Ear to the Ground: Jermont Montgomery

December 17, 2007

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African Americans—traditionally over-represented in the military–are signing up less and less. Latino enlistment is also trailing off. So the U.S. military is having to work harder to meet recruiting demands. Critics of the Iraq war charge youth of color are being aggressively targeted for service, and that children of immigrant families are especially vulnerable to recruiters. Ear to the Ground mentorship program participant Jermont Montgomery works with young people in the Englewood neighborhood. He checked in with youth in his area to learn what the U.S. Military has been telling young men and women from his community to get them to sign up. Here's what he learned.

The African American community has long history in the U.S armed forces. My grandfather joined the Marines and fought in Korea, so that he could pursue a better life for myself, especially during a time of war, and I'm not alone.

PHONE: Army recruiting command, this is Douglass Smith, public affairs officer. Hello, Mr. Smith, this Jermont Montgomery, we finally got it together….

I called Doug Smith to get the latest recruiting numbers.

SMITH: African-American recruits in fiscal year 2007 made up 15.5 percent of recruits so there has been some decline, however, African-Americans are still over represented in terms of their army enlistments compared to the civilian population.

Smith says that Hispanic recruitment peaked in 2003 but has now leveled off at 12.4 percent. 

ambi: Spanish TV army ad

My friend, Sheena Gibbs, who works as an assistant at the American Friends Service Committee is convinced the army is heavily targeting Latinos through Spanish ads on television. 

GIBBS: If you watch MTV they play military commercials after every single show that's on MTV these days, they have all different type of programs where they come to the different summer festivals like Puerto Rican Festival, different types of music festivals that cater towards Latinos.

I checked this with Doug Smith. He says the army has different marketing campaigns to reach both African-Americans and Spanish speakers more effectively.

ambi: march

I went to an anti-war march to talk to African Americans and Latinos about their experiences with military recruiters.

What many of the youth told me was that they have been approached while in school, in the hallways, at the lunch room table, in gym class. When I went to a military recruiting station, they put me on the phone with one of their superior officers. He then began to speak to me, like, "How old are you? Have you ever considered the military?" I told him I was 31, and he went on to say that we could  recruit you up to 42 years of age, and "what you doing right now?"

ambi: Army ad

What I kept hearing a lot more from everyone that I spoke with was that military recruiters are knocking on doors a lot more in Latino neighborhoods. Latino youth at that anti-war protest talked about repeated phone calls to their homes, and in some cases, unannounced home visits.

When I met Julieta Bolivar, she said Latino parents have been telling her the same thing. Bolivar is an immigrant parent who got involved with American Friends Service Committee after hearing other parents complain.

BOLIVAR: They're going to their house to see if they're going to be alone and they're going to be able to sign the paper without questioning. Because there's a lot of kids they think that's better for them...they're not working, they're low income family and they think that's going to help them.

One of the benefits the recruiters talk bout is expedited citizenship. Green card holders can apply for citizenship in three years instead of five if they enlist. 

Parent Juliet Bolivar told me offering citizenship, money and free education to children of immigrants puts too much pressure on the kids who often feel they should support their families.

BOLIVAR: I know we can make it like a family. We don't want to lose our kids, and we're not prepared to lose, it doesn't matter how old he is or she is, we're not ready to lose any more of our kids. Not Latino community, not African-American, not nobody. I think they should stop.

I remember at 17 and not making the best decisions for myself and wanting to get away and have an adventure and see the world. At the time I thought about joining the military. But there was no war then. Now the stakes are higher.

Today's youth are making a much more critical decision. They must weigh out the opportunities that the military offers against the real possibility they will see combat. The decisions they make will affect not only them, but their families and their country.

For Chicago Public Radio, I'm Jermont Montgomery.