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Latinos enlisting in record numbers

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 arrived in the United States 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 Los Angeles, cites a variety of reasons: aggressive recruiters who prey on youth; the enticement of skipping the usual five years that 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."

Curtis Gilroy, director of accession policy for the office of the secretary of defense, said that 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.

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