By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
When her son came to her and said he was planning to join the Army, she was supportive but nervous. "Even though it scares me, it's your decision," she says she told him. "I never thought he'd join the Army," she says in Spanish. "I wanted him to study something in college; he loved school. But it might have been hard for him to get in because he never did any extracurricular activities, and that's important, I guess." The recruiter told her that he'd passed all of his tests and could study whatever he wanted. He chose tank mechanic. The fact that such a job was less combat-driven than others reassured her a little bit, but she knows there are no guarantees, especially in wartime. The news out of Iraq the Sunday of our interview is of an American Black Hawk helicopter crash that killed all 12 on board and separate bombings and firefights that brought the weekend death toll for American soldiers to 28.
"Mike says he'll be fixing tanks, but everything's dangerous," she says. "One could explode, who knows. Que Dios lo cuide. God keep him. It looks like this war is going to last a long time, and if it ends, maybe another one will start somewhere else."
"I can't really get on the government because I'm in the Army now," he says.
His mother was proud when he walked out of school, though she didn't participate in any of the marches herself. She considered it evidence that he doesn't just think of himself. As for her son serving a government poised to make changes to the immigration system, she wonders if maybe his government service might help relatives who lack residency.
This is a hope expressed by many immigrant families with children considering the military, but one that recruiters such as Leal constantly have to tamp down. Only the soldiers themselves get preference for citizenship, they have to explain, not relatives. Often, Leal says, kids ask if their joining the military could keep relatives from getting deported.
Borjas and Garcia were born here and are therefore citizens, but a good chunk of the Latinos who enlist are legal residents who get on a fast track to citizenship by joining the military. The local recruiting battalion didn't have figures on the area's number of immigrant soldiers, but Leal says that more than half of his recruits—he enlists one to two each month—come from immigrant families, and three-quarters of those are green card holders, not citizens.
For generations of Mexican-Americans, military service has been a way to assimilate and display patriotism, something Leal has noticed time and again. "The ones who do join are usually the best soldiers because they have something to prove," he says. "They chose this country, so they don't take it for granted like the ones who were born here."
That may be true, but the Army's efforts to attract young people have spurred outcries from parents and leaders, including Latinos. A 2005 Dallas Morning News story in which parents complained about recruiters repeatedly contacting their children featured mother Rosemary Galdiano and her son. The week the story ran, grassroots groups across the country united in a "Not Your Soldier Day of Action" to protest the No Child Left Behind law's requirement that schools provide student contact information to recruiters unless parents "opt out" through their district. Earlier that year, the Army had halted recruiting activities for a day to re-train recruiters in response to numerous complaints, including reports that a recruiter in Houston had threatened a prospect with arrest if he missed an interview appointment. Yet the following year—last November—ABC News aired an undercover investigation in Colorado showing that some Army recruiters were telling students the war in Iraq was over in order to get them to enlist. "We're not at war; war ended a long time ago," one told a teen on tape.
Dick Davis, a pastor at Peace Mennonite Church who served 15 years in the Army and left after the Gulf War as a conscientious objector, has taught counter-recruiting workshops through the Dallas Peace Center and counseled former and current soldiers. He says it's common for recruiters to misrepresent Army benefits or make false promises. Among the complaints he heard when he was on active duty and during workshops and counseling over the past 15 years are guarantees of a certain amount of money for college when the actual amount depends on application to a certain fund, or the failure to mention that benefits can be withdrawn following particular disciplinary actions. A number of people, Davis says, reported being promised certain jobs and then winding up in the infantry. An Army spokesperson says that while soldiers are guaranteed training in the job they choose and it's rare for them to be reassigned, the contract specifies that their position could change based on military needs.