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THE ORLANDO SENTINEL
Rising Through The Ranks
By Kelly Brewington | Sentinel Staff Writer
April 27, 2003
Before Wanda Aaron joined the Army, she was a single mom, floundering through college with little interest in a professional career.
Her mother didn't think Aaron, known for her "smart mouth" and wild temper, would endure the military lifestyle for more than six months. But six years later, Aaron gained a career, a sense of purpose and self-respect.
She credits the military -- one of the most racially integrated institutions in the nation.
Aaron represents the thousands of minorities who are drawn to careers in the military in numbers disproportionate to their overall population. Some say they join for the educational and economic opportunities, entering with nothing on a resume but a high school diploma.
There's a big reason for this, sociologists say. The military offers them a real chance in life -- a college education, training, career advancement and a lifelong pension -- options that are less available to them in the civilian world.
Some experts say the military offers minorities more opportunity for advancement than civilian society and does a better job navigating race relations than most corporate environments.
But there are limitations -- some of them daunting.
Today, minorities are over-represented among enlisted personnel -- and under-represented in officer ranks. For example, black Americans comprise nearly 13 percent of the general population between the ages of 18-44. In the armed services, they account for 22 percent of the enlisted personnel and 8 percent of the officers.
The armed forces have a long history of inequality. Blacks have served in everyconflictsince the Revolutionary War, but units were racially segregated until ordered to integrate in 1948 by executive order of President Harry S. Truman. The Air Force would not enlist black pilots until World War II, and just a generation ago race riots occurred between soldiers serving in Vietnam.
Eddie Green, a black Navy veteran, remembers white officers placing a sign over supply rooms stating "No niggers allowed" in the 1960s. Tensions hit a boiling point when Green slugged a fellow soldier in the jaw for insulting him with the racial epithet -- an incident that led to Green's demotion. After that, he learned to ignore the remarks. Despite the prejudice, he credits the military withgiving him a better life.
"It was worth it," says Green, 60, a retired postal worker. "If it hadn't been for the military, I'd probably be digging ditches or something. And that's the honest truth."
Many veterans such as Green relate experiences of racial prejudice mixed with pride in being a part of a military to which they felt loyal. And though the military has a complex racial past, many argue that it has a promising future.
A simple choice
For Aaron, the decision was simple. She wanted a better life -- she just needed an opportunity. She joined the Army in 1980 with few expectations, but the hope of providing a steady paycheck to send home to her parents, who took care of her son.
"I was a single black woman, and I was not on welfare," says Aaron, who now is 40. "My only goal was to stay self-sufficient."
Over time, however, Aaron found something she didn't even realize was missing from her life: a sense of direction.
"I was able to step out of myself and look at my life," she says. "I was young. I had no respect for authority and I had no vision. Suddenly I realized I didn't want to be that way. I gained discipline and responsibility."
Her journey wasn't easy. But after six years, she had worked as an administrator to high-ranking officers, had lived all over the world and picked up some German.
Discrimination was alive, though not blatant, she says. Nor did it hold her back.
"It was always the kind of thing you couldn't always prove," she says. "Women were just starting to take a stand, but for a long time women and blacks would routinely be passed over for promotion. It was common."
Once she left the military, Aaron says, she had the confidence to succeed in various careers. She now works for U.S. Customs at Orlando International Airport. She is proud of her accomplishments -- raising three sons alone, and becoming a certified firefighter -- the only black person in a class of 25 white men.
Many minorities credit the military withtheir accomplishments -- even those who faced overt prejudice.
Members of the 65th Infantry Regiment,a Puerto Rican unit that fought in the Korean War, was dubbed the "rum and Coke" regiment.
Noemí Figueroa, who is producing a documentary on the Puerto Rican soldiers, says they remain loyal even though they received fewer medals and some members endured a court martial that some officials have called discriminatory.
"It was subtle," Figueroa says. "The 65th didn't receive any medals of honor, but the two other regiments in the division got them and got a higher number of Silver and Bronze Stars.
"The 65th had more days in combat. And they were kicking butt. So one could ask, 'Why didn't they get their due equivalent?' "
Still, among veterans of the unit, there is immense pride and satisfaction in their tour of duty.
"You can be treated like a second-class citizen but still feel a tremendous amount of patriotism," Figueroa says. "They felt they were representing Puerto Rico, and they needed to show the world that Puerto Ricans can do their share."
Jose Colón, 84, of Casselberry served in the 65th and says he never felt discriminated against.
"When you are in the military, you work in a team. You have to trust each other," he says. "It doesn't matter what race or color that person is. You can't get by if you don't help each other. It's not like that in the corporate world."
Those who have studied minorities' experiences in the military say they've been surprised by what veterans have taught them about race relations.
Many minority veterans fought in wars that professed the American ideal of freedom, while back home they were barred from voting or even eating at a lunch counter with white people. Why, then, did they choose to serve a country that discriminated against them?
"I think what it came down to is that they were really idealistic people," says Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, who is researching an oral history project on Latinos in World War II. "These are the people who are the first to take out their American flags on Veterans Day. They know there is inequality in society, but they really believe in how things could be."
In many cases, joining the military was something that brought them status back home and a sense of self, she says.
"Most of them really wanted to prove to themselves more than anyone else that they were as good as anyone else," she says.
Many Hispanics turned that sense of purpose into a civil-rights mission after World War II, says Rivas-Rodriguez. One group of Mexican-Americans, after taking advantage of the G.I. Bill and going on to law school, started the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a civil-rights group still in existence that has fought school segregation and employment discrimination.
A reflection of society
Through the years, the military mirrored the times. In the 1940s, those arguing to keep black soldiers separate from white and out of combat roles claimed they weren't capable of being good soldiers and would hurt morale. Those same arguments have been made for excluding women and gay people.
During the turbulent 1960s, civil-rights issues boiled over among soldiers overseas, erupting in race riots. Meanwhile, activists such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. argued that the money spent on combat in Vietnam should be spent fighting for equality at home. And when figures revealed black soldiers were dying in disproportionate numbers in the early years of the war, many activists protested the inequality of sacrifice.
But once the draft was eliminated and the volunteer force began in 1973, the military made significant efforts toward equality, says James Burk, a professor of sociology at Texas A&M University who has researched society at war.
"I think the military started to realize, for it to be effective it was going to become a nondiscriminatory employer friendly to minorities," he says. "And that's something corporate America doesn't always recognize."
For the middle class, mainly white youths, the military was always a good option and since the 1980s has remained so. However, with a more-diverse economy emerging in the last 20 years, there are many other opportunities for them -- some not as readily available to minorities, says Burk.
Solid jobs in manufacturing, for instance, have vanished over time, making the military more attractive to people looking for a secure paycheck, he says.
Although minorities remain under-represented in officer ranks, some studies suggest that blacks earn more on average in the military than in civilian society.
"Certainly, that's one reason why you see the disproportionately large population of minorities taking advantage of the all-volunteer force," Burk says.
Others assert that race relations are better in the military than in the corporate world. Rather than trying to change attitudes -- the kind of approach corporate Americaembraces in diversity-training seminars and the like -- the military focuses on obeying orders, says Diane Mazur, a former Air Force captain.
"All the military cares about is showing respect for the people who outrank you," she says. "The military doesn't really care so much if you don't like the fact that you are working for a black supervisor, so long as you salute that man and do what he tells you."
Overtime, this can contributeto a change in attitudes, says Mazur, a law professor at the University of Florida who specializes in the military and the constitution.
"Once people act right and show respect for each other -- you just jump in and make people do their job -- they begin to see that the ideas and stereotypes are not really all that accurate," she says.
Not a ripple
The war in Iraq has seen casualties, prisoners of war and support personnel of all races and backgrounds. Shoshana Johnson, a black woman, was a rescued prisoner of war and acclaimed as a hero in a military that once banned black women from combat. Her role, and her rescue, caused no controversy nor even a ripple in the American consciousness. That is significant, say experts.
"Her race didn't matter," says Burk. "What's remarkable is the acceptance of the integrated nature of the armed forces. The reaction you are seeing is just a general reaction to our troops -- men, women and various races. They are all bearing a burden."
But the racial and gender relationships in the military are far from perfect. Women, for example, make up just 15 percent of those in the military but more than half of the general population.
Though black recruits comprise 22 percent of enlisted personnel, they make up only 8 percent of the officers. Hispanics, meanwhile, are less likely to hold ranks of major, lieutenant colonel and colonel in the army, Air Force and Marines, and lieutenant commander, commander and captain in the Navy. Only 30 percent of the Hispanic officers are in these upper grades as compared to nearly 36 percent of black officers and 42 percent of white officers.
But fewer minorities holding these ranks could be becausea bachelor's degreeis required to be an officer, Burk says.
Although the military has made strides to fix its unequal past, it continues to struggle with race relations just as the rest of society does. "There is no corner of America that is free from those remnants of prejudice and discrimination," Mazur says. "That's America."