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ARLINGTON, Va. — Blacks may be represented in higher numbers in the U.S. military than in the general U.S. population, but most of the servicemembers pulling triggers and dropping bombs are white, according to recently released Defense Department statistics.

About 20 percent of the U.S. military is black, compared to 13 percent of the American population, but most black servicemembers hold administrative and medical jobs, according to a report released by DOD officials last week.

Just 15 percent of the servicemembers in combat arms branches — artillery, infantry and armor — are black.

Meanwhile, the statistics showed that blacks hold 36 percent of all functional support and administration jobs in the military, while 27 percent of all personnel in medical and dental fields are black.

The reason blacks choose less combat-oriented jobs is complex, according to academics specializing in military demographics issues.

“There are a lot of different things going on,” David Segal, a military sociologist at the University of Maryland, said in a Tuesday telephone interview. “And a lot of the reasons are rather hard to quantify, although we know they’re true.”

For example, one reason blacks tend to focus on combat support jobs “is a desire for skills that are transferable to the civilian labor force,” Segal said. “The combat arms don’t offer that easy transfer” of skills.

Moreover, “blacks believe that in order to get a [civilian] job, they have to be better than their white [counterparts],” Segal said. “Having been in a military offers that ‘stamp of approval’ for many civilian employers.”

Another factor, Segal said, is that the military often offers extra higher education benefits for individuals who choose hard-to-fill skills, which includes many combat arms billets.

And once blacks join the service, they are more likely to stay in, Segal said — a statement DOD retention figures support.

The reason for the higher retention, Segal said, is that blacks believe they have a better chance of color-blind success inside the military than in the civilian world.

“There’s no question that African Americans perceive, I think correctly, that the military is a more fair employer” than civilian employers, Segal said. “They come in to get job skills, but once they’re in, they [say to themselves], ‘I can do better here than I could do if I get out.’”

Defense officials released the black occupation figures in an effort to debunk a perception held since Vietnam that minorities hold a disproportionate number of “high-risk” jobs in the military and, as a result, suffer a higher rate of casualties than their numbers would normally support.

In terms of Vietnam, the widespread impression that blacks died in disproportionate numbers during the Vietnam War is actually a myth.

According to statistics compiled by Veterans of Foreign Wars, during the Vietnam War, blacks accounted for 10.6 percent of all Americans who served (275,000), and 12.5 percent, or 7,241, of all fatalities. The percentage of blacks of military age at that time was 13.5 percent of the population.

Nevertheless, the race and military service debate was recently revived when Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., a black veteran of Korea, and Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., introduced legislation in the House that would require either military or alternative national service for all U.S. citizens age 18 to 26.

Rangel has said he wants the draft reinstated because “the burden of military service is being borne disproportionately by members of disadvantaged groups,” while the children of the rich and the elite — including members of Congress — do not serve.

Segal said that today’s high-tech wars are fought differently, against different enemies and usually without a well-defined “front line.”

“We don’t fight trench warfare anymore,” Segal said. “The largest single number of casualties in the Gulf war was a National Guard logistics unit,” which lost more than 20 people when an Iraqi scud missile hit its barracks.


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