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In War, Diversity Can Be a Lifesaver

May 11, 2003|Frank del Olmo | Frank del Olmo is associate editor of The Times.

Last week they buried the latest -- and, one fervently hopes, the last -- Latino casualty from the Iraq war.

The death of Army 1st Lt. Osbaldo Orozco of Earlimart was not as widely noted as that of other Latino soldiers and Marines who died in Iraq, but his all-too-short life offers a lesson worth pondering by some conservatives in the Bush administration.

I am not referring to the neocon foreign-policy wonks who pushed to use U.S. military power to impose a Pax Americana in the Middle East. Their dubious strategic vision is finally being debated as widely and energetically as it should have been before they ordered young men like Orozco into harm's way.

No, I mean those right-wingers who focus on domestic issues, some of whom helped convince the U.S. Justice Department to oppose collegiate affirmative action programs in two cases now before the U.S. Supreme Court. The court is expected to rule in the cases -- filed by white students passed over in favor of minority applicants to the University of Michigan and its law school -- later this year.

Conservatives are hoping that a high court dominated by Republican appointees will use the cases to outlaw affirmative action in college admissions once and for all.

That could happen, but the odds became a little less likely when a distinguished cadre of retired U.S. military leaders, including Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the commander of U.S. forces in the Gulf War, filed a legal brief with the high court supporting the university's position.

The brief points out that the military "cannot achieve an officer corps that is both highly qualified and racially diverse" unless the service academies (among the most selective schools in the nation) and college ROTC programs have aggressive affirmative action programs. Such programs are needed because racial integration in the armed forces is "a prerequisite to a cohesive, and therefore effective, fighting force."

"People's lives depend on it," the brief concludes.

Which brings me back to 26-year-old Orozco. Like many other Latino casualties in Iraq, he was the son of immigrants -- Mexican farm workers who settled in the southern San Joaquin Valley. But unlike other young Latinos who signed up with the military in hopes of getting an education, Orozco was a gifted athlete who had a scholarship to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. There he was captain of the football team, was recruited into ROTC and got his commission the day he graduated in June 2001.

Orozco commanded a team of four Bradley fighting vehicles with the 22nd Infantry Regiment. He was killed April 25 when his vehicle rolled over on rough terrain as his unit hurried to support soldiers under enemy fire near Tikrit.

At Orozco's funeral Wednesday, his friends eulogized a courageous young officer. Lt. George Miranda, a pallbearer, recalled his final conversation with Orozco: "He told me to take care of myself and my soldiers."

Clearly, leadership was a lesson Orozco absorbed. People's lives depended on it.

A study in March by the Pew Hispanic Center found that although Latinos and blacks made up 32% of all active-duty military personnel, they represented only 12% of the officer corps. The retired generals and admirals who filed the Supreme Court brief see the need to close that gap. Too bad the Justice Department doesn't.

Every war has unintended consequences. One result of the latest one that supporters of the Bush administration did not anticipate was the degree to which soldiers who were immigrants, or the children of immigrants, would sacrifice for a nation that had not fully accepted them. Even some conservatives in Congress are rethinking their party's anti-immigrant stance and pushing for laws making it easier for "green-card soldiers" and their families to become citizens.

Maybe a few conservatives will reassess their knee-jerk opposition to affirmative action programs that recruit natural leaders like Orozco to be military officers and, eventually, leaders of American society as a whole.

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