June 25 2004

Many Poor Youth Choose Between War in the Streets and War Overseas

By Brahmani Houston

Chuck Madrid celebrated his 11th anniversary of joining the Marine Corps this spring. An amphibious assault vehicle driver, he has been all over the world, participated in humanitarian missions and has never once been in combat.

Now his division, based at Camp Pendleton near San Diego, is on heavy rotations into Iraq; the base has lost over 30 soldiers in Iraq in the past two months alone. Even so, Madrid is stoic about his likely departure, with no trace of worry in his face or voice.

The 28-year-old originally joined the military to get away from the violence and gangs he was involved in as a teenager growing up in the mostly Latino neighborhood of East San Jose.

“I had a couple friends who were killed, but a lot of them were just on the streets getting involved with drive-by [shootings] and gang fights,” he says.

Madrid says that all his friends spent at least some time in juvenile hall. One friend is still incarcerated, for murder. “I’m not sure what it was that clicked in me, but I just realized that was not the kind of life I wanted,” Madrid says.

Chuck Madrid, who at 17 transformed his own life by walking into a local recruiting office, now recruits in his old neighborhood while he awaits orders.

When he enlisted, Madrid was considering a firefighting course so he could join the fire department like his mother and stepfather. But many of his friends were on a different track.

“There were a lot of guys who didn’t have any plans. They weren’t even thinking about tomorrow, they were just living for the day,” he says.

For young people who do not plan to attend college and experience violence at home or in their schools and neighborhoods, the military and its steady paychecks can seem much less of a stretch than paying college tuition and adapting to campus life.

Critics say this is the logic that drives the military recruiting apparatus that targets low income and working class populations.

A 1996 Navy Recruiting Command study shows the military openly characterizes low-income youth with lack of access to college as primary recruitment targets.

“In our analysis family incomes proved to be the most important economic variable... enlistment rates are much higher where income is lowest,” the report states. Enlistment is also highest, according to the study, where college enrollment rates are low.

“The guys I was hanging out with ... I can’t think of anyone in particular who ever talked about college,” Madrid says.

Ironically, it is incarceration that may have prepared Madrid for military life.

“The longest I was in [juvenile hall] was three months, and it’s funny because boot camp is three months long,” he explains. “So I was already used to being away from family and friends, being told what to do and living with a bunch of other guys. It was similar in that there was that structure of discipline and following rules.”

Chuck Madrid’s younger brother David Madrid, who also lives and works in San Jose, began to follow in his older brother’s footsteps by his early teens. Chuck Madrid remembers David starting to dress like him and his gang buddies.

“After everything I put my mother through, she kind of put a stop to it with my younger brother,” Madrid says. Their mother even shipped David out of their neighborhood to his godmother’s house to keep him away from gangs.

David, who is now 24, says he was also “hit up” as a young teen by military recruiters. He now mentors at-risk kids at a local middle school and worries about San Jose’s rash of gang violence.

David never considered joining the military, but says, “Sometimes you would just be walking and a car [of recruiters] would pull up.”

Madrid confirms this as a tactic he and other recruiters will use.

“I go to high schools, community colleges, the mall, out in areas where young people are hanging out,” he says. “I might walk around an area where young people are working, in Albertson’s or Target.”

David avoided gangs and juvenile hall, but says college “wasn’t even an option for us. That was unheard of. You just figured you were going to work full-time or you were going to prison,” he says.

David often warns his students how gang life can ruin their future. “Look at those veteranos, those old guys with their sagging pants, living with their moms. What do they have?”

But college seems to be growing less accessible, not more. California’s state university system last year cut $38 million for outreach programs designed to attract students to enroll in college. Community colleges, the traditional stepping-stone to universities, have also been hit by these budget cuts.

Chuck Madrid says he tells potential recruits in his old neighborhood that life in the Marines is not “what they see in movies.”

“When they actually sit down in my office and talk to me,” he says, “I show them that it’s just like a real life.” And compared to prison, it is.

Brahmani Houston can be reached at bhouston@pacificnews.org.

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