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The whole family joins the army

Lynette Mendez, 43, Holyoke, Mass.

By Beth Kowitt
Last Updated: February 3, 2009: 11:23 AM ET

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Lynette Mendez, her sons Samuel and Ezxavier and her daughter Cheramie have all turned to the military.

(Fortune Magazine) -- Lynette Mendez wears pink sweaters and recently took in an unwanted cat. She is a mother hen who shuttles her daughter, Cheramie, to her after-school job and picks up her kids' friends from work. So it's hard to picture Mendez decked out in camouflage, scaling walls or firing M-16s. But that's what she'll be doing as soon as the paperwork goes through. Despite having a master's degree in accounting, she can't find a job - so she has joined the U.S. Army Reserve.

Mendez concedes that basic training may be a physical struggle, but the single mom will do it to gain the financial stability she longs for. "I know we're going to be in a better position," she said, sitting in the living room of her fourth-floor walkup apartment in Holyoke, Mass. While she has found odd jobs, she says, "It's never been anything steady. It's been here and there. And it's awful."

The military has become an employer of last resort for Mendez's family, reflecting a national trend toward higher enlistment rates in the midst of recession. Her older son, Samuel Morales, 23, joined the army and left on Dec. 31 for basic training in Kentucky. Ezxavier Morales, 20, decided to go the same route and will leave for South Carolina on Feb. 11. For all of them, it's a way out of Holyoke, which has an unemployment rate of 9.5%.

Mendez tries to stay upbeat, but she admits she never expected her life to turn out this way. At 21 she came to Massachusetts from Puerto Rico and earned a bachelor's degree part-time while raising her kids. After graduating, Mendez landed a job examining claims at a health insurance company, but her division closed down in 2000 after she'd worked there for five years. She fell into what she now identifies as depression. "It takes a toll on you, when you don't have a job," she says. "It's not easy to be nice to people."

Things deteriorated further in 2005 after Mendez's husband, who had been injured at his job as a mechanic, died of complications from the medication he was taking. Mendez went back to school, figuring that a master's degree in accounting and taxation from American International College, the same place she had earned her bachelor's, would give her the edge she needed to get a full-time job.

She kept looking while studying, but since finishing up in December, nothing has come through; even applications to Wal-Mart and Burger King haven't worked out. Her final unemployment check arrived in mid-January. Soon she'll have to figure out how to start paying off her $36,000 student loan.

That unemployment check - and Cheramie's Social Security benefit from her father's death - have been Mendez's only steady source of income, apart from irregular part-time work. At one point she held three jobs a day, working two gigs as a bookkeeper while squeezing in a job as a school bus monitor. Everyone chips in, including her daughter, who works at least 20 hours a week at McDonald's while going to high school.

Mendez stays in touch with her sisters and mother in Puerto Rico but glosses over her struggles. "I'm ashamed of telling them my problems," she says. "You think you would have been in a better position by now." Mendez worries that her job woes have turned her kids off of higher education. "My oldest will say, 'You have so much schooling, and look at you,'" she says. "It's like they lost faith." Not completely, though, and not all of them. Cheramie, 17, plans to go to college and has dreams of law school. How does she expect to pay for it? She's signed up for the U.S. Army Reserve.

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