During lunch hour at Colonial High School here, four Army and Marine Corps recruiters roam the breezeways to offer smiles and handshakes to students.
Their presence is no accident on this warm spring day. The future face of the Army, and perhaps much of the enlisted military, can be found here.
Nearly half the students at Colonial High are Hispanic, the group most likely to become the next generation of GI Joes and Janes.
"Yo, Torres!" one student shouts, drawing a knowing glance from a Marine Corps staff sergeant who proudly stands among a group of students bantering in both English and Spanish.
The Army believes Hispanics are the services' best hope to reverse the lagging interest in military jobs. While they are nearly 14 percent of men ages 17 to 21, Hispanics account for only 7 percent of the Army. This is true even though Hispanics are the most likely group to enlist, having passed African-Americans earlier this decade, Army youth surveys show.
The Army's problem is this: Many Hispanics don't qualify because of a soaring high school dropout rate, four times that of whites and more than double the rate of blacks.
Because the services require most recruits to have high school diplomas, millions are automatically eliminated. For the foreseeable future, Army commanders are delivering a message in Hispanic communities: Stay in school and consider a job wearing fatigues.
"It's not like we're isolating Hispanics and not marketing to African-Americans," says Maj. Rick Ayer, who heads Army recruiting research at Fort Knox, Ky. "It's just that we should be having a much higher Hispanic representation in the military."
Hispanics are the fastest-growing segment of the US population and by 2050 will make up one-quarter of all Americans. The military's ties in these communities will no doubt become stronger.
A measure of that came in June when Army Secretary Louis Caldera toured Los Angeles with Staff Sgt. Andrew Ramirez, a former Serbian POW from East L.A. Mr. Caldera announced that the Junior ROTC program - traditionally a strong recruiting ground - recently received funding to add 50 schools a year for five years. Many of those schools will be in Hispanic communities.
Strong military history
Hispanics - particularly those of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent - have a long tradition of military service. In World War II, for example, they enlisted in record numbers, saw combat more frequently, and often were highly decorated.
That strong tradition of Hispanic service may be something the military can use to lure younger generations.
Studies show that Hispanic immigrants are eager "to learn English, become American citizens, and participate in all the rights and privileges that come along with it," says Edward Escobar, a history and Chicano studies professor at Arizona State University in Tempe.
Though it may drive some Hispanics away, the anti-immigrant mood so prevalent in recent years could prompt others to want to join the military to show their strong patriotism.
"Because they've been marked as 'aliens,' they tend to want to prove their Americanness," says George Mariscal, a Spanish and Chicano literature professor at the University of California in San Diego. Add to that their male-dominant culture, and "they tend toward the Marines, the toughest of the armed services."
But if the response of many Colonial High School students is any indication, the military will not be an automatic sell for recruiters.
Rosalie Reyes, an assistant principal whose son recently joined the Air Force, shakes her head when asked if guidance counselors refer students to the services. Even though many in her school could benefit from the educational opportunities in the military, "virtually no one is directing them that way," she says.
Her explanation: "We're dealing with the era of baby boomers who grew up in the '60s," Ms. Reyes says, suggesting many of her contemporaries have negative feelings about military service, if they think of it at all.
Josh Lynch, a senior headed to college, says the military is "very negatively perceived - just like Vietnam." He makes a point of mentioning that several friends whose parents were career military are not encouraging their children to enlist.
Seated at a conference table near the office, a group of Josh's classmates mostly echo his observations. Some portion of students don't want to live a lifestyle they view as too regimented. Another classmate mentions that his brother joined the Marines and didn't like it. Others say many teens just don't have the self-discipline to succeed in the military.
Reyes's son, Jaime, is an exception. He recently joined the Air Force and he and his mother are happy about it.
For the Army, reaching teens like Jaime and Josh is not trivial.
Increasing the services' Hispanic representation could literally mean the difference between having enough soldiers or becoming a "hollow" force.
But to reach Hispanic teenagers, experts say, requires overcoming obstacles that include language and cultural barriers.
While the Hispanic community is very diverse with different histories and traditions and should be approached differently, one of the common ties is a strong sense of family - something which may be a stumbling block to those who don't want to be far from their relatives.
The Army has held summits in San Antonio and Los Angeles with Hispanic leaders, hoping to win backing for a recruiting campaign highlighting its opportunities.
Jay Smink, director of the National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson University, suggests the Army Hispanic recruitment effort will eventually pay dividends. Because of the "undereducation" of so many Hispanic students, he says, the enlisted military can offer training and benefits they can't get anywhere else.
But Mr. Smink says it will come at a price. "You'll see a much different basic-training program - perhaps longer and with more focus on basic skills," he says.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society