By Ellen McGirt
May 27, 2016

This week, a photo went viral for all the right reasons.

It was a picture of West Point Cadet Alix Schoelcher Idrache at his commencement ceremony at the U.S. Military Academy. Tears streamed down his face, but he never broke formation. The picture, which was posted on the Academy’s Facebook page, captured the hearts of millions, partly due to his personal story: the Haitian immigrant grew up watching U.S. troops perform humanitarian missions in Port-Au-Prince, and he earned his citizenship and served in the Maryland National Guard before attending West Point. By all accounts, he was an outstanding student. And now, he’s headed to flight school. “I could not help but be flooded with emotions knowing that I will be leading these men and women who are willing to give their all to preserve what we value as the American way of life. To me, that is the greatest honor. Once again, thank you,” he wrote on Instagram.

Soldiers like these are all too rare these days, says Lawrence B. “Larry” Wilkerson, a retired U.S. Army Colonel and former Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell. He recently returned from a symposium on the all-volunteer force held by the Center for the Study of the U. S. Military at the University of Kansas. “Frankly, it’s a mess,” he says.

As the economy improves, the military is a less attractive option, particularly among black “influencers” like parents, coaches, and pastors. It’s also the extended war. “Study after study shows us that millennials are going to be incredibly difficult to recruit,” Wilkerson says. “They want to live a different life.”

But the bigger issue is leadership. It’s imperative, he says, that military leadership reflect the demographics of the enlisted ranks, and that the military as a whole look like the country it serves. And the tide is shifting. “We’ve gone from having a dependency on African Americans in the enlisted ranks to a dependency on Hispanic Americans,” Wilkerson says. “It happened overwhelmingly fast, and we haven’t had the personnel management in place to make sure that we have the requisite core of Hispanic officers.”

The solution, he says, is intention. “It’s what Powell and others did, and it worked. They directed all the promotion and selection boards to pay special attention to minorities—not to give them a break beyond their merit—but to make sure they weren’t overlooked.” If you don’t have a diverse force that is representative of America, you’re going to alienate the military from the population, a dangerous outcome, he says. “You won’t have a military that is as strong and innovative as it can be.”

Happy Memorial Day. RaceAhead returns Tuesday, May 31.


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