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thedrifter
03-25-07, 09:39 AM
Military update: 'Bush's war' seen as depressing black re-enlistment

By Tom Philpott

March 25 2007

When Danny Edwards, 26, enlisted in the Army in April 2001, he expected to stay for a career.

He changed his mind in 2003 while serving in Iraq - a war being fought for reasons he said he still didn't understand.

Edwards left the Army on the front edge of what might be an unprecedented wave of black service members whose perception of the military as an avenue of opportunity has been altered by a war deeply unpopular in black communities.

Two years ago, we reported here that Army statistics showed a 40 percent decline in black recruits from 2000 through early 2005. The percentage still hovers around 15 percent, making recruiting difficult.

New data from the Defense Department show the ripple effect of that shift and deepening disapproval of the Iraq war on the numbers of blacks choosing to re-enlist in U.S. ground forces.

In 2001, the Army re-enlisted 176,352 soldiers for a second hitch, and 23 percent - 40,823 -- were blacks. In 2006, a bigger Army needed to re-sign 207,135 first-term soldiers. This time, the proportion of blacks was only 14.4 percent, continuing a four-year slide.

In fact, in 2006, the Army re-enlisted 30,000 more first-term soldiers than in 2001. Yet, blacks among them fell almost 11,000.

Over the same period, the proportion of whites among Army first-term re-enlistees rose steadily from 59.4 percent in 2001 to 67.6 by 2006. Among first-term re-enlistees, Hispanics held steady at around 12 percent.

Black representation among soldiers re-enlisting for a third term or a fourth also has softened but modestly - from 33 percent in 2001 to 29 percent last year.

Hispanics closed this gap, with their proportion of career re-enlistments rising from 8.3 percent in 2001 to 11.2 percent.

In the Marine Corps, black retention shows an even sharper decline. In 2001, blacks made up 12.5 percent of all first-term Marines who re-enlisted - a total of 13,455. By last year, that proportion had fallen to 7.1 percent, or 7,976 black Marines re-enlisting for a second tour.

The Marine Corps also saw blacks become less interested in the career force. In 2001, blacks made up 18.6 percent of Marines signing their third enlistment contracts. By 2006, that proportion slipped to 15.4 percent.

The proportion of blacks re-enlisting in the Navy or Air Force hasn't fallen significantly, even as those forces have declined in size.

Army and Marine personnel chiefs, both of whom are black three-star generals, were unavailable to comment by our deadline, aides said.

One officer who finds the data disturbing is retired Brig. Gen. Robert Cocroft, executive director of National Association for Black Veterans Inc.

Cocroft said blacks, for decades, viewed the military as a path out of poverty and a "meritocracy" where race didn't hinder advancement. A sharp downshift in re-enlistments "is a telling indication that something is amiss about the military experience" for blacks, he said.

The difference, he said, appears to be the war in Iraq. The black community, at its roots, is more conservative than it is portrayed in the media or popular culture, Cocroft said. Black churches reinforce Christian values, one of which is that "actions be predicated on truth."

"Too many active-component soldiers view current wars - especially the war in Iraq - as being 'Bush's war' and that it was not predicated on the truth," he said.

Edwards said that while he was in Iraq, superiors "gassed us up" about how proud they made their communities. But, Edwards said, he didn't feel that pride when he returned to his neighborhood in Savannah, Ga. "People here in America don't care about that war, man," he said. "If you wasn't a victim or family of a victim, most people really don't give a care about it."

Edwards advises youths to pass on the Army and avoid "the hell" of Iraq.

A friend he made in the Army, Herold Noel, is from Brooklyn, N.Y. He's been the subject of a documentary on homeless veterans.

Noel said he, too, envisioned an Army career to support his family.

He was only 19 when he enlisted in 2000 and had a wife and twin babies living with his mother.

He said, "I'd see the recruiting officer walk down my neighborhood, in the ghetto, with the shiny shoes. I always wanted to be like that. ... That's why I joined. People would look up to you."

He recalled being shown photos of post housing, with kids at play in large backyards. Noel said he chose a job specialty, fuel handler, that he thought would keep him off the front lines. Many blacks, he said, aren't "looking to be heroes." Like him, they serve to better themselves and their families.

But in Iraq, Noel said, combat support jobs are front-line duty. He saw plenty of violence and suffers from post-traumatic stress.

It deepened, he said, when he returned to his neighborhood and heard other blacks disparage the war and shrug off what he - and other soldiers of all races - had endured.

"I felt such a disconnect from my community," he said.

He recalled visiting a motor vehicles office to renew his driver's license, which had expired while he was in Iraq. Noel's sergeant had told him that his license would be renewed for free if he said he was an Iraq veteran.

Not true.

Noel said, "This lady looked at me and said, 'I don't care if you came from Iraq. You didn't fight for me. You fought for Bush!' And this lady was my own (race)! I (expletive) snapped. Excuse my language, but I snapped.

"I talk to my own peers. They say, 'Yo, I told you not to go, man. There's a war out on these streets. They're raising rents on us.' So for me to say (while) in the ghetto, 'I'm a soldier' - they say, 'So what?' "

Write Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA 20120-1111; e-mail milupdate@aol.com; or visit www.militaryupdate.com.

Ellie