Courtland Milloy: Columnist Reacts to Son's Thinking About Leaving College and Joining the Military

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, March 11, 2009

My youngest son, who is 19, recently told me that he was thinking about leaving college and joining the military. With the United States still waging wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the stage is set for what will likely be our most important talk since the "birds and bees" thing more than a decade ago.

The chat back then, such as it was, dealt clumsily with creating life. This one will be more about taking life and possibly losing it. And this time, I want to be better prepared.

My research has turned up a number that would give any parent pause: 72,900. No, it's not a war casualty count. It's the amount on a huge check posted in the window of an Army recruiting office I visited in Oxon Hill.

If my son enlisted, the Army tells me, he could receive as much as that for college, plus an additional $65,000 to repay college loans and, on top of that, $4,500 a year in tuition assistance while serving.

It's enough to make you forget about war -- at least for one dreamy moment: Kid leaves college after two years, eases stranglehold on parents' crumbling bank account, then gets paid by Uncle Sam to go back to school.

"They come to serve their country, but we stay on their behinds to make sure they get an education, too," an Army recruiter told me. Not a bad hook. Now the catch.

The Pentagon announced Monday that 4,255 U.S. troops had been killed in Iraq and 589 killed in and around Afghanistan. And I still don't know for what.

On the other hand, there have been roughly 2,400 homicides in the Washington area since 2002. And I don't know what that's all about, either, other than that most of the killing is concentrated in the District and Prince George's County, where I live, and involves mostly young African American men, like my son.

Statistically speaking, he'd probably be safer in Baghdad than in parts of our nation's capital.

Is that a rationalization, or has this tanking economy caused me to lose my mind? Four years ago, I'd almost certainly be trying to talk my son out of going to fight a war that was based on misinformation and outright deception. And other African American parents must have been doing just that, because black enlistment in the Army plummeted between 2001 and 2006 from 22 percent of recruits to 14 percent.

A survey conducted by the Army in 2005 found that African Americans are more likely than members of other groups to "identify having to fight for a cause they don't support" as a reason for not enlisting.

But that mind-set is clearly changing. Black enlistment is on the rise again -- from 14.9 percent in 2007 to 16.6 percent in 2008, according to a recent report by the National Priorities Project, a Massachusetts-based research organization that analyzes U.S. military recruitment trends.

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