The face of the front: These are not your father's armed forces
Seattle Times staff reporter
The Navy that Lt. Cmdr. Leah Anne Bersamin's father served in is a far cry from the military she now knows.
For most of her dad's military career, the draft was intact, and many of the 9 million Americans who served during the Vietnam War were young, male and poorly educated.
Today, as the assault on Afghanistan's Taliban forces intensifies, the face of the U.S. military casts a very different reflection from what it was almost 30 years ago when it became an all-volunteer army.
At 1.1 million men and women, the mightiest military force in the world is smaller and more reliant on reservists than perhaps ever before.
It is facing a mission abroad and at home that could be messy and drawn-out.
In the past decade, the military has been touted as a peacekeeping force; for many who joined, it was viewed as a stable career or a means to an education.
The men and women who will fight and protect America are far more educated than in generations past — most graduated from high school and many have college degrees. And like America itself, the military is more diverse than ever before. One out of every seven who wears a uniform is a woman, and almost one out of every four is a black man.
"When my father was in, the highest rank a Filipino would typically achieve would have been a chief," said Bersamin, 33, who is an officer and a member of Nurse Corps at Naval Hospital Bremerton. Now, such racial barriers have fallen, Bersamin said.
America's relationship with its armed forces is different from any other time in its history. As the United States has grown — 281 million and counting — its military has shrunk. In response to the war in Afghanistan, some 55,000 reservists and National Guard members from all 50 states have been called to active duty.
During World War II more than 16 million, or 12 percent of Americans, served in the armed forces. During the Vietnam War, 5 percent served. Today, less than one-half of 1 percent make up the armed forces, including the Coast Guard.
As perhaps never before, Americans may not know a single soldier, sailor or airman.
"There was a time when everyone knew someone in the military. They had a brother who was in, or a cousin or they knew the guy down the street," said retired Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Bob Newman, a military analyst for a talk-radio station in Denver.
Because so many people have so little contact with the military, there are misconceptions about who serves and why.
"People think that we are uneducated and unsophisticated. They think that we couldn't get into a good college or that we came from a poor family in the South," Newman said. "It's like one of those urban myths that won't go away."
In fact, the military draws from all backgrounds, though mostly from the middle class, and from every state.
While some recruits seek escape from an ordinary life, others feel a patriotic calling. Still others are attracted by educational benefits and skills training.
"The military has always been seen as a way for some people to get that bootstrap up," said Judith Robertson, a spokeswoman for Naval Hospital Bremerton who's lived on bases around the world. "Sure, the kid from the Bronx may start in the mailroom, but if he's got abilities there's no stopping him."
Staff Sgt. Arquallia Farr, 29, joined the Army 11 years ago right after graduating from high school in Houlka, Miss.
"I saw an Army ad on TV and said, 'That's what I want to do,' " said Farr, a platoon sergeant with the Bravo Company 5-20 Infantry at Fort Lewis. "I didn't want to end up working in a furniture factory like my parents. I wanted more out of my life. I wanted more adventure and more opportunities."
Darla Graham was working at a nursing home as a caregiver and studying to be a theater technician at Pierce College in Tacoma when she wanted a change.
"I didn't really have any better ideas," said Graham, 25, a senior airman at McChord Air Force Base. "I joined the Air Force because one of my friends talked it up."
Robert Lanier, the son of an architect, grew up listening to classical music and sailing New York's Hudson River. "When I got out of high school, I told my father I wanted to join the Coast Guard and he said, 'Go to college first.' So I did, and when I graduated he asked me what I wanted to do and I told him I still wanted to join the Coast Guard.
"Then he said, 'Go ahead. I'm happy for you.'
"I don't think I'm what people think of when they think of a sailor, but then, I don't meet many people who fit the stereotype these days," said Lanier, 32, a petty officer second class stationed in Seattle.
Looking for higher skills
When the military recruits, it looks for more than an ability to aim straight, march and take orders. Every enlistee must pass a 12-part vocational-aptitude test, and not all do. "We have to talk to 100 people to get one to qualify," said Senior Chief Petty Officer Mark Stocks, a Coast Guard recruiter in Seattle.
The emphasis is on technology and high-level skills. "It's no longer the fall-back option for people who are dropping out."
More than 94 percent of those in the military have a high-school degree or better. Nationwide, the high-school-graduate rate is about 75 to 80 percent.
"To tell you the truth, I was kind of surprised at the number of intelligent people I've met in here," said Petty Officer Third Class Elizabeth Matt, 24, a Coast Guard machinery technician stationed at Umpqua in Oregon.
While the military is more diverse than even a generation ago, women still make up only about 14 percent of the armed services, despite representing 51 percent of the U.S. population.
Women make up only 6 percent of the Marines, 14 percent of the Navy, 15 percent of the Army and 20 percent of the Air Force, the most gender-integrated branch of the military.
Another anomaly: Only men between 18 and 25 are required to register for the Selective Service draft, which can be activated by Congress and the president.
Gender discrimination remains an issue despite the active recruitment of women, according to Dr. David R. Segal, the director for The Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland.
Women cannot serve in combat positions, such as infantry, armor or short-range artillery divisions, or on submarines. That leaves them out of the jobs that historically are the surest route to the highest military ranks.
"Nobody becomes a four-star general through being a quartermaster," Segal said. "To some extent there is still a glass ceiling."
But Bersamin, who joined the Navy like her dad, said she hasn't experienced discrimination.
"I've gotten to go to the schools I've wanted and I've gotten to choose my duty stations. It's been a great career and a comfortable life," she said.
There also are disproportionately more black men in the service. Black men between the ages of 18 and 44 comprise 12.6 percent of the civilian population but make up more than 22 percent of the armed forces.
DeWayne Wickham, who writes for USA Today, recently used those numbers to call for the reinstatement of the draft, noting that the burden of combat falls disproportionately on African Americans.
Segal, at the Center for Research on Military Organization, has a different take: "I think it shows that blacks feel they get a better deal inside the military than outside of it."
One of the early criticisms of the all-volunteer force was that it would rely on the poor and underclass to fight America's wars, according to Segal. But studies show the military draws from the middle class and underrepresents the very bottom and the very top of the social classes.
"The lower rungs tend not to qualify for the military on the basis of education, health or criminal records, while the very top exclude themselves," Segal said.
When polled by the Department of Defense, minorities in the military said their world on base was less racist than outside in the civilian world.
Staff Sgt. Farr, who is black, agrees. "Opportunity is tied to a person's ability. I'm not saying there isn't any racism, I'm just saying I haven't seen any. You just don't have time for that in the Army. You have to learn to work together."
War becomes a reality
As America's involvement in Afghanistan deepens, some who signed up to serve during peacetime now grapple with the reality of going to war.
The inducements for signing — money for college or big re-enlistment bonuses — may pale when the harsh truth of military combat no longer is theoretical.
Military counselors report an increase in the number of military personnel seeking conscientious-objector status.
Yet others have taped American flags to their car windows and say they've been preparing their whole career for the chance to defend the United States.
Staff Sgt. Anthony Bunyan, an active-duty member of the National Guard at the Seattle Armory, joined the Army just out of high school nearly 20 years ago.
"I didn't know what I wanted to do and I fell prey to a smooth-talking recruiter," said the 37-year-old father of three.
He served in the military police, then spent a few years as a civilian before re-enlisting.
"I don't know of any job that would give me more satisfaction," he said. "We're being called upon to protect our neighbors, and I can't imagine a greater honor. It's a privilege to defend this country."
Christine Clarridge can be reached at 206-464-8983 or email@example.com.