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Military May Seek to Boost Latino Ranks

April 30, 1998|PAUL RICHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — In a move that could ease a recruiting crunch--but also provoke a political backlash--the Pentagon is considering modifying admission rules to bring in more Latinos, a group long underrepresented in the ranks.

Officials are weighing whether to change the military's aptitude test to eliminate "cultural obstacles" that may hold back candidates with Spanish-speaking backgrounds. Also under consideration are proposals to admit more holders of nontraditional secondary-school diplomas, such as general equivalency certificates, and to broaden efforts to reach out to Latinos.

Despite years of Pentagon efforts to boost Latino recruitment, the group now makes up about 6.9% of active-duty personnel, compared to its 11% share of the overall U.S. population.

"If we can find a way to broaden the pool of qualified people, that's a plus," Rudy de Leon, undersecretary of Defense for personnel, said in an interview. Current admissions procedures "may be an artificial restriction on capable Hispanics who want to serve."

With the military's post-Cold War shrinkage ending and the brisk economy soaking up other potential recruits, Pentagon officials are keenly interested in the fast-growing supply of talent offered by the Latino community. Surveys by the military show that young Latinos are more willing than young people of other major ethnic groups to pursue military careers.

But they are often held back by culturally related difficulties on military aptitude tests and by the services' strong preference for candidates with traditional high school diplomas.

For economic and cultural reasons, Latinos' high school dropout rate is especially high, topping 40% nationwide in recent years.

The move to modify the recruiting practices has been pushed hard by Latino advocacy groups and generally has been supported by the White House, which has been promoting greater Latino employment throughout the federal government. But officials at the executive mansion and at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill acknowledge that there could be resistance if the deliberations on military recruitment, now in an early stage, lead to what is perceived as a lowering of standards or an effort to give special consideration to one group.

Proposals to change the recruitment system "run smack into a debate that makes this look like some kind of preference," said a White House official who requested anonymity. "That's the current political environment."

Advocates of greater Latino recruitment noted that once Latinos become servicemen, they have a substantially lower dropout rate than Anglos, blacks or Asian Americans. In past wars, when test scores have counted for less and patriotic fervor has counted for more, the Latino presence has been greater: In the Vietnam War era, when Latinos represented about 5% of the population, 19% of the troops had Latino surnames, according to Pentagon officials.

To be sure, Latinos' presence in the services has been steadily rising. In the Army, for example, it rose to 9.4% at present from 3.5% in 1985. The Marine Corps--the branch with the strongest tradition of recruiting within the ethnic group--is now 12% Latino.

Yet overall the numbers have lagged and in the higher ranks the relatively small numbers are particularly conspicuous. Only four of the Army's 304 generals are Latino, for example.

By contrast, the armed forces have been a more important economic and social ladder for African Americans. Blacks account for 22% of the military's enlisted personnel and 8% of the officer corps.

Some Latino activists suggested that the services may be too much geared to recruiting African Americans at Latinos' expense. The services have not recruited at colleges with large Latino enrollments as heavily as they have at traditionally black colleges, for example, they pointed out.

Recruiters, meanwhile, said that they often have a tough job selling military careers to youths whose parents are immigrants from countries where the military is associated with hierarchy and corruption, rather than opportunity.

But many in the military have come to the conclusion that the obstacles presented by aptitude tests and high school diplomas are bigger obstacles.

Lt. Gen. Edward D. Baca, head of the National Guard bureau at the Pentagon and a longtime advocate of more vigorous Latino recruiting, said that the military aptitude test used by all branches--called the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery--may contain a variety of cultural traps.

A test question assuming that a "cup" went with a "saucer" could trip up a candidate from a Latino background, who might assume that a cup goes on a table, Baca said. And he argued that the reliance on traditional high school diplomas may be keeping out many capable and motivated candidates.

In 1997, the Army eased up on its requirement for high school diplomas, dropping from a minimum 95% to 90% of recruits, and began taking more equivalency certificate holders, night school graduates and home-schooling certificate holders.

Still, many in the Pentagon firmly believe that traditional high school diplomas are an essential credential, because their holders are much more likely to adjust well to military life. They point to 20 years of Pentagon statistics showing that equivalency certificate holders are twice as likely to leave the military early as are those with traditional diplomas.

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