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US Military Sees Surge in Asian-American Recruits

  • Lonny Shavelson

The rising visibility of Asian-Americans already in the service may make a military career more acceptable to young Asian-Americans.

The rising visibility of Asian-Americans already in the service may make a military career more acceptable to young Asian-Americans.

Education opportunities, increased visibility lure new generation

The all-volunteer U.S. army - like the United States itself - is an ethnic mix. But Asian-Americans have typically volunteered less than other ethnic groups. Recently, though, they have been enlisting at a remarkable rate.

Asian-Americans make up just 10 percent of New York City's population, but they comprise 14 percent of army recruits. The numbers are even more striking in California cities. In the San Francisco Bay area, 42 percent of recruits so far this year have been Asian-American - way over their local population.

New reasons for signing up

At the Bay Area's Richmond Hilltop Mall recruiting station, army officers teach incoming soldiers to march. The 15 recruits, still in high school, will start basic training after they graduate. Seven of them are Asian: Chinese, Vietnamese, Pacific-Islander and Filipino.

Recruits Albert and Barry Huang are 18-year-old twins who speak Cantonese at home, and English outside the home. They tend to finish each other's sentences.

"My parents always pushed the idea of 'go to college, go to college,'" says Albert. "And so this is a start of how we're going to..."

Barry jumps in with "…do what our parents want us to do. We're just going to go to college and get an education."

This is the twins' route to college. "Now that the economy has gone down and the tuition's gone up - the army, they can pay for my college, so might as well do it," says Barry.

Asian-American parents' traditional emphasis on education has run into the stumbling U.S. economy and skyrocketing college costs. So the military's education benefits have become particularly appealing. That's one reason Asian-Americans are increasingly joining the army.

But that's not the whole story. In the San Francisco Bay area, 42 percent of military recruits so far this year have been Asian-American.

In the San Francisco Bay area, 42 percent of military recruits so far this year have been Asian-American.

Facing new enemies

"In the present war, they're not fighting against Asians like in World War II or Vietnam," says Ken Mochizuki, co-author of a book about Asians in the military. He points out that U.S. soldiers, before this generation, were fighting Asians - Japanese in World War II, then Koreans and Vietnamese. Today's young soldiers, he says, were born after those wars, and are less apprehensive about the military.

And, he adds, today's generation of American Southeast Asians, born to parents who spent time in refugee camps before emigrating, "want to prove their loyalty to this country and that they're as American as anybody else."

Support roles

Yet increased recruitment of Asian-Americans doesn't mean that more are on the front lines.

According to Dr. Betty Maxfield, the army's chief of personnel data, Asian-Americans are more commonly found in non-combat jobs then as front-line fighters.

"The majority are in combat service support, technical support, computer support, medical," says Maxfield, adding that soldiers who focus on the military's education benefits train in jobs that translate to civilian life - such as technology or medicine rather than rifles or sharp shooting.

The Huang twins say that, for them, finding non-combat roles is also a cultural and religious choice. Their mother is Buddhist.

"It affected me," Barry says. "When I decided to join the military, I was like, 'I'm not going to kill anybody, I do not want to kill anybody. I do not want to have a person's death on my conscience.'"

The rising visibility of Asian-Americans already in the service may make a military career more acceptable to Asian-Americans.

Retired four-star general Eric Shinseki, a Japanese-American, now heads the Department of Veterans Affairs. Antonio Taguba, a Filipino-American major general, led the Abu Ghraib investigation.

The most potent reason that Asian-Americans are increasingly joining the army may just be because they now see top-level officers who look like them.

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