Iraq War veteran opposes army recruitment of Latinos

Cindy Von Quednow

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As a recently-arrived immigrant from post-war Nicaragua, Camilo Mejia felt out of place in the United States, his third home in three years. He decided to join the Army in order to find his place in the world.

“I was lacking social contact and I didn’t feel part of anything,” Mejia said. “I felt like it was the only option I had at the time.”

Mejia became disillusioned with the military after finding out he had signed up for eight years instead of the three he completed in active duty; he decided to continue his studies and be a part-time soldier with the Florida National Guard. In early 2003, four months shy of completing his duty with the National Guard and receiving his bachelor’s degree in psychology, his unit was called to fight in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

After being in Iraq for five months, he became one of the first public conscientious objectors of the war; he is now the chair of a prominent anti-war organization and the author of the memoir, “The Road from Ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejia.”

As an immigrant, Mejia has strong opinions about the notion that Latinos are targeted by recruiters to join the armed forces. “(Recruiters) use the lack of benefits of Latinos and immigrants to lure people in,” he said. “The biggest problem is that they don’t give all the information, they only give the pretty information, which is not the true picture.”

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, Latinos made up 13 percent of the enlisted military personnel in 2006, compared to 18 percent of the civilian population, and there is an effort to increase those numbers to 22 percent. As reported in The New York Times, the Pentagon started an advertising campaign through the Spanish-language media to exclusively appeal to Latinos.

“If you look at documents released by the Pentagon and the federal government, they have a deliberate attempt to recruit and socialize young Chicanos and Latinos for the military,” said Rosa Furumoto, assistant professor of Chicano/a Studies at CSUN.

Based on data released by the Department of Defense, 419 Hispanics/Latinos have died in the current war as of November 2007, the highest number of casualties among minorities.

“They need those bodies to carry out wars which don’t benefit working or middle class people?there is a deep level of injustice, and it’s so pervasive, especially on high school campuses,” said Furumoto.

Section 9528 of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 requires school districts receiving federal funding to grant military recruiters access to student contact information. Those who don’t comply risk loss of funds.

“It is used as a hammer and a threat,” said Furumoto, author of “No Child Left Unrecruited: How NCLB Codifies and Perpetuated Urban School Militarism.”

She added that, based on the law, recruiters are allowed equal but not exclusive access to schools, as some administrators seem to believe.

“There is a blurry line, if any, between school and the military,” said Arlene Inouye, a teacher at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles and coordinator of the Coalition Against Militarism in Schools. “Their authoritarian model is in complete contradiction with providing knowledge to our kids.”

CAMS raises awareness of recruitment efforts and war at the high school level. Aside from making popular anti-war works like “Addicted to War” and “Arlington West” part of their curriculum, the organization has emphasized the little-known “opt-out” provision of NCLB, which allows students to keep their contact information from military recruiters.

“It gives the option for students and parents to assert their rights to privacy,” Inouye said, adding that it does not guarantee recruiters won’t obtain the information some other way.

The notion of recruiting in high schools in an effort to attract students seeking higher education is evident in a memo co-authored by the secretaries of defense and education shortly after NCLB was passed, which states, “For some students, this may be the best opportunity they have to get a college education.”

“That is a deficit view of our youth,” said Furumoto in response to the memo. “It is based on the assumption that young people don’t have the capacity to go to college and become active members of society.”

The Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, a military-sponsored program offered in high schools across the nation as a physical education or elective course, claims to do just that.

“JROTC is a building block for students. It gives them a chance to excel where they might not have the opportunity to elsewhere,” said First Sgt. Charles A. Mujica, senior officer in charge of Monroe High School, which was voted the best JROTC battalion in the city for its 12th consecutive year. “We teach them self-worth, acceptance and how to become good citizens. The goal is to get these kids to college.”

JROTC has 3,149 units nationwide. Sixty-one percent of Los Angeles Unified School District schools have a JROTC program, making California the largest district in the country.

“There are waiting lists for these programs, it is expanding rapidly and we’re put in a situation where young people, from diapers to adulthood, are preparing to go into the military,” said Furumoto. “JROTC in high schools are socializing youth to obey, don’t ask questions or criticize authority.”

“We don’t go to schools, the schools come to us,” said Mujica, a third-generation Mexican- American. “Let’s be honest, LAUSD is predominately Hispanic and they are considered a minority. So are there a lot of minorities in JROTC programs? Yes, there probably are, but is that a wrong thing? If we segregated and not let them in, we would be sending the wrong message?we welcome everyone.”

During the interview, Mujica’s cadets were enjoying some down time after their success in the city competition. Mujica says they have worked with community organizations and were writing letters and making care packages for soldiers in Iraq. “We provide them some place to become a better person.”

However, critics like Inouye say participation in JROTC increases students’ likelihood of enlisting in the military in the future. As stated in Furumoto’s article, “Approximately 39 to 43 percent of students that successfully complete JROTC programs eventually enlist in the military.”

“I don’t know how many go on to the military, because that is not my job,” said Mujica, who was an army recruiter before his almost 10-year involvement with JROTC. “I don’t want to be accused of recruiting because I’m not here to do that, and I make sure the other officers don’t either.”

In regards to immigrant students, Mujica likened JROTC to the English as Second Language programs in an academic setting.

“We have students from all over the world, we have students that just speak Spanish, we talk to them and work with them and take part in peer teaching,” he said. “We assimilate them and give them information in Spanish.”

Both legal and illegal immigrants within the Latino community garner special attention from the military due to their volatile status in this country and their willingness to change it.

The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, an educative and immigration reform plan, was attached to a Department of Defense bill in order to increase its likelihood of being signed into law. The act, which didn’t pass, would have given undocumented students the option of obtaining permanent residency by enrolling in an institute of higher education or enlisting in the armed forces for two years. This was met with stark criticism from prominent Latino leaders and organizations to anti-war activists.

In 2000, President George W. Bush signed a law promising greencard holders fast nationalization in exchange for enlisting in the armed forces. Consequently, 32,000 greencard soldiers were shipped to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003. The most publicized case was that o
f Jose Antonio Gutierrez, a Guatemalan orphan who was the first Latino soldier killed in Iraq and the first to obtain his citizenship in death.

“(Gutierrez) is a perfect example of someone who wanted to pay back to this country ?he paid back alright,” said Furumoto. “I think it’s wrong to kill someone for citizenship?it is a deeply moral and ethical issue. You have to think: how far will you go? What orders would you follow, and how would you live with yourself later?”