The Army’s wartime recruiting challenge is aggravated by a sharp drop in black enlistments over the last four years, which internal Army and Defense Department polls trace to an unpopular war in Iraq and concerns among blacks with Bush administration policies.

The Army is straining to meet recruiting goals in part because the number of black volunteers has fallen 41 percent — from 23.5 percent of recruits in fiscal 2000 down steadily to 13.9 percent in the first four months of fiscal 2005.

“It’s alarming,” said Maj. Gen. Michael D. Rochelle, commanding general of the U.S. Army Recruiting Command in Fort Knox, Ky.

No single factor explains the drop, Rochelle said, but clearly the propensity of black youth to enlist is impacted by the war and increasingly by views of parents, teachers, coaches, clergy and other “influencers.”

“The influencers of these youth are causing them to be less inclined to listen to what good the Army could do for them in the long run,” said Rochelle, one of the Army’s most senior black officers.

Officer recruiting is hit, too. Black enrollment in the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program is down 36 percent since 2001.

The Marine Corps also reports a drop in black recruits but its racial data on recruits is now suspect due to a government policy, effective Jan. 1, 2003, that allows recruits and all new federal workers to decline to identify their race. The Army has found a way to continue to track accurately its racial data, said S. Douglas Smith, spokesman for the recruiting command.

Rep. Charles B. Rangel, a Democrat whose New York City district includes Harlem, said he isn’t too surprised by the Army recruiting data.

“I have not found a black person in support of this war in my district,” he said. “The fact that every member of the Congressional Black Caucus emotionally, politically and vigorously opposes this war is an indication of what black folks think throughout this country.”

Rangel also said there was “overwhelming disappointment” among blacks after Bush, in a disputed election, became president in 2001, and the disappointment “plummeted after he declared war in Iraq.”

Results of the Defense Department’s own Youth and Influencer Polls, conducted last May, affirm that administration policies and the Iraq war have lowered the propensity of black youth to enlist, particularly in the Army and Marine Corps, the ground forces taking most of the casualties.

While the war reduced the likelihood of youth in general to join the military, says the Youth Poll report, “Black youth reported being more negatively affected … . Black youth were less supportive of U.S. troops’ presence in Iraq, less likely to feel the war was justified, more disapproving of the Bush administration’s handling of foreign affairs and more disapproving of its use of U.S. military forces than were whites or Hispanics.”

Black youth unemployment remains above 10 percent, higher than for Hispanics and double that of whites. Blacks also tend to view military pay as more attractive than do other racial groups.

In years past, such factors enticed a disproportionate number of African-American youth to see opportunity in the Army. In some years since the draft ended in 1973, the percentage of blacks among Army volunteers approached 30 percent.

In fiscal 2000, blacks still represented almost a quarter of Army recruits. That percentage fell to 22.7 in 2001, 19.9 in ’02, 16.4 in ’03, 15.9 in ’04, and now to 13.9 percent through four months of fiscal 2005. No such decline has been seen among Hispanics or white recruits. Indeed, their percentages among Army recruits grew during the first Bush administration.

Because blacks are 14 percent of all recruit-age youth, their recruiting numbers remain “acceptable,” said Rochelle, proportional to blacks in society. But the steep drop in black recruits overall does hurt plans “to grow the Army,” he conceded. Congress has ordered a 30,000 increase in the number of active-duty soldiers by October 2007.

Rangel said many blacks still are enticed into service by benefits and cash incentives, which are rising sharply.

“It has amazed me that, not withstanding the general feeling of the community, they still have enlisted and fought. When my [Guard and Reserve] outfits come home, these guys get their medals and they’re proud. But when I’m called up [to speak], they cheer and stomp their feet, knowing that I fought against the war. It’s inconsistent as hell.”

Another Army-directed poll, the U.S. Military Image Study, is posted on a Defense Contracting Command Web site, likely by mistake. Based on interviews with 3,236 youth ages 16 to 24, this study says, “Recruiting an all-volunteer Army in times of war is increasingly difficult.”

While money for college remains a major motivator to enlist, the Iraq war leaves youth, particularly blacks, conflicted.

“More African-Americans identify having to fight for a cause they don’t support as a barrier to military service,” the study found.

Fear of being killed or injured was the top reason to avoid service for 26 percent of youth in 2004, almost double the 14 percent reported in 2000.

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