Hispanic recruiting Double-edged sword

March 3, 2006 

Commentary by Raul Reyes


When I was in 10th grade, the Army set up a mobile recruiting station in the parking lot of my East Los Angeles high school. I stopped by long enough to pick up a free pair of gym trunks emblazoned "Army." I wore them a lot until my father, an Army veteran himself, discarded them without asking me. I was annoyed at my dad. Although I had no intention of enlisting, I felt cool and macho in my Army trunks.
Years later, the armed forces' marketing has become more sophisticated, using tricked-out Hummer displays, hands-on combat simulators and free meals to entice recruits. Hispanic enlistment has become a top priority. Bilingual recruiters are a regular presence at high schools with large Latino populations, and Army advertising has become common on Spanish-language TV.
Their efforts have become so aggressive that a counter-recruitment movement has emerged, led by groups such as the Aztec Warrior Project for Peace. The group says recruiters are glossing over the risks involved in military service. The fact is, enlistment has slumped among the general population and fallen ! among blacks. As the country's largest and fastest-growing minority group, Hispanics are a logical target. From 2001 to last year, Hispanic enlistments in the Army rose 25%, and 18% in the military overall.
Latinos enlist for the same reasons others do: patriotism, educational benefits, job training and a sense of purpose. Like other minorities, Latinos have often seen the military as a path toward social acceptance. Members of my own family have donned the uniform.
Yet with our country at war, ! Latinos are uniquely vulnerable to recruiting material. Hispanics are more likely to attend inferior public schools than other Americans are. We have high dropout and incarceration rates. According to the Pew Center, we are younger, poorer and less educated.
The military is a double-edged sword for many Latinos because it offers opportunities not available in civilian life, but it is fraught with clear risks. Worse yet, with a few notable exceptions such as Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the former top commander in Iraq. Latinos occupy the lower rungs of the ladder, making up only 4.7% of the officer corps.

Military service is an honorable commitment. I applaud all Americans who serve. But my heart breaks for those who choose the military because the most dangerous option happens to be their best option.

The military's successful Latino marketing campaign is the flip side of our governm! ent's failure to provide socioeconomic opportunities for all. It is a tragic irony that many young people are heading for Iraq, trying to reach the American dream unattainable at home.
Raul Reyes is an attorney in New York and a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors