Latinos are fastest growing population in US military, but higher ranks remain out of reach

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 24/05/2020 04:22:00 Adrianna Rodriguez, USA TODAY
a group of people standing together in uniform: U.S. servicemen Honry Ong of the Philippines, left; Njoroge James of Kenya; Miguel Castano of Colombia; John Paul Reyes-Pina of Mexico; Jorge Gray of Panama; and Steven Cauthon, of South Korea, right holding flag, take the oath of allegiance during a naturalization ceremony in Dallas, on Nov. 5, 2008. The six joined other U.S. service personnel becoming U.S. citizens. © Tony Gutierrez/APU.S. servicemen Honry Ong of the Philippines, left; Njoroge James of Kenya; Miguel Castano of Colombia; John Paul Reyes-Pina of Mexico; Jorge Gray of Panama; and Steven Cauthon, of South Korea, right holding flag, take the oath of allegiance during a naturalization ceremony in Dallas, on Nov. 5, 2008. The six joined other U.S. service personnel becoming U.S. citizens.

The USA TODAY Network series Hecho en USA, or made in America, covers the Latino community. Roughly 80% of all Latinos living in the USA are American citizens, but media coverage of Hispanics tends to focus on immigration and crime, instead of how Latino families live, work and learn in their hometowns. Hecho en USA tells the stories of the nation's 59.9 million Latinos - a growing economic and cultural force, many of whom are born in the USA.

Carl Castro had learned the news months earlier, but it didn't really hit him until he was driving into work one day: He was going to be a colonel. 

That meant new privileges, as well as new responsibilities. Castro was excited to have generals listen to him and take his advice. As a psychologist in the military, he knew he would never be able to reach their rank, but at least he could influence their decisions to do what's best for the soldiers and their families.

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"The thing about being a colonel in the Army is that it allows you to make comments outside your lane and that's accepted," he said. "It's generally not accepted at lower ranks in the organization." 

Slideshow by photo services 

Castro is among a rare group of Latinos who have made it into the upper tiers of the U.S. military. Hispanics are the fastest growing population in the military, making up about 16% of all active-duty military, according to the Department of Defense. However, Latinos make up only 8% of the officer corps and 2% of general/flag officers, according to a 2019 report by the Congressional Research Service. A long history of racism and gender discrimination in the military, along with education and language barriers, are keeping Latinos from advancement, veterans and researchers said. 

The military has historically been one of the most diverse institutions in the U.S. A report from the Pew Research Center found that in 2004, roughly 36% of active duty military were people of color, while Census data from that time showed the U.S. population was 80% white. More recently, the Pew report found that 43% of active-duty military personnel represented racial and ethnic minorities in 2017. Roughly 60% of the U.S. is white alone these days, while Blacks represent 13% of the population, Hispanics 18% and Asians nearly 6%, according to recent Census data. 

As the military has become more diverse, it's even more important for the officer corps to reflect the nation's shifting population, said Luis R. Fraga, a professor of political science and director for the Institute of Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. 

"So that enlisted personnels see themselves in the officer corps, too," he said, adding that the more people can see themselves in high-ranking positions, the more they might be empowered to pursue a career as a commissioned officer. 

a person walking down a sidewalk: Nikki Wooten stands on the University of South Carolina campus in Columbia, South Carolina, on March 11, 2020. Wooten has researched heath disparities among racial and ethnic minorities and women in the U.S. military. © Matt Burkhartt, USA TODAY NetworkNikki Wooten stands on the University of South Carolina campus in Columbia, South Carolina, on March 11, 2020. Wooten has researched heath disparities among racial and ethnic minorities and women in the U.S. military.

Nikki Wooten, associate professor at the University of South Carolina College of Social Work and a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves who has studied health disparities among racial and ethnic minorities and women in the military, said diversity in the officer corps can help improve policy for service members in the enlisted ranks.

"Enlisted ranks are a lot more diverse than the officer rank," she said. "Having a diverse officer rank... you have a difference in perspectives in terms of military decision making... and about how it can negatively and positively affect the lower ranks, on troops, service members and their families."

In a statement sent to USA TODAY, the Department of Defense said its marketing material for recruitment is inclusive to minorities and is used at conventions, job fairs, and other community programs.

"As DoD continues to build on its efforts to cultivate a diverse and inclusive workforce for all who serve, we will draw upon the widest possible set of backgrounds, talents and skills to maximize our warfighting capability, adapt to address new threats and challenges, and take advantage of new opportunities-strengthening the lethality and readiness of the Total Force," the statement read. 

How to become an officer in the military

Castro began his military career as an infantryman in 1981. He got the news of his promotion to colonel about a month after returning from his second tour in Iraq, where he did research on soldiers' mental health for the U.S. Army as a lieutenant colonel. After peacekeeping missions in Saudi Arabia, Bosnia and Kosovo, and 33 years in the U.S. Army, he retired in 2014 and became a professor at the University of Southern California teaching social work and psychology. 

His background is unusual for many Latinos in the military.

There are four ways to become an officer: attend a military academy, enroll in a Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program, attend Officer Candidate School (OCS) and receive a direct commission. The Defense Department said that because it takes up to two decades to develop a general or flag officer, it's focused on not just recruiting, but also retaining diverse talent. 

All officers must ultimately have a bachelor's degree from a four-year institution and a good score on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test, which everyone takes before they are enlisted. The test is only administered in English. Castro says prospective soldiers who are first-generation Hispanic American or who aren't proficient native English speakers most likely won't get a high score on the test. Those with the lowest scores on the test tend to get funneled into enlistment as infantrymen, which could discourage Latinos from pursuing a career as a commissioned officer later in their careers, Castro said. 

The majority of officers in the military come from ROTC programs. Officer Candidate School generally lasts about nine to 17 weeks. Direct commissions are given to people who are already practicing a trade in their civilian life and can pick up a specialty as an officer in the military, such as doctors or nurses.

Many Latinos simply don't have enough education to become an officer. Hispanic students are the second largest ethnic group in U.S. public schools after white students, but only about 8% of Latinos receive a post-secondary degree, according to the Congressional Research Service. Language and economic barriers, as well as discrimination, have historically contributed to the Latino achievement gap in U.S. education. And that affects who gets promoted in the military, Castro said.

"If you don't have a large pool of male Hispanics who have college degrees then you don't have many commissioned officers," Castro said.

One bright spot is the growing education levels of Hispanic women in the U.S. The number of Latinas who graduated from a higher education grew about 70% from 2000 to 2017, largely outpacing Millennials Latinos, a demographic that saw a 56% growth in college graduations, according to a report on U.S. Latinas by NBCUniversal Telemundo Enterprises and Comcast NBCUniversal published in November. 

However, women are less likely to enlist and stay in the military to further pursue their careers as commissioned officers. According to a 2017 report by the CNA, a research organization in Arlington, Virginia, women of all ethnic backgrounds only make up about 18% of the officer corps and account for less than 7% of the highest leadership positions. The military only opened all combat jobs to women in 2015.

Jacqueline Krulic, a U.S. Navy veteran who is half-Mexican, says the hurdles to get into military leadership are worse for women of color. She said there were times when male service members made fun of her and her female colleagues, joking that their butts were too big for their uniforms. When they tried to stick up for themselves, they were told they had a bad attitude. 

"I think there's a difference on how Latino men get treated and the Latina women," she said. "Definitely as a woman of color you got treated a lot different."

Military culture discouraged Krulic and her friends from speaking up about any form of harassment or insults, she said. 

"You can report it but nothing will happen and then people will know," she said. "You become that person, the snitch."

Krulic said the majority of Latinos that she knew served their four years and then pursued an education or other careers as civilians. In her case, she left because of family. But she thinks that another reason people leave is because they don't feel appreciated as enlisted service members and see no point in climbing the ranks. 

Wooten said this could be a common sentiment among minority veterans.

"You gain some financial stability and you gain your education, but you don't feel valued," Wooten said. 

Military has long history of discrimination 

Harry Franqui-Rivera, an associate professor of history who specializes in military service and Latino studies at Bloomfield College in New Jersey, said a history of written and non-written policies has contributed to the longstanding practice of limiting non-whites' access to the military. 

This can be traced back to the Spanish-American War in 1898, when white nationalist leaders regained control of the military and imposed Jim Crow-like laws years after the U.S. military lifted its ban on black soldiers during the Civil War. Segregation policies were also embraced at military schools like New York's West Point, which at the time was the main avenue of becoming a commissioned officer. President Harry S. Truman signed an executive order to desegregate the military in 1948, but it took the Korean War in 1950 for the U.S. military to fully integrate. 

Although written policies that actively discriminated against non-whites have been eradicated, Franqui-Rivera said the impact of those policies can still be seen today. 

"I've seen the military try to make an effort to have a more diverse officer corps, but they haven't been able to deal with what has become tradition," he said. 

Racism is an ongoing issue in today's military, said Wooten, who joined the army in 1989 and was in active duty for 31 years before entering the national guard reserves. A 2016 study published in the peer-reviewed journal Sage found that white military veterans expressed more "virulent attitudes" toward African Americans relative to their civilian counterparts. The study suggests that military veterans are more racist toward African Americans than civilians and Wooten said these findings extend toward Latinos, as well. 

Racism in the military can also affect troop's mental health, making it harder for them to excel and be promoted, Wooten said. Based on her research, she said minority veterans have an increased risk for mental health problems after experiencing racial discrimination in the military. Meanwhile, any disciplinary action could limit, say, a soldier's likelihood of getting promoted. 

"There's gatekeeping of who ascends in the officer ranks," she said. "They like healthy warriors who can give 120%. Mental or physical problems are not only perceived in a negative way but you also internalize as well that you're different and not as good."

'Let someone else handle the policy'

Castro doesn't doubt that discrimination exists in the military, although he hasn't personally experienced it, but he said personal choice also determines whether a soldier becomes a commissioned officer. He said many people don't want to make the commitment that the job requires.

"There's discrimination and biases happening, I have no delusions about that," he said. "But also a lot of it is that many Latinos specifically just don't want the responsibility that comes with the job. They would prefer to be around soldiers."

Castro said the more he climbed the officer ranks, the less he saw soldiers and the more he was in meetings with other high-ranking officials. He remembers taking his son to the office one day and dragging him to all his meetings. When the pair came home, his wife asked their son how it went. 

"And he said, 'Dad just sits around and talks to people all day,'" Castro recalled, laughing at the memory.

Some Latinos don't want to be in an office building all day, instead they say "let someone else handle the policy, I want to help people on the ground," he added.

Frank Balkcom, Sr., from Glendale, Arizona, was on active duty in the marines from 1974 to 1978, and on reserve until 2004. He was deployed twice while on reserves and later worked as a police officer. The ex-chief of police in Page, Arizona, said he exited the military to find a career with more stability and better pay for his family, which included two small children.

He said he never had plans to climb the ranks as an officer, even though he has a master's degree. 

"I never gave it a thought," he said. "I enjoyed working hand-in-hand with the Marines." 

He said he never experienced racism when he enlisted at 18 years old as a Latino, in fact, he had many Latino bosses. He added that while it would be naive to say there wasn't any discrimination in the military, the organization helped recruits learn how to overcome any differences.

"Everyone is unique and one of the things I found out is that it takes a coalition mindset and a teamwork atmosphere," he said. "We all wear one uniform regardless of your race."

'No such thing as white, brown, black. We're all green' 

Although Latinos are less likely to become officers compared with white-only Americans, many still hold onto their military background with pride and insist that things are getting better. Puerto Ricans, for example, are especially proud of their history with the armed forces and the island celebrates its 79,000 registered veterans with "el Día del Veterano Puertorriqueño," apart from their Veterans Day celebration with the U.S. mainland.

The Defense Department said it has focused efforts on attracting and retaining a diverse workforce and tries to cast a wide net to all backgrounds, talents and skills to "maximize our warfighting capability." 

"Hispanics/Latinos are critical to the readiness of the Total Force and key contributors to the Department of Defense national defense mission," the statement read.

Marines veteran Andrew Peralta said things have gotten much better since his time in the military after swapping stories with his nephew, who serves as a Marine in the Philippines. Peralta says the Marines haven't changed much since he first started his military career in 1987, but it has gotten more diverse, with more women. The military branch is also more accepting of the LGBTQ community.

But even though Peralta was the only Mexican at basic training, he said he still felt a brotherhood that surpassed race and ethnicity. He said all recruits started at the bottom together and helped each other work their way up. Drill sergeants were constantly reminding them that "the person next to you might be the one to save your life" in combat. 

"We looked at each other as once a marine always a marine," he said. "We're told early there's no such thing as white, brown, black, we're all green or dark green."

Krulic, who's now a Kansas City police officer, said she doesn't regret her time in the Navy even though she decided not to become an officer and continue her military career. Maybe if she had a Latina officer as her superior, she would have felt more motivated to stick it out longer, she said.

But she was also able to travel the world and make lifelong friends, who later became family. And that was enough for her. 

"I would die for these people still to this day," she said.

Follow Adrianna Rodriguez on Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT. 

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Latinos are fastest growing population in US military, but higher ranks remain out of reach

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