Minority cadets needed
By BRIAN WITTE
ANNAPOLIS, Md. — As the nation's military academies try to recruit more minorities, they aren't getting much help from Congress members from big-city districts with large numbers of blacks, Hispanics and Asians.
From New York to Chicago to Los Angeles, lawmakers from heavily minority areas rank at or near the bottom in the number of students they have nominated for appointment to West Point, the Naval Academy or the Air Force Academy, according to an Associated Press review of records from the past five years.
High school students applying to the academies must be nominated by a member of Congress or another high-ranking federal official. Congressional nominations account for about 75 percent of all students at the academies.
Academy records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show that lawmakers in roughly half the 435 House districts nominated more than 100 students each during the five-year period.
(Hawai'i's congressional delegates nominate dozens of minority applicants to military academies annually. Democratic Sen. Daniel Akaka nominated more than 30 cadets, many of them minorities, this year alone.)
But Rep. Nydia Velazquez of New York City, chairwoman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, nominated only four students over the past five years, the lowest among House members who served the entire five-year period.
Rep. Charles Rangel, whose New York City district includes Harlem, is second-lowest, with eight nominations. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose San Francisco district is 29 percent Asian, was also near the bottom, with 19. The bottom 20 House members are all from districts where whites make up less than a majority.
"It's beyond my imagination how someone that has the ability to nominate doesn't do it," Craig Duchossois said last December at his final meeting as chairman of the Naval Academy's Board of Visitors. He noted that an academy appointment means a free four-year education and a job as an officer for at least five years after graduation.
Academy leaders and some on Capitol Hill point out that districts might have a shortage of candidates, because students are uninterested or are unaware of the opportunity, or because they haven't gotten the required academic preparation at their schools.
Rep. Maxine Waters, whose district includes heavily Hispanic and black south Los Angeles and who is among the 20 lowest in nominations, said the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have made young people in her district question military service. She said her efforts to reach out to high school students have not been very successful.
"In the olden days, parents would even say to young African-Americans, 'You aren't doing anything. You don't have a job. Why don't you join the service?' " said Waters, who has nominated 14 students in the past five years. "They don't quite do that anymore."
But while the responsibility is on students to apply, academy leaders want elected officials to do more to publicize the opportunity by doing such things as visiting schools.
The academies have approached dozens of members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to discuss attracting more minority students. The military recently sent a how-to booklet on minority recruiting to all congressional offices, and the Air Force Academy has begun flying in congressional staff members from districts with few minority nominations for briefings on recruiting.
Rangel, Velazquez and most of the rest of the lawmakers who made the few-est nominations have been among the loudest critics of the wars in Iraq and Afghan-istan. But Rep. Elijah Cummings, a member of the House Out of Iraq Caucus, nominated 128 in the past five years from his Baltimore district, which is 64 percent black.
With help from academy officials, Cummings' staff makes a presentation each spring to schools in his district on how to apply for an academy nomination.
"There is an openness and a willingness to reach out and help in Cummings' staff that you don't see in the others," said Air Force Maj. Roger Gauret, an instructor in Baltimore Polytechnic Institute's junior ROTC program. "They work it and they make it happen."
While lawmakers can offer assistance, Cummings stressed that it is up to students to seek a nomination, just as they are responsible for taking the right math and science courses, participating in extracurricular activities and keeping in shape.
James Burk, a sociology professor at Texas A&M University whose research focuses on the military's relationship to society, said many minorities oppose the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: "Opposition to this war stokes the memory of Vietnam — the memory of public debate about minority casualties in Vietnam."
The academies have struggled to make the racial makeup of the officer corps more closely resemble that of the enlisted ranks. The disparity is greatest in the Navy, with minorities making up about 48 percent of the enlisted ranks and just 21 percent of the officer corps.
The academies can cite some recent progress. The Naval Academy's freshman class of 1,230 includes 435 students who are black, Hispanic, Asian-American, Native American or another minority. That's about 35 percent, up from 28 percent the year before. At the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., there are 330 minorities in the freshman class of about 1,300 — about 25 percent, up from 22 percent in 2008. The freshman class of 1,376 at the Air Force Academy includes 312 minorities, a slight increase.
House members are limited to nominating students in their districts. Lawmakers can have five students from their district at each academy at a time, and can nominate up to 10 students for each vacant seat. That makes it possible to nominate up to 150 students for 15 seats over four years.
The bottom 20 members of Congress include Rep. Bobby Rush of Chicago, an Army veteran who has nominated just 12 students in five years. A spokeswoman said he wants to raise awareness in his inner-city district but that people rarely apply for nominations. "He cares about this," she said. "He knows that those numbers are not what he'd like to see."AP writer Susanne M. Schafer in Fort Jackson, S.C., contributed to this report.