Serving beyond their number
By MARCUS FRANKLIN
Lula Benjamin was ready to strike out on her own, but she needed an opportunity.
Just out of high school, she found none in the local unemployment office or in the fancy homes she cleaned for little money in Montgomery, Ala. The meals she cooked and clothes she washed for her six younger brothers and sisters wouldn't bring her independence.
Finally, the year after graduation, she reluctantly left her siblings and their single mother to seize her chance: She joined the U.S. Army.
"I was struggling to find a decent job," Benjamin, now 44, recalled as she sat in her St. Petersburg home. "I just got tired. I was tired of being tired. I had to start somewhere." In 2001, Benjamin retired as a first sergeant after setting up missile defense systems for most of her 22 years in the Army, mainly in Texas and Germany.
Her decision to join the military is one taken up by disproportionately high numbers of African-American women. While African-American women make up 13 percent of all women in the United States, they are 31 percent of the 214,000 women in the military. In one branch, African-Americans are nearly half of all enlisted women.
By contrast, white women, who make up 75 percent of all U.S. women, are about 52 percent of military women, according to a December 2002 Department of Defense report.
"There are a lot of untold stories to be told" about African-American women's roles in the military, said Ron Goor, a spokesman at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Md. "It's a pretty substantial role. The Army would probably come to a standstill without them. The military really depends on them."
Some applaud the high percentages as proof of equal opportunity in the military that many, including African-American women, are eager to take advantage of. Others are critical, charging that African-Americans and other minorities, especially those from low-income homes, are steered to the military by an unlevel playing field in the civilian world.
In January, two members of Congress introduced a bill to bring back the draft, which was replaced 30 years ago with the all-volunteer force, in part to address what some called injustice toward the poor and minorities. But the lawmakers say today's military disproportionately relies on people from lower-income backgrounds.
Today, ethnic minorities make up 38 percent of the military's enlistees, while they are 29 percent of the general population.
The percentage of minorities among enlisted military personnel is greater than the percentage enrolled in colleges and universities, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Whether for education and career opportunities, adventure, or because they were inspired by others in the service, African-American women are flocking to -- and remaining in -- the services in percentages that surpass those of African-American men.
The percentage of African-American female officers is more than twice that of black men. (Despite lower percentages, the number of black men in the military is far higher than the number of black women.)
Sheila Baxter was a sophomore studying health and physical education at Virginia State University when she paid a summer visit to her cousin stationed in the Army at Fort Bragg, N.C., in the 1970s. He was a signal corps officer. Baxter was impressed. "I saw a lot of teamwork. The morale was extremely high," the 48-year-old said. "The light bulb came on, 'Yes! This is something I want to do.' "
After returning to Virginia State the following fall, Baxter joined ROTC. She later was commissioned into the Army as a second lieutenant. Today she is Col. Baxter, in line to be promoted to general soon. She has carried out tactical and strategic assignments and has been deployed to the Persian Gulf War and the conflict in the Balkans.
"I'm in it because I love it," said Baxter, who now is chief of staff at Medical Research and Materiel Command at Fort Detrick, Md. "It's been a journey I will always cherish."
Baxter, like some Tampa Bay area military recruiters, says the reasons so many African-American women join up are too varied to pin down. But recruiters say they suspect opportunities for post-secondary education, travel and learning a skill all play roles.
"Some want to take advantage of the job security and education benefits," said Juan Diaz, who recruits out of an office in a 58th Street N strip mall. "Some want to get away from St. Petersburg and see different things, a new world. We hear all kinds of stories."
Army Sgt. Ernestine Daniel joined nearly 12 years ago to meet people, help people and learn about new cultures. For the past two years, she has been a recruiter. She now works out of the Army's Seminole office.
"People are looking for something to make a difference in their lives," said Daniel, a native of Nevis.
Army Lt. Col. Archie Davis, a 22-year veteran who is African-American, said the perception of greater opportunity in the military is most responsible for high enlistment among African-Americans.
"No longer is it about race, creed, color or your ethnic background," said Davis, deputy director for community relations for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. "It's about what you bring to the table."
Some also probably are wooed by relatives in the military, as Baxter was by her cousin. Recently, she talked her niece into enlisting in the Army.
Baxter said she is impressed by the women coming behind her, such as a soldier all of America has come to know, Army Spc. Shoshana Johnson. Johnson was one of seven soldiers rescued last week after being held prisoner for three weeks in Iraq.
"She will have a lot to share in terms of her experience," Baxter said. "I watched how she got into the vehicle (after the rescue). She sat down and then she waved for this other soldier to get in. I said this young lady has dignity and discipline. I want to meet her one day and shake her hand and say thank you."
Almost half the African-American women in the military are in the Army, where Benjamin, the retired St. Petersburg sergeant, chose to enlist. It attracted her, in part, because she spent three years wearing the plaid skirt, puffy black wool beret and white blouse of Junior ROTC in high school.
She also was inspired by letters from a high school classmate who joined right after graduation. The friend wrote fondly of the military's health benefits, housing, pay and how much faster many African-Americans moved up the ranks. The Army has the highest number of African-American female officers, followed by the Air Force.
Benjamin was sold. Her mother, while supportive, was not as enthusiastic.
"When I told her, she said, 'Lord, there goes my right hand. But we'll be all right,' " Benjamin said. "I didn't want to leave her with the kids. She depended on me a lot. She worked two jobs."
But in November 1979, Benjamin left for basic training in Fort Jackson, S.C. Almost a quarter-century later, her daughter is set to embark on the same journey.
From the time she started high school, Benjamin's daughter, Charteye Wade, made every decision with college in mind.
The 17-year-old St. Petersburg High School senior excelled in challenging classes such as German and anatomy. She dreamed about going to Florida State University.
"Everything I did had to do with college," the National Honor Society member said.
Then, in November, as she fought off senioritis, Charteye decided she didn't want to go to college. She was tired of studying and homework. Her parents gave her some options, including the military.
"I had seen the military not exactly first-hand but second-hand," Charteye said. "I've seen the negative and the positive. I knew it well enough to know whether or not I could do it or whether I wanted to do it."
She could, she concluded, and she wanted to. She sailed through the entrance exam. She passed the physical. She's off to boot camp in June. After boot camp, Charteye plans to study for a year for a nursing job. She figures she can still go to college later.
Her mother, whose husband, Leander, retired from the Army in 1999, said the couple never tried to convince Charteye to enlist. But she added: "I don't think she would have chosen the military if she hadn't been around it as many years as she has."
Benjamin, who also has two young sons, admits she's happy with Charteye's choice. There's too much unsupervised frolicking on college campuses, she said. The mom, however, has warned her daughter to be careful in her social interactions while in the service.
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