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.
Usually, though, it comes down to the question of opportunity. The military is often criticized for targeting young people in poor minority neighborhoods where dropout rates for blacks are almost twice those of whites, and dropout rates for Hispanics are more than double those of blacks, at nearly 25 percent for American-born Latinos and a whopping 38 percent for the foreign-born from Mexico and Latin America. But recruiters respond that as debates over urban renewal and education reform drone on, they're at least giving young people a rare chance at education and employment, discipline and travel, an opportunity, as they see it, to lend some order to their lives and count for something.
Felicia Martinez greets Leal with a smile and ushers him over to one of the salon's roomy black chairs. The place looks like one big Valentine's Day card: The mirrors are festooned with chains of paper angels and heart-shaped doilies, and a dozen red roses sit on the counter. "I have to give the muchachos the best," she says, draping a robe over Leal's shoulders. Then she grabs her clippers and launches into a sing-song stream of friendly chatter in Spanish. "I've known most of them since they were boys, this tall, and they come in every week. Sometimes I don't charge them—I don't want them robbing the taqueria for a haircut."
The kids she's talking about attend Turner, Newman Smith and Jefferson high schools, which, like Hillcrest, are in affluent areas. But the majority of the children who live in the spacious homes with rolling lawns attend private schools, and the public schools are filled mostly with middle- and low-income Latinos and blacks.
Along with trims, Martinez doles out motherly lectures about staying in school and avoiding gangs. You sureños are getting into fights with the norteños? You should think about the Army. You're fighting with your stepdad again? Consider the Marines; get yourself on a straight path.
"I've had this place for 11 years, and in those years I've had 13 kids killed," she says. They haven't lost their lives in the military but in gang violence. On the wall above the soda machine is a tribute. The photos of teens whose lives were cut short are framed with the words "rest in peace" and "in loving memory." She points to the picture of a 17-year-old who was gunned down two years ago. "Robert Castillo, I knew him since he was little. He was a good boy. He was shot leaving a nightclub. And to think his father was killed when he was the same age."
Leal looks up. "The same age?"
Martinez nods and uses her hand, long fingernails painted bright red, to steady his head while she buzzes the back. "They didn't have anything to do but go to the streets, and on the streets are gangs. People say the Army's bad, that they'll go to Iraq and get killed. But they get killed here too."
Martinez often schedules appointments based on gang allegiance, keeping rivals separate whenever possible. Most of the kids respect her and sit through her clucking and admonitions, nodding and saying, "Yes, ma'am, I know." But as she puts the finishing touches on Leal's round-top cut, she tells of how two guys once brawled in the salon and hit her 9-year-old in the face. Her oldest son is 18 and considering the military. "I'd rather him be in Iraq doing something for people than doing nothing on the street here," she says.
As Leal pays her for the haircut, she can't let him go without a piece of advice. "I think you guys should go to Turner [High School] and up the ante," she says. "Really hit them hard in ninth through 11th grade; that's when they're getting into gangs."
He nods, a little half-heartedly. What's frustrating about recruiting kids from depressed, gang-ridden neighborhoods is that often the ones who want to join can't pass the entrance test or already have a rap sheet, and many parents are reluctant to allow their 17-year-olds to enlist.
"The hardest is getting the parents to sign the papers," he tells Martinez. "Hispanic families are so attached to their kids that they want them here so they can watch them, but they're watching them and they're running around in gangs. We're offering them a better future."
Recently, Leal has talked with parents who are angry about measures passed in Farmers Branch that target illegal immigrants. "They say, 'Farmers Branch wants to kick us out—why would we want our kids to work for the government?' And we have to explain that that's not us," he says. But most reluctant parents just don't want their kids to move away and be in danger. Leal's own mother felt the same way when he joined.
Leal is quiet and boyishly handsome, with clear brown eyes and a smile full of crowded teeth. Recently married and a new father, he was raised between Oak Cliff and Wilmer; his mother is from Mexico and his father from a large Hispanic family with roots in Dallas. His grandfather started the Dallas Tortillas restaurants in the 1950s, and his uncles run them today. Leal was working at one as a cashier and server when he decided to join the Army.
"It just hit me," he says. "I was 19, going to Eastfield Community College, making $500 every two weeks, and I thought, 'I don't want to depend on this, I want to do something on my own.' I was tired of going to school, going to work and coming home smelling like food." He walked into the DeSoto recruiting station and, a week later, he'd enlisted.
His mother wept when he told her. "She was like, 'Oh my God, you're going into the military, you're going to die!'" he says. "At first I felt kind of shitty about it, but then I got over it. I explained the benefits, and by the time I left for boot camp she was OK."
Leal opted to be a tank driver, since "driving around in a big piece of armor shooting rounds downrange sounded like fun," and a year later he found himself driving into Baghdad during the invasion. The worst moment during his year there was hearing that a friend, a father of two, had been shot in the back of the head at close range while guarding a hospital. The best was the time one of the guys accidentally shot himself in the leg on New Year's and they had weeks' worth of jokes about ringing in the New Year with a bang.
When he talks about Iraq and the likelihood that he'll go back, Leal grows calm and speaks with an almost religious fatalism, a faith in his place in the world that keeps him firmly planted in his commitment.
"I'm a soldier. I'm going to do what I have to do, whether it's here recruiting or out there on the line. I tell people there's probably a good chance of going, but you have to meet your maker at some point. It could happen here in Dallas, with the crime rate we've got, or it could happen there. With every job there's a sacrifice; with some, the sacrifices are more extreme than others, like this one.
"My number might come up—I may have to go back. Is my wife gonna be crushed? Yes. Will my child miss me? Probably. But with all the Army has given me, it's the sacrifice I have to make. And it may be to give my life."
It's this commitment that propels him to walk the halls of schools and Wal-Marts looking for recruits, even though it's not a job he chose. To staff its recruiting stations across the country, the Army pulls soldiers with high test scores and good behavior and assigns them to two-year recruiting tours. On a recent day, Leal steps into the Wal-Mart on Midway Road and with a practiced motion, swiftly removes the black beret from his head. Not many men take off their hats when they enter a building anymore, but he hews closely to traditional etiquette.
"If I'm not at the schools, I go shopping. And when I meet the salespeople, that's when it happens," he says, sauntering past rows of detergent and hand soap. "I'll be looking for a faucet, so I'll go to a certain salesman who shows me a certain kind and say, 'Hey, do you like this job? What do you think about the military?' That could turn into a lead, a lead turns into a prospect and a prospect turns into an applicant. Four is a good time to come—the kids are out of school, the parents come shopping." Though he can contact up to 40 potential recruits per hour over the phone, he prefers walking around and talking to people in person.
After Wal-Mart, he heads to Hillcrest High School and pops into the attendance office, where the secretaries flash him wide smiles. Then he heads over to the JROTC class, which is held in one of the mobile classrooms. Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps, an elective whose mission statement is "To motivate young people to be better citizens," focuses on leadership, responsibility and teamwork by studying military ranks and formations and placing students in positions such as first sergeant and platoon leader. Most kids who choose the class are either interested in the military or looking for an easy elective. JROTC is technically separate from military recruiting efforts, but the classes are often the recruiters' way into the schools, which are required to provide access to military recruiters under a provision of the No Child Left Behind Act.
The teacher of this JROTC class is Sergeant First Class Gerald Prudhomme, and he's finishing lunch, some sort of leftovers in Tupperware. He shakes Leal's hand. "I'd like to see if you could come out and do some inspections next week," says the older man, who spent 23 years in the Army. The students wear uniforms once a week and are inspected for tidiness while lined up in formation. A lot of the kids resist the uniforms, the teacher says, either because they're mocked or just because they're regarded as seriously uncool.
Leal schedules some Army class presentations with Prudhomme for the following week. When the teacher takes his last bite of lunch and mentions the discipline problems he faces, Leal shakes his head. "He's E7, he's commanded a lot of soldiers—to get disrespected by a high school kid..." he trails off. "On a regular line, you have a kid who comes in thinking he's a badass, you can correct it. But here, it's different. Once we were here and a kid fell asleep on us. I was so pissed, but I didn't say anything."
His frustration is borne out a moment later when he drops by the JROTC classroom with Prudhomme. The students, mostly juniors and seniors, are supposed to be working at their desks, but mostly they're talking, laughing and fiddling with water bottles and cell phones.
"Hey—where was you the first half of class?" Prudhomme calls out to a skinny kid in a red Adidas jersey. The teenager sullenly returns his gaze and mumbles something unintelligible.
"Hey—what does P.S. mean?" a girl with glasses says.
"P.S.?" asks Prudhomme.
"Yeah, you know, like at the end of a letter."
Leal answers. "Postscript." He sounds tired.
Another kid pipes up. "Well, what about R.S.V.P.?"
"When you have to call and make a res-"
The kids cut the teacher off. One rolls his eyes. "Yeah, we know what it means, Sarge, but what do the letters stand for?"
Leal rubs his head and grabs his beret. "Google it," he tells them and turns to leave.
Answering questions after their recent workout at the recruiting station, the teenagers infuse the interview with the easy banter of friends who have known each other a long time.
"I want to become a mechanic, and the Army will help with that," Borjas says. "I don't got to worry about money or nothin'." He adds proudly that he's the first in his family to serve in the military.
"And your mom hates me for that!" Garcia jokes.
Borjas laughs. "I told her, I ain't gonna lie to you—I might not get a scholarship, and the Army pays for college."
"Hey," Garcia interjects. "You hear about Louis? He was locked up."
"Really?" Borjas says. "I thought he just straight disappeared."
Garcia shakes his head. "Remember when they killed his brother in eighth?"
"It was ghetto," Borjas says.
Garcia nods. "All them gangs—I got jumped by Bobby Hudson in seventh-grade knock-out."
"You got jumped? I didn't get jumped." Seventh-grade knockout, they explain, is when the younger kids are hazed by the eighth-graders at the beginning of the year.
"We had some good times back then," Garcia says. "We had Ms. Jackson, and that other one—"
"She looked like a catfish!" Borjas says. They laugh.
Garcia is the youngest of four children born to parents from Zacatecas and Jalisco. His father died when he was 3; his mother cleans houses. Borjas' parents came to Texas from San Luis Potosi more than 20 years ago. His father, a tile tradesman, died of lung cancer last year, and his mother is an assistant teacher. They live in a small, tidy house off of Kiest Boulevard, where the living room is lined with shelves of fabric flowers, porcelain figurines, plastic rosaries and a framed photo of Borjas' sister in a fuchsia quinceañera dress. In the center of the room are two glass cases full of trophies. There are small gold "perfect attendance" awards, computer Olympiad medals on colored ribbons, math and science fair prizes, and an enormous, statuesque trophy of gold plastic and marble whose plaque reads, "Mr. T.D. Marshall."
Mike Borjas was always a good student, his mother says on a recent afternoon. A small woman with curly dark hair that frames her face, she says she volunteered at Clara Oliver Elementary when her children were students there, mostly to keep tabs on them and make sure they did well. Mike, a gangly kid with glasses, was especially gifted at math and science, as evidenced by an entire shelf of awards. Last spring he bought an old gold Monte Carlo with the money he'd saved working construction and stacking store boxes, and with the help of a mechanic installed a motor. He did the stereo and speaker work himself.
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.
Jorge Mariscal, a Vietnam veteran who is director of the Chicano/Latino Arts and Humanities Program at the University of California, San Diego, and has been one of the most outspoken leaders in the national counter-recruitment movement, says he's seen similar abuses and is critical of the military's focus on Latinos. "They know Latino youth are emerging as their largest target market, and they also know we have very low college attendance rates," he says. "There's a lot of people who say if they don't join the military they're gonna be in gangs, but that's a sad commentary on how we settle for the status quo. If the government wants to provide money for kids to go to college, that's great, but it should be a college fund, not asking people to risk their lives."
Of the recruiters, he says, "Some believe they're really providing opportunities for people, others are just salesmen trying to make quotas."
Such comments leave Corporal Leal visibly irritated. "If one recruiter does something, we all get blamed," he says. When he started the job, parents would say, "Recruiters are liars, how can I trust you?" Perhaps because of such experiences, he's careful to explain the fine print. "If they ask for $70,000 for college like the ads say, I tell them OK, but you have to qualify for it—I'll tell you what you have to do to get it, but I won't make any promises.
"You can say we're preying on them, but those kids are our majority enlistment—they're the ones we can provide a better future for. We've gone to Highland Park a few times. What can we offer those kids that they want? You talk to most people in the service, they say, 'I'm from the Bronx, I'm from Compton, I'm from Brooklyn.' Looking at them you wouldn't know that, because they've made something of themselves."
Salas' table is covered with Army brochures and bumper stickers that say "Yo Soy el Army." A woman walks by with a boy who looks about 8, and Salas hands him a black rubber bracelet that says "Army of One." They smile and walk on.
"Most people who want information aren't residents, so I can't really do anything with them," says Salas, a husky 35-year-old from an immigrant family in McAllen, Texas. "But at least we're getting the name of the Army out there, and maybe they have friends or something."
Salas is the oldest of five, and he grew up doing migrant farm work to help his parents pay the bills. The first of his family to graduate from college, he joined the Army at 18 when he saw his peers get drawn into gangs and drugs. "I realized there was only a few things that would happen to me if I stayed at home," he says. "I'd either end up in jail or dead. I wanted something better."
Two young men in button-up shirts walk up. The younger one wears an iPod Nano dangling around his neck along with a strand of black rosary beads. Salas shakes their hands. "You got any questions about the Army?" he asks. They shake their heads. "Why not?" The brothers from Guanajuato explain that they'd like to join, but their visas have expired. One is studying engineering at Tarrant County College; the other is a junior at Trimble Tech High School. Salas recommends they go to the local immigration office for visa renewal forms.
Now it's the turn of an adolescent in a red fleece and glasses. "Will the Army pay for your college?" he asks. "Yep," Salas responds. "College is free, as long as you're in the military. So it doesn't matter what college you want to go to—Harvard, West Point..."
Actually, no one is guaranteed entrance or funding for a particularly expensive or selective institution. Soldiers can count on at least $38,000 under the GI Bill, but additional funds—such as the "up to $70,000 for college" often advertised—depend on application and acceptance to various programs based on individual qualifications.
A few minutes later, an exasperated-looking middle-aged woman tells Salas about her nephew. "Right now he's not doing anything but staying at home, and the longer he stays at home, the harder it is to get him to go out and go back to school or get a job," she shouts over the blasting cumbia music. The boy was apparently planning to join the Army until a friend had a bad experience. Salas hands the woman a card. "I can sit down with him," he tells her. She takes it and thanks him.
The afternoon is slipping by, and Salas is going through piles of brochures, bracelets and bumper stickers. A fair-skinned man with piercing blue eyes walks up and asks Salas in Argentine-accented Spanish whether he speaks the language. When the soldier nods, the man launches into a lecture on the perils of warfare. "The Army isn't good for people," he says, explaining that he fought for Argentina in the Falklands War with Britain. "I lost a lot of friends—I saw people lose arms, legs..." Salas replies that the level of risk depends on which jobs soldiers choose, that some positions don't involve much combat. The man isn't convinced. "The Army shouldn't exist in any country," he says, jabbing his finger in the air. Salas shakes his head and shrugs.
This seasoned familiarity with risk and its consequences is something teenage recruits simply don't have, no matter how much they're prepared for sacrifice. Back at the Oak Cliff recruiting station next to a cabinet stenciled with the words "Duty, Honor, and Country," Garcia and Borjas sit with a few other kids in running pants and hoodies. They're getting ready to go home for the night and wake up for school the next morning. As the days pass and spring draws closer, talk in the halls turns to people's plans after graduation. And with the news focused almost entirely on Iraq—the bombings, the body count, the spiraling sectarian violence—the boys' peers sometimes question their decision to enlist. Garcia's girlfriend tells him that other kids ask her why he joined, what she'll do if he's sent to Iraq. The new soldiers have already picked up the military habit of dismissing the grim news coming out of Baghdad as the media's obsession with reporting only negative developments. "They only talk about the bad stuff," they say.
One recruit, a skinny kid named Juan Puente, has an older brother who did a tour in Iraq and claims he's "ready to go back right now." Juan says friends have criticized his choice to follow in his brother's footsteps. "Everyone says, 'You're gonna go to Iraq and die,'" he says. "But you could step outside and get killed—it could happen any time."
Garcia nods. "Yeah, just 'cause you go to Iraq doesn't mean you're gonna die—you just do what you gotta do and hopefully you come out of it with all your limbs."