Who's in the military & why do they join?

As controversy grows over military recruitment in high schools, we offer a set of rigorous, inquiry-oriented and student-friendly readings and activities that explore many aspects of the military, the draft, and the war:

Student Reading 1:

Who's in the military and why do they join?


Today there are 1,400,000 men and women in the United States military.

Army: 402,150 (16% women)
Navy: 314,083 (14% women)
Air Force: 282,304 (19% women)
Marines: 155,038 (6% women)

Three of every five soldiers are white. Two out of every five are black, Hispanic or other ( Asian, Native American or Pacific Islander).

Black women now outnumber white women in the Army (46% black, 38% white).

The Navy has the highest percentage of Asians, Native Americans, and Pacific Islanders (9%).

The Air Force is significantly more white (75%) than the other services.

There are more Hispanics in the Marines (13% of the men, 16% of the women) than in any other branch of the services.

Electrical/mechanical or electronic equipment repair is the job that more men have than any other (32%).

Administration and support is the job that more women have than any other (34%).

But there are men and women, whites, blacks, Hispanics and others who are in the infantry or gun crews, who fly planes, who are medical or dental specialists, who are service and supply handlers and who are in support groups or administration. Over the years since World War II, the military has become the most successfully integrated institution in American society.

But it is not exactly representative of America. There are proportionately more Blacks and Latinos in the military than in the society as a whole. The wealthy and the very poor are under-represented in the military. And on average, those in the enlisted ranks are better educated than their civilian counterparts and have higher reading scores.

All of the people in the U.S. military services today are volunteers. Why did they decide to join? Here are some answers:

Specialist Markita Scott, a personnel clerk in the Army:
"I am learning a skill. I get a lot of papers that are not correct, and so I know I'm helping the person."

Rain Silva, a medic in the Army:
"I joined to get education and experience. It looks good on your resume. I needed time away from school. I wanted some adventure."

Sargeant Yao Benie:
"The American Army is working for humanity, for the welfare of the whole world. When I go back to my village, many people gather. They are very proud of me."

Lt. James Baker:
"Artillery is exciting. I get to blow a lot of stuff up and play in the woods. The Army is the biggest team sport in the world."

Many of those just back from Iraq feel a sense of accomplishment. Others have had to think again about their careers. Some, like Sargeant Kenneth Bortz, an infantryman, have mixed emotions: "I feel good for what I did, but out there, that's when you really think about what you want. And in Baghdad, I knew the Army wasn't for me."

Staff Sargeant Ray Robinson was driving a Humvee in Baghdad on security duty when he ran over a mine and was blasted through the windshield. He suffered shattered feet, legs torn by shrapnel, a scorched face and arm, and a broken eardrum. Operations have saved his feet, but after 16 years in the Army and National Guard, his military career is over. He believes in what the U.S. is doing in Iraq: "We can't lose this. It'll all have been a waste....If we pull out now, I got blown up for nothing."


The statistics at the beginning of the reading come from the Department of Defense's Population Representation in the Military Services, as reported in The New York Times, 3/3/03.
All quotes are from The New York Times (3/3/03 and 9/12/03).


For Discussion

1. Why do you suppose the military services are better integrated than any other institution in American life?

2. Why do you suppose the wealthy and the very poor are under-represented in the military?

3. Which of the reasons for volunteering expressed by the soldiers makes the most sense to you? the least? Can you think of other reasons why someone might want to volunteer?


This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org