The number of blacks joining the U.S. military has plunged by more than one-third since the Afghanistan and Iraq wars began, as relatives of potential recruits are discouraging them from joining the armed services.
According to data obtained by The Associated Press, the decline covers all four military services for active duty recruits. The drop is even more dramatic when National Guard and Reserve recruiting is included.
The findings reflect the growing unpopularity of the wars, particularly the Iraq conflict, among family members and other adults who exert influence over high school and college students considering the military as a place to serve their country, further their education or build a career.
Walking past the Army recruiting station in downtown Washington, D.C., this past week, Sean Glover said he has done all he can to talk black relatives out of joining the military.
"I don't think it's a good time. I don't support the government's efforts here and abroad," said Glover, 36. "There's other ways you can pay for college. There's other ways you can get your life together. Joining the Army, the military, comes at a very high price."
The message comes as no surprise to the Pentagon. At the Defense Department, efforts are under way to increase the size of the Army and Marine Corps so the country can better wage what the military believes will be a long battle against terrorism.
"The global war on terror has taken its toll, no question," said Curt Gilroy, the Pentagon's director of accession policy, in an Associated Press interview.
Marine Commandant Gen. James T. Conway agreed that the bloodshed in Iraq where more than 3,540 U.S. troops have died is the biggest deterrent for prospective recruits.
"The daily death toll that comes out is, I think, causing people who are the influencers of young men and women in America to take a second look," he said. "So I think that's probably the single most dominant feature."
According to Pentagon data, there were nearly 51,500 new black recruits for active duty and reserves in 2001. That number fell to less than 32,000 in 2006, a 38 percent decline.
When only active duty troops are counted, the number of black recruits went from more than 31,000 in 2002 to about 23,600 in 2006, almost one-quarter fewer.
The decline is particularly stark for the Army. Blacks represented about 23 percent of the active Army's enlisted recruits in 2000, but 12.4 percent in 2006. Blacks make up about 13 percent of the overall U.S. population.
The decline in black recruits overall has been offset partly by an increase in Hispanic recruits and those who classify themselves as other races or nationalities.
This category could include people who consider themselves Portuguese, or of other European descent that are not covered by the main categories of white, Asian/Pacific Islander, American Indian/Alaskan, black or Hispanic.
The active duty services largely have met recruiting targets in the past two years, while the Army, Army National Guard and Air National Guard fell short of their goals last month.
Sgt. Terry Wright, an Army recruiter in Tampa, Florida, said young people in the black community have more education and job opportunities now than when he joined the service 14 years ago.
"I go to high schools every day, and for the most part it strikes me how many of them are serious about going to college," said Wright, 32.
He acknowledged recruiters are spending more time with parents and other adults from whom potential recruits seek advice. In addition, he said recruiters are speaking more often to community and ethnic groups to encourage military service.
According to Conway, the Marine commandant, Marine recruiters "used to spend four hours with the young recruit and four hours with those people that we would call the influencers: the parents, the pastors, the coaches, the teachers." Now, he said, they spend four hours with recruits and 14 hours with influencers.
Gilroy, the Pentagon official, said the improving economy is giving potential recruits more opportunities for better paying jobs outside the military.
But he said the growing dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq among black political and community leaders, as well as parents and teachers, is a major factor, too.
"The influencers of these youth have a larger effect on African-Americans," Gilroy said. "Some have argued that, because of the makeup of African-American families and the relatively more significant roles (the families) play, moms have a greater influence on their families. And we know that moms, in general, do not support the war."
Citing high-profile black leaders such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, Gilroy said, "We hear greater criticism of this administration's policies and greater concerns about the effects of the war."
He said it is up to the country's leaders, particularly members of Congress who have served in the military, to "talk about the nobility of service."
With detailed, color-coded graphs, the military can chart the erosion in support for the war among the adults who surround recruits of all ethnicities.
A green line denoting the percentage of grandparents likely to recommend military service shows the steepest drop from a high of 56 percent in mid-2004 to 34 percent last fall. Support is lowest among mothers. At the start of the war, 36 percent of moms would recommend military service; by last fall, it was 25 percent.
Sgt. Carlos Alvarez, a recruiting station commander in Tampa, Florida, said many minorities have strong family ties and winning over parents, grandparents and other relatives is critical when talking to potential recruits.
"If you don't have a good relationship with the parents, you're not going to go anywhere," he said. "The kid might want to do it, but it's all about mom and dad."
Alvarez said it is not just high school students who turn to their parents for approval. Potential recruits in their late 20s will tell him, "I need to speak to my mom."
Conway said Marine recruiters need to "pump up the volume a little bit in terms of their recruiting efforts."
The military services, meanwhile, have created Internet sites that offer videos, downloads, interest tests and special pages for parents.
"You Made Them Strong. We'll Make Them Army Strong," says the headline on the Army's Web site for parents. It includes details on salaries, benefits, bonuses, education and training as well as stories about how a recruit made her decision to join and how one soldier deployed to war.
The Navy, Air Force and Marine recruiting sites offer similar information, often also in Spanish. Also available are personal stories and videos of service members.
"I've tasked our recruiters with ensuring that our minority percentages stay strong," Conway said. "We just want to make sure that we continue to look like America in the Marine Corps."
At the same time, the military is opening the door to many recruits it has not welcomed in the past. That includes people who are a bit older; who score lower on aptitude tests; and who have medical conditions such as asthma or attention deficit disorders that can be controlled better now with medicine.
The Army, for example, increased its age limit for recruits from 35 to 42.
But the key, Gilroy said, is to continue to shore up recruiting budgets, particularly for the Army and Marine Corps, who are bearing the brunt of the service on the wars' front lines.
"Recruiting is at the heart of the volunteer force," said Gilroy. "If we don't get recruiting right, nothing else matters."
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