WASHINGTON - African-Americans, whose longstanding relationship with the US military helped them prove their abilities and offered a way to get ahead, have turned away from the armed forces in record numbers since 2000, a period covering the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the start of the Iraq war.
Defense Department statistics show the number of young black enlistees has fallen by more than 58 percent since fiscal year 2000. The Army in particular has been hit hard: In fiscal year 2000, according to the Pentagon statistics, more than 42,000 black men and women applied to enlist; in fiscal year 2005, the most recent for which a racial breakdown is available, just over 17,000 signed up.
The unpopular Iraq war is the biggest reason, according to military analysts, Pentagon surveys, and interviews with young African-Americans. But they say mistrust of the Bush administration is adding to the problem - along with the notion that black soldiers are being steered to combat jobs, a lingering perception from the Vietnam War.
The decline in enlistment applications among blacks is by far the fastest of any demographic group. Between fiscal 2000 and 2005, white applicants declined by more than 10 percent. Hispanic applicants dropped by almost 7 percent.
The Army Recruiting Command acknowledged that the Iraq war has presented special challenges in the African-American community, but said it continues to reach out to black recruits.
"The main thing everyone has to realize is that an all-volunteer force is just that," said S. Douglas Smith, public affairs officer for the US Army Recruiting Command. "We try to make sure we communicate to every part of society and let them know what we have to offer. We try to be as open as we can about the risk of service and the benefits of service. After that, it's a matter of people choosing if they want to come in and serve."
But some military specialists worry that the trend could persist long after the current administration and war are over.
"African-Americans have been such a key part of the modern military," said Michael O'Hanlon, military analyst for the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution. "There's obviously been a degree where the black community in the United States has seen [military service] as culturally valuable and promoted it. That whole culture and value system is at risk in the black community. That is a big, big change. To me, it portends the possibility of a longer-term loss of interest. It can be tough to get it back."
Interviews with young African-Americans confirmed a lack of faith in the president and the war.
Nathaniel Daley, a young African-American from Atlantic City, N.J., said he doesn't believe in the Iraq war and won't enlist because of it. Daley, 28, and two friends, Brian Jackson, 27, and Eddie Mickle Jr., 26, talked one recent afternoon at the Pentagon City Mall in Arlington, Va., a vast shopping complex just blocks from the military's nerve center. As they talked, uniformed servicemen and women, some wearing battle fatigues, passed by.
In high school during the late 1990s, Daley said, he signed a letter of intent to join the Army upon graduation, "to pay for my college, get a better job, and better myself." He said he broke that commitment for a higher-paying job at a nearby casino.
Though the Army would likely consider them ideal recruits - young, fit, high school-educated - each said the Iraq war and Bush's presidency, particularly after the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005, has kept them out of uniform.
"Why would we go over there and help them [Iraqis], when [the US government] can't help us over here?" he said, referring to the cleanup after Katrina.
The war "is unnecessary," Jackson said. "It's not our war. We got our own war here, just staying alive," he added, noting his hometown of Philadelphia has racked up more than 200 homicides so far this year, most involving young black men.
Eager to bolster its stretched-thin ranks - and meet a congressional mandate to increase its force by about 65,000 troops within five years - the Army has launched an aggressive recruiting campaign targeted at young black people like Daley and his friends, with ads featuring a young black man convincing his parents that enlistment is a good choice. The Army has also raised its enlistment bonuses, highlighted its access to college tuition money, and loosened its age and physical fitness standards.
But Damon Wright, a senior at Anacostia High School in Southeast Washington, was not impressed. "There's no guarantee I wouldn't have to go over there," he said. "I'm trying to play football in college. I might go over there and lose a leg."
The Pentagon and military analysts say the downturn in enlistments partly reflects the fact that young African-Americans have broader options, pointing to the growing number of black students in college. But the decrease in enlistment also comes amid high dropout rates among African-American youths and a 7.7 percent unemployment rate in the black community, almost twice that of whites.
Negative opinions about Iraq - and attitudes like Wright's - have overshadowed the military's efforts to highlight the positives about military service.
A recent CBS News poll showed 83 percent of African-American respondents said the Iraq invasion was a mistake. In addition, the president's approval rating has hit rock-bottom with black voters at about 9 percent, according to a 2006 Pew Research Center poll.
The relationship between African-Americans and military service is complex, dating back to the 1700s. Both freedmen and slaves joined colonists in the fight against British rule. A century later, the all-black corps known as the Buffalo Soldiers helped settle the West.
Meanwhile, during the Civil War, black Union regiments won acclaim for heroism. In World War I, more than 350,000 black troops served in segregated Army units but few were allowed to fight, dashing hopes that courage under fire in Europe would help them defeat Jim Crow laws at home.
In World War II, African-Americans were again assigned mostly to support duty, but they made up 75 percent of truck drivers for the Red Ball Express - a dangerous, nonstop supply convoy that fueled General George H. Patton's sweep across Europe.
When President Harry S. Truman desegregated the military in 1948, African-Americans saw the Army as a key avenue for advancement. Joining up became "a way out of a worse situation," said Gregory A. Black, a retired Navy dive commander and creator of blackmilitaryworld.com, a website devoted to the history of African-Americans and the military.
By the Vietnam War, the Army had a full complement of black combat troops, including Colin Powell, who did two combat tours as a captain and major and later became secretary of state. But civil-rights leaders complained about the disproportionately high casualty rate among black soldiers, arguing that the Pentagon was drafting young black men and sending them directly into combat.
"A lot of African-Americans are still messed up over Vietnam," said Black. Yet Defense Department statistics show African-American soldiers today are more likely to work in clerical or support jobs than fight on the front lines.
Despite the sharp decline in enlistments, the percentage of blacks in the military still slightly exceeds that of the general population: 14.5 percent in the military, as of 2005, versus 12.8 percent in the US population. Nonetheless, recent Pentagon-sponsored surveys suggest that attitudes among military-age African-Americans may have changed for good.
Adult influencers of all youths, such as parents, sports coaches, or mentors, say Iraq makes them less likely to recommend military service, according to Pentagon surveys. Of all racial groups, African-American influencers are the least likely to suggest enlistment, according to the surveys.
At Oxon Hill High School, located in a predominantly black Washington suburb, guidance counselor Kabir Tompkins is also an Army National Guard sergeant wounded in Iraq. He tells interested students the Army can lead to better life: a good salary, health benefits, and tens of thousands of dollars for college. But their parents are harder to convince, he said.
"They see it from the aspect of . . . 'I don't care about the benefits, I don't care about the money, I don't care about nothing. I don't want my child going to Iraq,' " Tompkins said.
Lieutenant Colonel Irving Smith, a sociologist at the US Military Academy at West Point, isn't surprised the war "has had its toll" on black enlistment. But Smith, who is black, said he fears that a proud legacy of black men and women is at risk, and could be lost in a generation.
"We fought for many reasons, we enlisted for many reasons," Smith said. "Particularly in early times, we fought because we thought we'd get all the opportunities of citizenship . . . The fewer African-Americans that enlist, the fewer African-Americans there are that can tell their stories in the future. The fewer that get commissioned as officers, the smaller the leadership pool will be in the future."