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The Battlefield of Dreams – Part 2

This is the continuation of a story I did in 2008 while I was a Yuchengo media fellow at the University of San Francisco-Center for the Pacific Rim. Some information may have already been superseded by more recent data. But hey, read on.

After the two-month boot camp, enlistees with a college diploma are elevated to a rank three steps higher than the lowest. But sweeter than the rank is the bonus. Dancel and Edmilao, now both stationed at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, received a $12,000 bonus when they got out of training.

Edmilao is also using his tuition assistance privilege to study environmental management at the University of Maryland. He already has an economics degree from the De La Salle University in Manila, but the educational benefit available to military personnel was too good to pass up.

“I plan to be an officer,” says Edmilao, 28, who wants to maximize all the military benefits here but retire in the Philippines.

George Barreto, a retired Marine, has also recently obtained a master’s degree in business administration, courtesy of the education allowance he availed as a retired serviceman.

“The military has put structure and purpose in my life. It has given me opportunities and experiences that are hoped for,” says Barreto, who enlisted in 1988 after a troubled post-high school episode.

His father was in the Navy, and he grew up in Vallejo, California, a Navy community with strong Filipino ties, but joining the military did not even cross his mind until he became desperate later in life. He had been working odd jobs after high school because he did not take advantage of his father’s privilege to receive assistance that would send dependents like him to college.

“I joined the military as a last resort,” Barreto admits.

“I needed a fresh start, away from family and friends. I didn’t have any money or a place to go and the military gave me that opportunity,” he recalls.

He then approached a recruiter.

“I told him he that didn’t need to sell the military to me, just get me out of this town for awhile. So here I am,” he says.

Dancel, too, was not planning on becoming a “doc.”

The former reporter had wanted to pursue a journalism career when he moved here in 2003, but the only newspaper that replied to his applications was based in a small town in Alaska with a population of 5,000. He could not imagine living there, he says.

He then applied as information officer in the U.S military, “the one that writes press releases and reports,” he says, but was turned down because the sensitive position was open only to U.S. citizens, and he was only a legal permanent resident then. He was told to try again when he receives his citizenship.

Edmilao, who has now served seven years in the U.S. Navy as a corpsman, recounts how he was reeled in by the military. His two cousins had enlisted in the Navy and urged him to do the same.

He was then working at the cafeteria of an electronic store, something he was not used to as he had lived a relatively well-off existence in Manila. He was looking for opportunities and wanted some independence from his father, whom he barely knew but was now forced to live with in America.

“Since I was not doing anything much, I decided to join. Now my two cousins have both quit and I’m still here,” he says.

The same is true for many Filipino Americans who first found a job and later a career with the U.S. military.

While there is no official count of servicemen in the Air Force, Army, Navy or Marines based on their race, the Migration Information Source, in a report published in September, said there were 81,545 immigrants from the Philippines who had served in the armed forces of the United States as of 2006, representing the largest group of foreign-born veterans who had served in the U.S. military.

The report, citing data from the American Community Survey, noted that Filipinos accounted for 12.4 percent of the 658,020 foreign-born veterans, Mexicans 10.9 percent, Germans 8.8 percent, and Canadians 7.3 percent.

Of the Philippine-born Filipino American veterans, 27,778 were in active duty during the Vietnam War, 5,337 during the Korean War and 7,186 during World War II. There would have been more had the U.S. Congress not enacted the Rescission Act of 1946, which effectively declassified as U.S. veterans all 250,000 Filipinos who served under the Commonwealth Army and Philippine Scouts during the Second World War.

Still, considering the actual number of veterans of Asian descent listed by the Department of Veterans Affairs, 81,545 is a large population of foreign-born Filipino military personnel.

The DVA reported that as of Sept. 30, 2008, there were 298,600 Asian-American veterans, which is projected to reach over 299,000 next year before going down to 293,000 ten years from now.

“I have learned that it doesn’t matter what part of the world you came from or what the color of your skin is. Hard work, determination and perseverance will lead you to success,” says Staff Sgt. Felix Barrios, who is due for promotion to warrant officer in February 2009.

Barrios, who hails from Pampanga, migrated here in 1997. He met his recruiter, also a Filipino-American, while working at a retail store in Daly City, two years later.

In April 1999, Barrios, whose great grandfather fought under the U.S. flag during World War II and who has relatives in the Navy and Air Force, fulfilled what he considers his “calling” and joined the Marines.

He was part of the assault elements that performed the violent initial push to Iraq in February 2003. He was also part of Operation Iraqi Freedom II in 2004, where he was a shop chief for a weapons repair facility that supported seven separate battalions.

While he admits the toll his job takes on his family, being away from them for long periods, Barrios says he believes in “bringing the fight to the enemy to prevent terrorists from spreading terror in the United States and other sovereign countries.”

“I want to continue my service until the Marine Corps says that they don’t need me anymore, whether that’s 20 years or 40 years from now,” says Barrios, who is with the Marine Wing Support Squadron 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing in Camp Pendleton, San Diego.

It’s people like Barrios that the U.S. military is looking for.

As the Global War on Terror continues, the military also continues to recruit new members.

In its November report, the Department of Defense lauded all branches of the military for meeting or exceeding the recruiting goals for the month. The Army had recruited 5,605 against its target of 5,275; the Air Force met its exact goal of 2,916, as did the Navy, which had a goal of 3,082; the Marines got slightly more than its target of 1,782 with recruits of 1,868.

Last year, Defense Secretary Robert Gates proposed the increase of the size of the Army to 547,400 and the Marine Corps to 202,000 by 2012, while the Navy and Air Force personnel would be reduced.

“They will really persist and run after you because they need people,” Edmilao says of recruiters for the military. When he enlisted, all he needed was to fill up the form, submit his Social Security Number and documents showing he was legally staying in America, and the recruiter was all over him, he says.

This aggressive recruitment keeps America’s military the second biggest in the world after China.

As of July 31, 2008, the United States had 1.4 million personnel in active duty, with another 848,000 in reserve components. It has over 290,000 troops spread in at least 49 countries outside U.S territory, but most of them – roughly 150,000 – are in Iraq.

During the presidential campaign, the presence of the U.S. troops in Iraq had been a topic of heated debates as Democrats wanted the immediate pullout of troops from Iraq while Republicans wanted to keep the troops where they are.

But on one thing the two parties agreed: It was essential to recruit more Americans into the military if the U.S. troops would remain “the best in the world,” a term that now president-elect Barack Obama had used.

“As a consequence of these wars, it’s important for us to increase size of the Army and the Marines, so we can decrease the tours of our men… Military service should be an obligation not just of some but of many,” Obama told CNN in an interview in October.

Arizona Sen. John McCain, in the same interview, said the government should ensure that “the first reason for joining the military should be patriotism,” although he conceded that the government should have to “offer them something.”

“I want to reward them as much as possible but you have to be careful that they are not there for reward,” McCain said.

The senator, himself a former Navy officer who served in the Vietnam War, noted the role of immigrants in the United States’ campaign against terrorism.

“I’ll never forget attending a ceremony in Baghdad. There were 160 people who were willing to serve in the military for an extended period so they can get their citizenship. That’s how much they want to be part of this country,” McCain said.

And it is true, that is how much immigrants want to be part of this country.

For the means to feed their families, for a job, a career, a sure path, for what remains of the American dream, immigrants such as Filipino-Americans, would run out to the battlefield, dodge bullets, and pray, ever so fervently, that they last longer than 10 seconds. ##

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