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article - "Elite (U.S.) forces strive for greater diversity"


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(interesting article from the San Diego Union-Tribune)

Elite forces strive for greater diversity

By James W. Crawley
September 18, 2000

Navy recruiter Tom Washington had a dilemma: How do you rappel off a tall building when your rope is too short?

Washington isn‘ t a run-of-the-mill recruiter. He‘ s a Navy SEAL, and it‘ s his job to excite and persuade young men to try out for one of the military‘ s most elite and selective units.

So, how better to impress some high school students and other prospective sailors in San Antonio, Texas, than by leaping off the top of the local federal building?

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Washington and a colleague spliced together two ropes, solving the rope conundrum and demonstrating the elite military unit‘ s can-do spirit.

As hundreds of students and bystanders watched, the pair rappelled down the building to the accompaniment of a Navy band. Mission accomplished.

Afterward, Washington and his colleague were the center of attention as students surrounded them, asking questions about the SEALs.

"I‘ m like their Santa Claus," Washington said. "For that day, they‘ re motivated. But after we leave, will that motivation stay?"

That‘ s no small question.

These days, Navy, Army and Air Force recruiters are finding it an increasingly tough challenge to get young men to join the ranks of America‘ s commando forces.

And, the hardest sell has been to minorities.

Not only are few people of color enlisting with hopes of serving in elite units, but those in uniform are staying away, too. Many don‘ t want to trade family life for foreign assignments. Others can‘ t pass the rigorous swimming tests, or they worry about racial harassment in the overwhelmingly

white units.

About one in five soldiers, sailors and airmen volunteering for special-operations training is a minority member, while one-third of all military recruits are minorities, according to Pentagon statistics.

While the numbers of minority Army Special Forces candidates rose slightly over the past two years, the Navy suffered a drop in black and Latino volunteers for the SEALs during the same period.

The Air Force doesn‘ t keep records on the number of minorities entering its training.

In recent years, the Pentagon has cranked up efforts to attract more minorities, although no goals or quotas have been set. But signing up more blacks and Latinos has become especially problematic, as the military also is having difficulty recruiting in general -- although this year the Pentagon is optimistic about meeting its enlistment goals.

A strong civilian economy and a decreasing interest in military service are cited as major causes for the drop in enlistments.

The Navy can train up to 900 SEAL candidates each year, but since 1993, no more than 751 candidates have started SEAL training during any year.

The Army has increased its Special Forces recruiting goal from 661 soldiers in 1994 to 1,800 this year because the force has increased in size since the Persian Gulf War. Recruiting officials expect to barely meet the annual goal.

The Air Force has been unable to meet its needs either, having less than 80 percent of its air commando positions filled this year.

Several special-operations officials believe that boosting minority recruitments would help bolster the units‘ complement.


Why are so few minorities interested in joining the Pentagon‘ s most elite forces?

The reasons are numerous.

For many, water is the great barrier.

Commandos, whether Navy, Army or Air Force, must swim. Special-operations missions can range from covert surveillance of a beach where Marines will land to a parachute-borne rescue of downed Air Force fliers 1,000 miles at sea, or Green Berets using scuba gear to infiltrate enemy positions.

For the Army‘ s Green Berets and Rangers, prospects must swim just 50 meters. For the Navy and Air Force, candidates must swim miles before they can graduate.

Air Force 1st Lt. Andre Lobo would be the perfect combat controller, an air commando who goes into hostile territory ahead of other American forces, said his boss, Col. Jeff Buckmelter, commanding officer of the 720th Special Tactics Group.

Lobo, a staff officer, is certainly athletic enough. The Air Force Academy graduate enjoys running and sky diving.

And, he‘ s black. There are no African-American officers in combat control.

His only problem?

"When I see a swimming qualification, I usually say it‘ s not for me," Lobo said. Not having learned to swim until the academy, Lobo doesn‘ t have the confidence in his swimming ability that he needs to pass the commando indoctrination course.

Some observers speculate that black youths, particularly inner-city residents, have few opportunities to learn swimming and little encouragement to learn.

Physical endurance and ability aside, there‘ s another fundamental reason so few servicemen, minority and otherwise, seek membership in elite units. Simply put, the nation isn‘ t at war, and they didn‘ t enlist to fight.

Instead, many signed up to learn skills they can take back to the public sector -- such as truck maintenance, health care, food service or communications, according to a study by Rand Corp. researchers.

Others are thinking more about their families than military glory or living on the edge.

The Rand study found that many Latino soldiers surveyed mentioned a perception that special ops keeps soldiers away from their families longer than other Army units. While unit deployments are generally a few months long in special ops, the training tempo is high and divorce is rampant within Special Forces, soldiers said.

"Hispanics are more family-oriented," said Jaime Reyes, a sergeant first class in a support unit for Special Forces troops at Fort Bragg. "They know that once they go into Special Forces that means a lot of time away from their families.

"That‘ s one of my reasons (for not trying out for the Green Berets). The only way I‘ d join is if I‘ m single."

A further impediment is the perception of racial prejudice -- often perpetuated by the absence of minorities.

"The reason we don‘ t have more minorities here is because we don‘ t have more minorities here," said Navy Capt. Ed Bowen, who commands the Naval Special Warfare Center in Coronado.

Bowen said that if more blacks were Navy SEALs, prospective black sailors might be more inclined to try out for the job.

Minorities have to reach a "critical mass" that shows potential candidates that minorities are welcome and essential personnel within the community, he added.

Racism or the perception of racial discrimination also may be factors in discouraging blacks and other minorities from joining special-operations forces, said Rand researchers and others.

It‘ s the perception that matters, not whether racism really exists, said Brig. Gen. Remo Butler, the first black Green Beret general.

With his cannonball-shaped head and arm muscles sculpted by years of off-duty professional boxing, Butler frequently is mistaken for a first sergeant rather than a general.

During workouts at the gym, Butler tries to recruit young black soldiers for Special Forces.

"Consistently, I get the same answer," he said. ‘ Sir, Special Forces is full of rednecks and Klansmen.‘ "

Or, they tell Butler that no blacks are in Special Forces.

"Perception is a very strong thing," he added. "Perception is reality."

While many minority members of Special Forces said their units had been free of racial tension, they agreed some forms of racism still exist within the military.

White-supremacist and militia groups appear to have sympathizers and, likely, a foothold within special-operations forces, particularly Army Special Forces, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups.

Former Green Berets have been tied to several militia and neo-Nazi groups.

Top special-operations officers discount the impact of white supremacists and militias.

How can Special Forces troops be prejudiced when half of their work is living in foreign countries and teaching foreign troops? asked Army Maj. Anthony Fletcher, a black Green Beret.

"When you go to another country, you are a minority," he added. "You are an American."

There is no room for prejudice or racism, commandos said, because units are so small, usually a dozen men or fewer, that everyone must depend on everyone else.

"If we go to ‘ the show‘ (war or battle), you have to depend on the guy on your left and right," said Sgt. Cedric Turner, a black Ranger at Fort Benning, Ga.

Butler said many African-Americans who fail Special Forces training may believe their failure was because of race and will tell others, "Don‘ t go there," and those men won‘ t take a chance.

Several black operators said fellow minorities are more scrutinized and often held to a higher standard than their white counterparts.

"If a black (messes) up, the next black starts at that point," said Chief Petty Officer Rob Roy, a black SEAL based in Coronado.


While the three services acknowledge a lack of minority volunteers, only the Navy has acted aggressively to solve the problem.

That‘ s where guys like Washington come in.

The Navy sends him and other SEAL recruiters to high schools and ethnic festivals. It sponsors school programs, such as the Inner City Games, in predominantly minority areas. Even the SEAL training base in Coronado has become a tourist attraction for high school and college tour groups.

As the SEALs‘ only black recruiter before he retired this summer, Washington often visited inner-city schools on the West Coast.

During assemblies, Washington‘ s presentation was encouraging, albeit blunt.

"You don‘ t have to be Tarzan or an Olympic swimmer or a track star," Washington said. "But to succeed, you will become an athlete."

The lean, muscular, 45-year-old petty officer first class often demonstrated his athletic abilities, taking the SEAL fitness qualification test alongside prospective candidates half his age -- and besting them most times.

Next summer, the SEALs plan to offer a junior SEAL training course for junior ROTC students from Detroit and St. Louis high schools. The idea is to pique adolescent interest in the Navy and SEALs early, officials said. It‘ s a long-term approach that Navy officials hope will increase minority numbers within a few years.

"We need to expose people at a younger age," said Rear Adm. Eric Olson, who commands the SEALs.

It‘ s a soft sell, done hard.

In Miami, the SEALs‘ Leapfrog parachute team sky-dived at a predominantly Latino high school, and they got TV and radio air time while in town, said Lt. Tom Greer, who heads the SEAL recruiting office. Rappelling, scuba demonstrations and static displays also are in the SEALs‘ recruiting arsenal.

Minorities are an under-recruited niche market, said Bowen, who oversees SEAL training.

Many inner-city blacks and Latinos have been toughened by a hard life, Bowen suggested. Athletically and academically, there are no reasons why minorities should have problems with SEAL training, he said.

"You can get tough in the ghetto," said Bowen, adding: "It‘ s not rocket science. We‘ re a blue-collar organization."

However, SEAL recruiters admit the results have been paltry.

Meanwhile, the other services are playing catch-up.

The Army is adding people and money to its recruitment effort. It has assigned 25 recruiters to Special Forces and four more are going to be added, said Maj. Ray Salmon, the Green Beret in charge.

The recruiting budget is $590,000, and he could use more, Salmon added. There is a Green Beret recruiting Web page, plus advertising fliers, brochures and ads in base newspapers, a toll-free phone number and recruiter visits to every Army base with likely candidates.

The Air Force Special Operations Command has added its own recruiter to help the service‘ s regular recruiting staff. It also has created a parachute team called STARS, for Special Tactics and Rescue Specialists.

However, the Army and Air Force recruiting efforts aren‘ t specifically targeting minorities. They‘ re just trying to get more qualified operators, no matter the race. And, they hope, the number of minorities will increase, too.

The Navy, Army and Air Force also are changing the way they select commandos, hoping to reduce the high number of minorities who wash out during training.

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