted, and to especially appreciate the freedoms we enjoy in our country," he said.
"I wouldn't say that people are unusually patriotic in Mineral County. What I do think is true is that those of us from Mineral County have a heart-strings connection to our country."
Park is hoping to become a trauma surgeon, so he can help wounded military members.
Metzger did not want to go to college, and enlisted shortly after graduation, her mother Diane said.
"I was surprised," she said of her daughter's career choice. "But once she got in, she took off. It was exactly what she needed to do."
She ended up going to college, after all, while in the military and has an associate's degree in management, her mother said.
Diane Metzger admits she worries about her daughter's safety in Iraq. Mandi Metzger works in food service, which includes delivering food to soldiers in the field, her mother said. Her daughter was looking for opportunity when she joined the Army, and now plans to make the military her career.
Tired of waiting tables in Superior, Dague enlisted in the Army. She rejected traditional female jobs and became a bomb disposal sergeant, part of a team that detonated or dismantled the war's ubiquitous improvised explosive devices. On Nov. 4, 2007, a blasting cap she was working on went off and blew off both of her arms. That made her one of the few double amputees among female veterans.
Dague did not return several messages seeking an interview. But her mother, Terra Pruitt, said her daughter would have joined the service even if 9/11 had not happened. Brought up in a military family, Dague was not overly patriotic, but respected the true costs of freedom, Pruitt wrote in an email.
"She was raised to respect the work and sacrifice that everyone in the military makes every day," Pruitt wrote.
She was discharged from the hospital 17 days after the bomb exploded, and has been working hard to adapt to her new situation since, Pruitt wrote. She uses prosthetic arms, has a service dog, and lots of human help. Dague retired out of the Army and is going to school in the Seattle area, her mother wrote. She stays in touch with members of her bomb disposal unit, who consider themselves a family.
"Mary has had to face all challenges with open eyes in order to see the wonder of life," Pruitt wrote. "There is no hindsight here, as what good would it do?"
Nationally, the highest per-capita recruitment rate in 2010 was recorded by Lyon County, Nev., near Carson City. That county sent 54 recruits out of an 18-to-24-year-old population of 4,059 people to the military, a rate of 13.3 per 1,000, according to The National Priorities Project, a Massachusetts-based group that each year produces statistics about military recruiting.
The project's recruiting report for 2010, the last full year for which data is available, found that the weak national economy was good for military recruiting. The U.S. Army met its goal of 74,500 recruits by October, and the quality and educational attainment of recruits was improving.
In total numbers, Los Angeles County in California led the nation, sending 1,437 recruits to the military. Rounding out the top five counties for recruits were Maricopa County, Ariz., Harris County, Texas, San Diego County, Calif., and Bexar County, Texas.
The South sends the highest rate of recruits to the military, followed by the West, the Midwest and the Northeast. Among states, Maine, Georgia, South Carolina, Wyoming and Nevada had the highest per capita rates of recruitment.
It's not unusual for Montana to send a lot of people into the military. The state sent 10 percent of its total population during World War II, and many returned to Montana afterward. But things are different now.
Ed Heppe, a local military historian and Veterans of Foreign Wars member who was drafted into the military during the Vietnam War, said none of the people who served in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11 have returned to Superior.