Hit the Road Sam


Using everything young people of color hold dear, from sports to Hip Hop, the U.S. Army is continuing a big push to recruit Latino and African American youth.

After teaming up with The Source magazine for a “Take It To The Streets” campaign last spring as well as a series of “Campus Combat” events last fall, the Army Strategic Outreach for the U.S. Army Accessions Command is gearing up for a slew of similar events this spring. However, many people in the targeted communities have reacted with resentment to the campaign. Colonel Thomas Nickerson, who heads up the Strategic Outreach office, did not return Voice phone calls.

Rosa Clemente, a Hip Hop organizer and Brooklyn resident, says she encountered the recruiters uring a “Take it to the Streets” stop in Brooklyn.

“Over the summer in Flatbush near Prospect Park, my roommate and I were walking when we heard [hip-hop music],” reports Clemente. “We then see this Hummer with a Source logo on it as well as a U.S. Army Recruiting thing on the side. I was like, this is crazy. So I approach the guy behind the wheel. He says ‘This is our new thing. We’re trying to enlist brothers and sisters from the hood.’ So, I told him you’re recruiting our kids to go kill kids that look like us. He got upset and said I didn’t know what I was talking about and that our people need jobs. After arguing back and forth a small crowd formed. The soldier then drove off.”

The Hummer Clemente refers to is one of several custom-made, bright yellow SUVs, loaded with Army jerseys and trucker hats. They cruise urban centers, high schools, colleges, and Hip Hop events like Black Entertainment Television’s Spring Bling. The tricked-out Hummers, coupled with The Source‘s endorsement of the Army’s ghetto pass, made the 2003 campaign a success.

In fact, last September marked the fourth year in a row that Uncle Sam reached its recruitment quota ahead of time. In May 2002 the Air Force had reached its quota of 37,283 recruits four months ahead of schedule. In the same year the Army met its quota of 79,500 ahead of time as well.

In 2003, with $2.7 billion (double the budget of the 1990s) going to recruitment alone, the Army’s drive became so visible that many of the targeted communities’ inhabitants are showing heaps of discontent. And rightly so. The army spends an estimated $13,000 just to get one kid into boot camp. That’s about what it costs New York City’s public school system per year to educate one child, and half of what Chicago’s system spends for schooling.

“This government cares nothing about young men and women of color,” says Nic Ferrer, father of two teens as well as a dedicated organizer against what he calls “fishing for coloreds” by the armed forces. “They constantly cut funding from education and youth programs until our kids are left with no options to better their lives. That’s when the recruiters swoop down, aiming this PR campaign at our sons and daughters, tricking them into going from the frontlines of the war raging in our communities to the frontlines of the war in Iraq. With no real alternatives, they join.”

To further entice the downtrodden into enlisting, George W. Bush signed an executive order in July 2002 accelerating naturalization for aliens and non-citizen nationals who serve in active duty. The order includes all personnel who enlisted after September 11, 2001. It allows non-citizens to apply for citizenship upon joining, rather than waiting the standard four to five years after receiving green cards.

As a result the Department of Defense (DOD) reports over 37,000 non-citizens (predominately Latino) currently in the active forces. Almost half are now eligible for naturalization under Bush’s executive order.

DOD statistics indicate that Latinos, though still slightly underrepresented in the armed forces overall (they make up 9.5 percent of active forces and 13 percent of the U.S. population), are over-represented on the front lines with 17.7 percent. As of August 28, Latinos show a casualty rate of more than 13 percent. In fact, one of the first casualties of the Iraq “conflict” was a U.S. soldier named Jose Gutierrez, an orphaned Guatemalan who was not even an American citizen.

Pfc. Luis Moreno, 19, died guarding a gas station in Baghdad on January 29. Moreno was a Dominican immigrant who had been living in New York since 1991. After burying her son, Francisca De La Cruz addressed President Bush, saying, “They’re being slaughtered like animals. Please bring our soldiers home. It’s too late for my son but not for all the others.”

The DOD statistics imply African Americans make up a disproportionate 21 percent of total armed forces, including 15 percent of combat troops and 29 percent of the U.S. Army, while making up only 12 percent of the general population.

Charles Barron, a Brooklyn council member renowned for his outspoken views about black and Latino youth in the armed forces, told Newsday, “I don’t want to hear about statistics and the disproportionate numbers . . . the main reason that people of color join the military is to escape poverty. If one single black or Latino youth dies on the front lines after they joined the army to receive education benefits and to escape the ‘hood and poverty, it will be senseless.”

What is interesting is that the “Take It To The Streets” campaign is the brainchild of an African American-owned PR firm; Col. Nickerson, an African American; and a magazine appealing to the hip-hop generation. According to Margaret Kargbo of Walls Communications, the firm that brokered the collaboration between the Army and The Source, as well as the Army’s sponsorship of the All-American Bowl, the Army has other campaigns in the works for 2004, with or without the involvement of the magazine. The Source’s Tracii McGregor, vice president of content and communications, says she was only aware of the collaboration during the “Campus Combat” campaign in October and offered no comment about pending endorsements. The Source has run several full-page U.S. Army ads for more than a year.

Kargbo insists that though “Everything is still tentative between the Army and The Source for this year,” the Army has teamed up with the National Newspaper Publishers Association (a group representing most of the nation’s black newspapers) and is in the midst of circulating a traveling photo exhibit. The exhibit chronicles the history of African Americans’ “proud past” in the armed forces as well as other historical events like the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision and the 1965 Selma march. The exhibit has been to Howard University, the Fulton Government Center in Atlanta, and the St. Louis Historical Society.

Ironically, a good chunk of that “proud past” includes rigidly segregated units with white officers as superiors, even after President Truman implemented an executive order in 1948 calling for the immediate integration of the armed forces. In fact, integration didn’t occur until the U.S. was engaged in the Korean War and needed to maximize its manpower. During most of the Vietnam War, blacks were killed and injured at rates notably higher than whites.

The lopsided numbers, especially for Latinos, will only increase if the army reaches its goals. The Army Times reports that officials want to boost Latino numbers from the 9.5 percent to as high as 22 percent by 2006.

According to Army Brigadier General Bernardo C. Negrete, however, such is not the case. “We’ve made significant improvement by going after Hispanics in a manner we’ve never done before,” said Negrete in a 2001 Army Times article. “We’re giving our recruiters goals to meet in order to bring the Hispanic population in the Army on par with the general population in the country.” ‘Nuff said.