U.S. soldiers with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment participate in a patrol on July 15, 2011 in Iskandariya, Babil Province, Iraq.
Changing attitudes about service, economic uncertainty and new approaches to recruitment have altered the image of the modern U.S. military. But ongoing wars and shifts in the military's demographics pose new and difficult challenges for servicemen and women. KPCC's Patt Morrison sat down with several recruiters and military families to discuss today's warriors.
Hard economic times, two foreign wars and a surge of patriotism have changed the way many young people see military service. According to recent studies, Americans are now eager to enlist, citing military pay, educational subsidies and honor. Recruiting through social media has also proved extremely successful. The shift in the military's image is matched by its shift in its ethnicity and gender demographics – with more Hispanics, Asians and women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan than ever before.
A 2009 study by the RAND Corporation found that the representation of certain ethnic minorities within the military changed in response to the economic downturn. High national unemployment, diminished funding for education and deep uncertainty about America's economic prospects have combined to make military service more attractive. At the time of the study, the Army's ethnic composition was 20.9 percent African-American, 12 percent Hispanic, 61.1 percent Caucasian and 3.5 percent Asian Pacific Islander. Women accounted for about 16.7 percent of the active Army.
Among "high quality" black recruits in the Army, RAND found enlistment fell dramatically between 2000 and 2004. The fall of 8 percent was attributed in part to the negative impression left from the Iraq War and the military's success in recruiting other ethnic groups. "High quality" recruits are defined as those who've graduated high school and scored above average of the Armed Forces Qualification Test.
At the same time, the number of Hispanics in the military has seen a significant increase. Between 1999 and 2007, the rate of "high quality" Hispanics grew from 7 to 9.7 percent in the Army and from 9.6 to 15.4 percent in the Navy. The study found Hispanics were encouraged by military pay, and education benefits.
RAND also found a record number of Asian-Americans have been signing up for Army service recently. The proportion of enlisted Asians is nearly double that of last year. Asian participation has been bolstered by military bonuses, including the government's promise to pay college tuition for those who serve in the Army.
The prospect of expedited citizenship for permanent residents, as well as a "better life" from those who wish to escape from poor communities and difficult home lives has also contributed to the surge in enrollment in some communities.
Servicewomen, too, cite economic pressures for their increased enrollment. Many report career progression is slower for females, who are underrepresented in the ranks of senior officials and often leave the service earlier because they want to have children or feel that there is little real chance for advancement. In a 2008 study, only 55 percent of female troops said that they would be promoted as highly as they deserved.
Recruiters say they've stepped up efforts to absorb young and financially struggling people into their ranks. The military has offered increases in soldiers' pay, as well as bonuses for longer service periods and a guarantee of educational subsidies.
The Army, for example, now promotes itself through modern social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and Flickr. They're using these methods to connect potential recruits with real soldiers.
Beth Asch, associate director, Forces and Resources Policy Center at the RAND National Defense Research Institute
Teresa Bullock, national 3rd vice president, Blue Star Mothers of America, Inc.; 1st vice president, Inland Empire Gold Star Mothers
Rossana and Arturo Cambron, whose son is currently deployed with the Army in Iraq
Commander Michelle Carter, executive officer, Navy Recruiting District Los Angeles, which also covers Bakersfield, Orange County, Hawaii, Guam and Japan
Jewell Faamaligi, whose brother has served in the Marines since 1991 and was deployed to Afghanistan
Captain Ricky Hernandez, executive officer, Marine Corps Recruiting Station L.A.
Marcelle Sloan, whose niece was deployed twice to Iraq