As he walks the sandy ridges and pine barrens of his mammoth training base, Col. Jack Carter notices something different about his new recruits. Many of them are from Germany, Mexico, Russia - even Jamaica.
The new faces under the Kevlar helmets symbolize a subtle but significant shift in America's armed forces - one that is helping fill depleted ranks, and raising new concerns about the makeup of tomorrow's military.
Throughout the armed forces, noncitizens with legal US status accounted for about 7,500 of the new recruits in 1997, according to the Navy Times. In the Army alone, the number of immigrants donning fatigues has risen from 2,200 in 1995 to 3,100 last year.
Immigrant soldiers, signing up at a time when all the services are struggling to find new members, are making the difference between a difficult and a disastrous recruiting year.
They are also raising sensitive questions about whether the Pentagon is creating a new caste system in the military - in effect, heading toward a foreign legion protecting US citizens.
"I don't think [there's] any effort to recruit foreign nationals," says Colonel Carter, chief of staff at Fort Jackson, the Army's largest training base here. "But many show up on our doorstep looking for opportunity."
For now, the percentage of noncitizens joining the Army is still relatively small. In 1998, the figure was 4.2 percent, up just slightly from 1997.
Army commanders often praise the work ethic of immigrants, noting that many are motivated and patriotic as new converts to American democracy. For example, Carter says about 10 of his base's recent "soldiers of the week" are foreign nationals.
Many newcomers also view the US military as benevolent peacekeepers - doing good on the world stage. "I recruited in the Philippines for a number of years, and they see us as the good guys," says Frank Shaffery, chief of plans and policy for Army recruiting at Fort Knox, Ky. He says they often see the armed forces as "something that is structured, something with security, and something that has a positive image in their life."
Still, the idea of immigrants shouldering M16s doesn't thrill everyone. The stellar reputation of the Army's foreign recruiting pool, in fact, was damaged last month when it was revealed that one, Egyptian Ali A. Mohamed, went from Army grunt to terrorist in a few short years. Mr. Mohamed, who served as a supply sergeant at Fort Bragg, N.C., was recently charged with assisting Osama bin Laden, the Saudi dissident accused of masterminding the deadly embassy bombings in Africa.
While Mohamed's case appears to be an aberration, military officials point out they don't target illegal immigrants to fill job vacancies. Nor do they place legal immigrants in sensitive jobs such as intelligence or Special Forces.
Nevertheless, without this new recruiting base, notes former Army training battalion commander Tom Wall, the services would not have made their quotas. Last year, for example, the Navy fell some 7,000 sailors short of its goal.
One other concern about the growing presence of immigrant soldiers is that they will exacerbate socioeconomic divisions in the military. Lyle Hendrick, a former Special Forces officer who runs a corporate security business, says it's a difficult balance.
NEW immigrants, he says, "sometimes make better soldiers than US teenagers. They value American citizenship much more than people born into it and are much prouder than people given citizenship by birth."
But Mr. Hendrick says there is cause for concern because foreign nationals are filling the ranks that US teens are increasingly rejecting. "Is the country ripe to become a French Foreign Legion?" he asks.
Retired Army Gen. Bruce Blount, who once commanded Fort Jackson, agrees. He says if the percentage of immigrants continues to increase, it raises the question of a whether the country has recruited a mercenary force. "It gets further and further away from the image of the American public."
The rise of new immigrant soldiers raises other questions as well. Would they be willing, for instance, to go to war against their former homelands? Most experts don't believe that would be a problem, citing the case of Japanese-Americans who fought valiantly for the US in World War II.