While the presidential order in 1948 desegregating the military was monumental in its time, diversity in the force now takes on a national security context and serves as a combat multiplier on the battlefield, Army Lt. Gen. Michael D. Rochelle, the service’s deputy chief of staff for personnel, said.
“We tend to think rather narrowly about diversity sometimes — it’s a black-white or it’s a Hispanic-black-white issue. It’s not,” Rochelle said in an interview at the Pentagon.
“Diversity is a national security issue and one that every one of us should be concerned about, frankly, because it is a force multiplier for our soldiers,” he said.
In 2002, as the Army was preparing for the possibility of war in Iraq, the Army’s recruiting command was given the mission to recruit Arabic linguists that would be needed for troops on the ground to communicate with local citizens. But the service couldn’t recruit and train them fast enough, said Rochelle, who headed the command from 2002 to 2005
“We were somewhat ill-prepared to do that, and it took quite a long time to spin the system up to the point of where we are today,” he said.
The Army now has nearly 1,000 Arabic linguists in its ranks, Rochelle said. But this is nearly six years into the war, and the Army needs to be prepared for the next point of conflict, he said.
“Primarily, the question we should ask ourselves is, ‘Where may we need those skills tomorrow?’ And let’s not wait until we are there and our soldiers are having to confront the populations of those locations. Let’s reach out,” Rochelle said.
“It’s really a national security issue that is large; it’s complex; … it’s all about ensuring our soldiers are successful wherever our nation sends them,” he said.
When Rochelle entered the Army in 1972, there were four African-American generals, he said. Today there are 26. Diversity adds to the strength of the military as a force, and the U.S. Army now serves as a model for diversity for many foreign militaries, he said.
Iraqi forces “marvel” at a typical American infantry squad and how different races and ethnicities work together, the general said.
“America’s Army is the best in the world at what we do. And we are significantly the best because of our diversity. Diversity strengthens us,” Rochelle said. “It certainly makes us better in terms of bringing together the richness of backgrounds, the richness of language, the richness of culture, and inevitably the outcome of that diversity is a better product.”
Before military operations began in Iraq, the Army had seen success in its goal of reflecting the demographics of America as a whole within its ranks. But since then, there has been a slowdown in minority recruits entering the service.
The change is not entirely due to the war, but partially because a boost in the economy led to more opportunities for minorities in employment and higher education, Rochelle said.
Also, part of the problem is that minorities are not equally represented demographically among today’s high school and college graduates, Rochelle said.
“The challenge is a national one,” he said.
Now, though, minority recruiting numbers are “tipping up,” he said.
Even though the Army strives to maintain a diverse fighting and civilian employee force, Rochelle was quick to point out that no special recruiting plans or incentives target minorities.
“There are no quotas; there are no goals with respect to representation in an all-volunteer force. It’s just that — an all-volunteer force,” he said.
Instead, the Army tries to encourage potential high school dropouts to stay in school. As an example, in cities around Army installations soldiers serve as mentors, role models and tutors within local school systems, he said.
Also, Army officials position recruiters geographically to ensure they are recruiting within large minority demographics.
“How do we position our recruiters so that, as they go about their normal day-to-day business, the outcome is as close as we can get it to that mirror image of the United States?” Rochelle said.
Another effort is to push messages out to what the Army calls “influencers,” or those who have a say in a potential recruit’s decision, such as parents, teachers, coaches and relatives.
“The challenge is communicating to the person or persons who influence that young man or woman,” Rochelle said.
After six years of war, though, that barrier is becoming harder to break through.
“We live in the richest nation on earth, and if every American simply recognized just how fortunate we are, I think more would be inclined to serve,” Rochelle said.