Despite opposition to the Iraq war, pride motivates many to sign up for military duty
May 15, 2006
By Justin Berton
Amalia Avila never supported the war. But after her first son, Victor Gonzalez, told her he wanted to join the Marines, she felt a mixture of fear, concern and, finally, pride.
"This war makes no sense to me," Avila said last week in her Watsonville home. "I'd ask him why he wanted to go, and he'd just say his brothers needed his help. ... But when Victor did get into the Marines, when that day came, I was so proud of him."
Avila paused to allow her tears. "It was a beautiful day."
It was also one of the last days Avila saw her son. Gonzalez, 19, who was born in Salinas shortly after Avila immigrated from Mexico, served a little more than a month in Anbar province before he was killed by a roadside mortar explosion in October 2003.
The discord between Avila's unsettled feelings toward the war and her son's sacrifice reflects a growing paradox within the Latino community. A majority of Latinos believe the troops should come home as soon as possible, according to Pew Hispanic Center surveys, yet enlistment of Latinos has steadily risen in the past decade.
According to the Department of Defense, in 2004, the most recent year of confirmed data, Latinos made up 13 percent of new recruits. This is an all-time high, nearly twice the percentage of 10 years earlier. Latinos' presence in the military still does not match their 17 percent share of the overall population ages 18 to 24. And African Americans continue to be overrepresented in the military, making up about 18 percent of active duty personnel but only 13 percent of the U.S. population. Nonetheless, the absolute number of Latinos entering the armed forces continues to grow.
"The dichotomy is this," said Steven Ybarra, a member of the nonprofit political advocacy group Latinos for America, "on the one hand, our children view serving in the military as showing they are part of this community; while on the other, their grandparents and parents have seen this all before.
"But within the Latino family unit," Ybarra added, "maybe more than others, there's a value system where the parents will look at their son and say, 'Hijo, you're a man now. You're going to do what you're going to do, and I will respect that' -- even if it means going to war."
Historically, Latinos have been underrepresented in the military, said Beth Asch, a senior economist at the Rand National Defense Research Institute who has studied Latino recruitment trends. An informal theory held that the rising number of Latino enlistments during the 1990s and early part of this decade simply mirrored a rise in the group's overall population.
"Their growth in population was fast," Asch said. "Their growth in the military was faster."
Latinos accounted for about 17.5 percent of Americans ages 18 to 24 in 2000, while 13.7 percent were African American, 61.6 percent were non-Hispanic white and 4.1 percent were Asian American.
The reasons Latinos are drawn to the military vary, Asch said.
Carlos Montes, an organizer with Latinos Against the War in Lost Angeles, , cites a variety of reasons: Aggressive recruiters who prey on youth; the enticement of skipping the usual five years legal permanent residents must wait before applying for citizenship; the immigrant's desire to assimilate.
"When you're young and naive you see a guy show up on campus, all dressed up, promising things you don't have," Montes said. "That kind of influence, especially in the barrio, can be greater than even a parent's words."
But Dr. Curtis Gilroy, director of Accession Policy for the Office of the Secretary of Defense, said in a national youth poll conducted last year, Latinos ages 18-24 simply showed a "higher propensity to serve" than other ethnic groups.
Gilroy said a full 25 percent of Latino respondents answered the question, "How likely is it that you'll be serving in the military in the next few years?" by marking the box "definitely" or "probably likely." Meanwhile, only 16 percent of African Americans and just 11 percent of whites showed the same interest.
"We just don't know why that is," Gilroy said. "We don't try and get behind the numbers too much."
On the ground in San Jose, Army recruiter Sgt. Brian Ditzler recently fashioned a theory behind the numbers. Ditzler, who was raised by his mother in Corozal, Puerto Rico, and speaks fluent Spanish, staffed a booth during the city's Cinco de Mayo festival. He said of the 22 recruits he enlisted last year, 15 were Latino.
"The remarkable thing that is consistent with Latinos is the sense of pride," Ditzler said. "More than any other group, they have a deep sense of pride about serving for this country."
By comparison, Ditzler observed that his Asian American enlistees were more interested in job-training skills, while African Americans spoke of college tuition as the trade-off. Whites, the recruiter observed, were most intrigued by the "sense of adventure" the Army provided.
"So, knowing that Latinos were focused more on pride," Ditzler added, "that's the thing I'm going to show them: How they can make themselves and their families proud."
For more empirical evidence, researchers such as Asch are just now beginning to examine the results from field studies. Already consistent with Ditzler's observations, Asch said recent post-enlistment surveys indicate Latinos noted "patriotism" and "service to country" as the top two reasons for joining, as well as "duty" and "honor."
Still, according to a Department of Defense poll conducted last year that was aimed at tracking the influences that lead a civilian to enlist, Latino parents were more likely than their African American counterparts to recommend military service to their children as a way to fight the war on terrorism.
"It's a conundrum, for sure," Asch said of the results.
When Orlando Mayorga, a 24-year-old in Antioch, told his mother he wanted to join the Army, he said she was happy for him. Mayorga, who is still awaiting a call for active duty, makes his living cleaning buildings in the East Bay. Born in Nicaragua, he migrated to the United States and obtained an alien resident card as a teenager, he said.
Mayorga enlisted to take advantage of President Bush's decision after Sept. 11 to speed the citizenship process for green card holders who enlist. "The first reason is for citizenship," Mayorga said flatly. "I don't have a second or third reason," he said.
Mayorga's father and three brothers still live in their native Nicaragua, and a sister lives in Costa Rica, he said. After his four-year service, Mayorga will be awarded full citizenship. If he dies while in the Army, citizenship is awarded posthumously.
Despite the risk, Mayorga said family discussions about his enlistment have focused only on what he stands to gain. Even though he signed up to obtain citizenship, his family is proud of his choice.
"My grandfather is proud that I'll be serving," Mayorga said. "My mother is, my father is. My whole family is."
Fernando Suarez del Solar, whose son Marine Lance Cpl. Jesus Suarez was killed in Iraq in 2003, said he felt a reluctance to discuss the casualty risk with his son who had been a citizen since he was 15.
Suarez said Jesus enlisted only after a recruiter told him a year's commitment in the Marines would lead to a job as a Drug Enforcement Administration agent. Since Jesus' death, Suarez has become a counter-recruitment activist and recently participated in the immigration protests in Los Angeles. The combination of the rising Latino death toll, Suarez said, and the recent proposed immigration legislation has only stirred more contentious feelings within him.
"I feel it twice," Suarez said. "First it's: 'My son served this country in the military and died,' and now: 'They're attacking the parents with this legislation.' On one end of the school campus they want our sons to enlist. On the other, they want us out of the country.
"When my son told me he wanted to join, I said 'No, no, no!' " Suarez added. "I never believed in this war, but, I believed in him."
Of the more than 2,400 U.S. casualties in Iraq since 2003, 270 have been Latino, according to the Department of Defense.
Jesse Martinez, 19, was killed after his vehicle crashed in Tal Afar, Iraq in 2004. Jan Martinez described her son as a couch potato before he joined, the kind of teenager who, "didn't have a smile on his face most of the time."
As they watched the events of Sept. 11 on television from their Tracy home, mother and son had different responses.
Martinez said she sensed a war was coming. She did not favor it, she said, nor could she disagree with the action, either. Her son, meanwhile, felt compelled to join the Marines.
"I asked him to wait a little while," she recalled. "I asked him to let things blow over, because I knew things could get worse.
"But once he signed up, he started smiling. He felt good about himself. It gave him a sense of purpose."
After her son's death, Martinez said she still felt ambivalent about the war.
"There are good things and bad things that have come from this," she said. "One of the bad things is that kids die. ... But you still got to be proud of them."
Source: The San Francisco Chronicle