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February 1999
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Military Steps Up Drive to Recruit Latinos

by Harold Jordan

Military recruiters have stepped up their attempts to get Latinos to join the services. This drive is partly a response to what has been a difficult recruiting climate. It is also based on recognition by recruiters that Latinos are a fast growing segment of the youth population, but have long been considered "under-represented" in the military. In this climate, recruiting officials are placing a greater emphasis on targeted recruitment in specific markets - a sort of niche recruiting - as opposed to general recruitment and advertising.

Latino Youth and Recruiting Challenges

Recruiters have long wanted to increase Latino enlistment rates. Latinos make up 6.3% of today's military - 7% of enlisted ranks; only 3% of officers - but 11% of the population of 18-44 year olds. Among young people ages 18-24, the prime recruiting market, Latinos make up 14.3% of the nation's youth, but only about 10% of new recruits. According to Census Bureau projections, Latinos are expected to make up 18% of 12-44-year-olds by the year 2020. This means that the services would have to triple the proportion of Latinos in order to match the civilian population.

For the Pentagon this is more than just a numbers game. Current recruiting difficulties have caused military officials to place an even greater emphasis on expanding Latino enlistment.

Young people have been less interested in the military since the Gulf War. This is especially true for Black youth and for young people who hold high school diplomas. The Pentagon's annual survey of high school youth, the Youth Attitude Tracking Survey, documents this decline. Military officials argue that their youth surveys indicate that Latino youth are less hostile to joining the military than Black youth.

The Army and Navy have been hit hardest by the shift in attitudes since the Gulf War. In the year ending September 30, 1998 (Fiscal Year 1998), both service branches fell significantly short of their enlistment goals, the Navy leading the way with a shortfall of 6,900 anticipated new recruits. In the past few years, the services (especially the Army) have been able to mask these problems by putting out mid-year figures suggesting recruiting difficulties, begging Congress for more resources (money and recruiters) and getting them, accepting more non-diploma high school graduates (i.e., young people with General Educational Development, or GEDs), lowering enlistment goals, then declaring victory at the end of the year. This maneuver will be less possible in the future as recruiting goals shoot up and the military force reductions come to a close. The Army has set a goal of bringing in 82,923 new recruits in Fiscal Year 2001, 11,000 more new soldiers than joined the military in 1998.

New Strategies

Just how to get more Latinos to join the services is still being hotly debated in Pentagon circles. Recruiting officials argue that two factors get in the way of expanded Latino enlistment: (1) inability of many Latino youth, especially recent immigrants, to speak English fluently and (2) low high school completion rates. Some recruiters have also acknowledged (Los Angeles Times, 4/30/98) that one of the difficulties in selling the military to some Latino youths from immigrant families is that these families "come from places where the military is associated with hierarchy and corruption, rather than opportunity."

The options being considered most seriously include dramatically expanding outreach to Latino communities by establishing partnerships with Latino organizations, doing outreach to younger Latinos (in junior high schools or middle schools), and raising the number of Latinos admitted to the services with alternative credentials (GEDs, etc.). More controversial is a proposal being advocated by Lt. Gen. Edward Baca, head of the National Guard Bureau, that would change the military's enlistment and placement test, the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, to eliminate cultural bias.

Although the full details of a long-range strategy are not yet resolved, several initiatives are underway:

  • "Hispanic Influencer Alliance"
    Initiated in the fall of 1997, this Army program gains access to Latino youth by establishing a partnerships between Latino organizations and local recruiting stations. The Army hopes to convince Latino parents to use military recruiters as role models and mentors for Latino youth. For example, a formal partnership has been established with League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) National Educational Service Centers in California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Puerto Rico. The partnership calls for recruiters and LULAC staffers to make joint presentations to young people promoting the military and the "stay in school" message. The Army has developed a variety of program materials, including a video (with Spanish subtitles) and a bilingual discussion guide and brochure on "issues facing Hispanic youth," to be used by the organizations in this alliance.

  • Expanded Advertising
    A new set of advertising materials aimed at Latinos has been developed by the Army. There has also been a substantial increase in the number of recruiting ads placed in Latino publications. As noted above, the military has implemented an outreach campaign specifically targeting the parents of Latino youth.

  • Alternative Credentialing
    The services now admit a larger proportion of recruits with alternative credentials (General Educational Development and home schooling certificates) into the services. In March of 1997, the Army Recruiting Command relaxed its high school graduation standards by doubling (from 5% to 10% of new recruits) the numbers of recruits permitted to enlist without traditional high school diplomas. The focus is on increasing the numbers of GED holders in the services. More recently (June 1998) Congress approved a temporary policy of permitting high school dropouts who later earn GEDs through the National Guard's Challenge Program subsequently to be treated as diploma graduates for enlistment purposes. Congress is likely to expand this program into a five-year pilot project.

Permitting non-diploma graduates to join the services in any substantial numbers is very controversial, yet recruiting officials propose to use these relaxed entrance requirements to enhance their Latino recruiting effort. Military officials have long argued that soldiers without traditional high school diplomas perform more poorly and are less likely to complete their term of service than other soldiers. Recruiting officials are very concerned that changing credentialing requirements in order to bring in more Latinos would be seen by some whites as an unfair lowering of standards. The services are currently facing at least three "reverse discrimination" lawsuits challenging the promotion system. It bears noting that a disproportionate number of recruits joining the services in recent years with alternative credentials are classified as "white (not of Hispanic origin)."

It is clear that the services are mounting a major effort to expand Latino enlistment. Other initiatives are likely in the coming year. Whether these initiatives will be successful depends on many factors: the climate of opinion in diverse Latino communities; how these communities see and interpret the condition of returning Latino vets, including Gulf War vets; how Latino education activists view the military vs. other alternatives; and how community activists respond to this latest military incursion. Perhaps the most likely consequence of aggressive recruiting is an increase in a form of abuse known all too well to service members – recruitment fraud.

December 1998

Harold Jordan coordinates the American Friends Service Committee's National Youth and Militarism Program.

(Fiscal Year 1997, unless otherwise noted)


Latino enlistments have grown from 4% (1983) to 10% (FY97) of new recruits. The Marines and the Navy are the most successful branches at recruiting Latinos.

Branch of service

Proportion of new recruits

Marines 12.3%
Navy 10.2%
Army 9.6%
Air Force 6.8%


Ethnic group

Number of members

Mexican 7,649
Puerto Ricans 3,138
Cubans 235
Latin Americans 1,802
Other Latinos 5,629
TOTAL 18,453





Male 15,706 85.1%
Female 2,747 14.9%



Number of Latino recruits

California 4,900
Texas 4,676
Puerto Rico 1,515 *FY1998
Florida 1,455
New York 1,218
Arizona 604
New Jersey 558
New Mexico 486
Illinois 413
Other 4,143


Racial Category New Recruits High School Diploma Graduates*

Alternative Credentials (GED, etc.)

No Credentials

White 64.4% 63.6% 77.1% 66.2%
Black 19.9% 20.4% 11.4% 14.1%
Latino 9.8% 9.9% 7.5% 11.2%
Other 5.9% 6.0% 4.1% 8.5%
TOTAL 100% 100% 100% 100%

* Includes regular high school graduates, adult diploma holders, and non-graduates with at least 15 hours of college credit.

** Columns may not add up to 100% due to rounding.


The Department of Defense divides service members into five racial categories for statistical purposes:

  1. American Indian or Native Alaskan
  2. Asian or Pacific Islander
  3. Black (not of Hispanic Origin)
  4. Hispanic
  5. White (not of Hispanic origin)


Online Resources

  • The Lincoln County News "AWOL Recruit Claims Fraud" (March 4, 1999) (read it)

  • Time Magazine: "Offensive Maneuvers: The Army, Already Toubled by Sexually Predatory Drill Sergeants, Has a Problem with its Recruiters, Too" (May 5, 1997) (read it)

Other Articles of Note:

  • Hartford Courant article, "Many recruiters use fraud to sell the service," (December 17-19, 1989)

  • Albany Times-Union article, "Anything to Enlist Recruits: Militay personnel accused of improprieties to meet quotes. As few as half found guilty of misconduct are relieved from recruiting jobs." (June 20, 1993)
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