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Asian-Americans have typically volunteered for the U.S. Army at the lowest rate of any ethnic group. They make up about four percent of the population, but just one percent of military recruits. In California, that is changing.

Something is suddenly drawing Asian-Americans into the Army at a remarkable rate, as reporter Lonny Shavelson reports.

LONNY SHAVELSON: In Los Angeles County last year, 22 percent of Army recruits were Asian-Americans, almost twice their proportion in the population. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the sign-up rate is also spiking. The proportion of newly enlisted soldiers who are Asian-Americans this year is nearly double that of last year.

(Soundbite of marching footsteps)

Mr. BARRY HUANG (Recruit, U.S. Army): Left. Left...

SHAVELSON: Army officers at the Bay Area's Richmond Hilltop Mall recruiting station teach incoming soldiers to march.

Mr. HUANG: Group, halt.

SHAVELSON: The recruits, still in high school, will start basic training after they graduate. Here's an ethnic roll call of 15 incoming soldiers at the recruitment station.

Unidentified Man #1: Asian.

Unidentified Man #2: Asian.

Unidentified Man #3: Chinese.

Unidentified Man #4: Chinese.

Unidentified Woman #1: Vietnamese.

Unidentified Man #5: Pacific Islander.

Unidentified Man #6: Filipino.

Unidentified Man #7: Black and Latina.

SHAVELSON: Seven of 15 Asian Pacific Islanders, over 40 percent.

Mr. B. HUANG: Whoah. We're part of that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALBERT HUANG (Recruit, U.S. Army): We're part of it.

SHAVELSON: Recruits Albert and Barry Huang are 18-year-old twins who speak Cantonese at home, English outside. They tend to finish each other's sentences.

Mr. A. HUANG: My parents always pushed the idea of: Go to college, go to college. And so this is a start of how we're going to...

Mr. B. HUANG: Do what our parents want us to do.

Mr. A. HUANG: Yes.

Mr. B. HUANG: Which is go to college, get an education.

Unidentified Man: You guys motivated?

IN UNISON: (unintelligible)

Mr. B. HUANG: Platoon, attention. Right face.

SHAVELSON: Barry calls the marching orders for the recruits. This is his route to college.

Mr. B. HUANG: Now that the economy has gone down and the tuition's gone up -the Army, they can pay for my college. So I was like, might as well do it.

SHAVELSON: The military's education benefits have become particularly appealing in this stumbling economy with skyrocketing college costs. That's one reason Asian-Americans, with their traditional emphasis on education, are increasingly joining the Army.

But Ken Mochizuki says new Asian-American recruits are motivated by more than education.

Mr. KEN MOCHIZUKI (Author): In the present war, they're not fighting Asians, like World War II or Vietnam.

SHAVELSON: Mochizuki co-authored a book about Asians in the military. He says today's young soldiers were born after World War II, Korea and Vietnam - all wars in which we fought Asians. So for this generation of Asian-Americans...

Mr. MOCHIZUKI: They want to prove their loyalty to this country and they're as American as anybody else.

SHAVELSON: Yet, increased recruitment of Asian-Americans doesn't mean that more are on the front lines.

Dr. BETTY MAXFIELD (Chief, Office of Army Demographics): The majority are in combat service support: technical support, computer support, medical...

SHAVELSON: Dr. Betty Maxfield is the chief of personnel data for the Army. She says Asian-Americans more commonly go into noncombat jobs than to be front-line fighters. Soldiers who focus on the military's education benefits, she says, train in jobs that can translate to civilian life, like technology or medicine, rather than rifles or sharpshooting.

The Huang twins say that for them, finding noncombat roles is also cultural and religious. Their mother is Buddhist.

Mr. B. HUANG: It affected me. When I decided to join the military, I was like, I'm not going to kill anybody. I do not want to kill anybody. I do not want to have a person's death on my conscience.

SHAVELSON: Asian-Americans have also become more visible in the Army: four-star General Eric Shinseki recently testifying on TV before Congress, Major General Antonio Taguba who led the Abu Ghraib investigation.

The most potent reason that young Asian-Americans are increasingly joining the Army may just be because they now see prominent soldiers who look like them.

For NPR News, Im Lonny Shavelson.

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