Why They Fight

Brian Harkin
Corporal Phillip Leal, 23, did a tour in Iraq and works as a recruiter in Farmers Branch and Carrollton.

The cover story of this week's Dallas Observer focuses on the military's recruiting of Hispanics, who are the fastest-growing military-aged group of people in the country and, according to studies, the most likely to re-enlist. The recruiters and new soldiers featured in the piece come from immigrant families in low- to middle-class neighborhoods, and most joined the Army to escape poverty, gangs or a general lack of opportunity.

But, of course, there are also kids from well-to-do suburbia who join -- or want to, at the very least.

On a January afternoon, the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps classroom at Birdville High School in North Richland Hills is filled with the sound of marching. Juniors and seniors are practicing lining up in formation, and class leaders are calling out orders. "Delta!" they cheer in unison, referring to their class's designation as "D Company." The teacher, Capt. George Jons, interrupts. "Let me tell you something -- you guys need to work on your discipline," he says. "I'm not going to have giggling in formation."

JROTC, an elective that focuses on military leadership and teamwork, is technically separate from military recruiting efforts, but the classes tend to be recruiters' easiest way into schools. Several of this year's students have enlisted. Next door to the classroom, in Jons' office, those with their sights set on the Army talk about their decision to join.

Josh Jimenez, a senior set to ship out this summer, wants to become a cardiologist and has chosen the Army post of health-care specialist. An ambitious student with rare poise, he says he immediately loved JROTC when he was introduced to it in middle school. The class transformed him from a shy, quiet adolescent into someone with confidence, who other kids look to for guidance. "It's hands-on and gives every student a chance to have a leadership position," he says.

Ryan Lopez also found his way to the Army through JROTC, which he was introduced to in eighth grade. "One day at lunch I talked to the ROTC people and they seemed like people I'd want to hang out with," he says. Good at math and science, Lopez eventually wants to study computers and mechanical engineering, but he chose a job with an Army Ranger infantry regiment because it sounds like an adventure.

Both boys enlisted through the school's assigned recruiter, Sergeant Alex Ashmore. The 32-year-old from Seagoville was a self-described "long-hair" in high school who listened to metal bands like Napalm Death and had zero interest in the military, until he tired of putting himself through college working $6-an-hour warehouse jobs. Along with Jons, who served 20 years in the Army, he seems to have good rapport with the students and works with them to find Army careers in line with their interests and ultimate goals. But not all the "prospects," as they're called, become soldiers, often because their parents don't want them to be sent to Iraq.

A 17-year-old named Andres wants to join, but because he's a minor, his parents have to authorize his enlistment, and his father is dead-set against it. (Andres didn't want his last name used because he's worried everyone at school will find out.) "It would pay for my college so I wouldn't have to put the burden on my parents," he says. "I feel like I'd be doing something good with my life." His parents declined to talk to Unfair Park, but they obviously don't agree.

"My parents were saying that no matter what, I would go to Iraq automatically," says Andres. "I tell them every day I'm not one of those people who would join the infantry right off the bat -- I've always been interested in computers and avionics. My Dad sees how on TV Bush wants to send more troops to Iraq. If they won't sign, I guess I'll have to wait until I'm 18."--Megan Feldman

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky