By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Ricardo Garcia plays it cool, but he's nervous. One of the guys who just finished has a chiseled, martial-arts physique and knocked out 60 rapid-fire push-ups without breaking a sweat.
"How many sit-ups do I have to do?" Garcia asks the female soldier supervising the practice test.
"Fifty-three," she says. "Minimum."
Garcia, 18, is 50 pounds lighter than when he enlisted in the Army a little more than a year ago. As part of the delayed entry program that allows high school juniors to attend basic training the summer before their senior year, he's working out with other seniors who just enlisted. But he's gained back some of the weight he lost in basic. Wearing a gray T-shirt with "ARMY" in block letters, he plumps down heavily on his back. Another guy grabs his feet and holds them. It's been raining off and on for a week, so on this wet January night the group of eight new soldiers is gathered in the cramped hallway of the Oak Cliff Army recruiting station. Most are set to ship out in June.
Garcia, hands behind his head, strains to lift his torso. His face begins to turn red. "28! 29! 30!" Staff Sergeant Gabriela Campbell counts out above him. "Careful with your head—you're sliding all over the place. Keep your butt on the ground!" The other recruits laugh, as does Garcia, who is now the color of a vine-ripened tomato. He begins to flounder.
The guy holding his feet urges him on: "You got it! You got it!" But that's it for Garcia—he gives up and lies prostrate.
"That's what happens when you get home from basic training," the station commander says, ribbing him.
"That's what I said," Campbell teases. "It's all those tacos and tamales!"
A few minutes later, the group files into the main room for a first aid class. A few recruiters sit at cubicles interviewing candidates or making phone calls. A large poster on the wall shows a thick-necked soldier in a black beret. "There's strong, then there's Army strong," it reads.
Garcia lies on the ground, playing the role of the unresponsive victim, while Campbell quizzes the class on how to check for breathing. Behind her, a muscle-bound recruiter in uniform launches into his sales pitch over the phone:
"Hi, you're a senior at Woodrow, right?" Pause. "You enjoying sports? When's your next game?" Another pause. "So, what are your plans after you graduate? What I wanted to do was set up a time to talk to you and your parents, tell you what we got—if you don't get the scholarship, it may be a way for you to pay for college...Well, OK. We tried." Click.
Meanwhile, the class is talking about how to detect burns, then moves on to open fractures. Garcia turns to the guy across from him during a pause and asks about some recent training. "Did y'all get to shoot the .50-cal?"
The other boy, who also joined as a junior and went to basic training, nods coolly, as if to say, "Sure, it was no big deal—I'm a whiz with the longest-range machine gun used by the U.S. Army."
Of the eight recruits, half are Hispanic. Garcia and two others, like many of the young people who enlist at the Oak Cliff station and elsewhere in Dallas, are from immigrant families who came here from Mexico.
While the military braces to send an additional 21,500 troops to Iraq under President Bush's widely criticized new war plan and, at the same time, the national immigration debate has hit a high pitch, the Army is pushing on with one of its top missions: recruiting Latino soldiers. Hispanics are the fastest-growing group of military-aged people in the country, and studies show they have the highest re-enlistment rates. While the percentage of black enlistees in the active-duty Army has dipped from 22 to 15 percent in the past six years, the number of Latinos has more than doubled since 1993. In North Texas, where the population is around 35 percent Latino, nearly 20 percent of last year's 4,100 Army recruits were Hispanic, many of them from immigrant families.
The Army's Spanish marketing campaign includes bumper stickers that read Yo Soy el Army (I Am the Army) and brochures that picture a young Hispanic man saluting next to a mother wearing a gold cross pendant. Below are the words, "He could be your child, and you, his proud parents." A large advertisement on the wall recently at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport touted the benefit of getting on a fast track to citizenship with the words, "Citizen. Soldier."
In his State of the Union speech, Bush pledged to increase active-duty troops by 92,000 during the next five years. But while the Army met its recruiting goals last year after falling short in 2005, the recruiting environment during the country's first extended conflict without a draft isn't easy. Record-low support for the war combined with long deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan make signing new soldiers a challenge, especially in areas where high numbers of potential recruits are immigrants without residency and therefore unable to join. And while many Latino immigrant families consider military service a celebrated way to assimilate, in a culture that prizes family some resist sending sons and daughters far away to fight for a government they worry might be anti-immigrant.