IT'S 1982. I'M 17 AND A SENIOR IN high school. I'm the only Chicano from my neighborhood — just over the hill from my white suburban high school — who is going to graduate this fall. Everyone else, all the guys anyway, are in juvie, or working, or feeding the worms. And someone keeps calling and calling and calling on the phone, not to congratulate me and say, “Good job surviving there, Mr. Lopez.” Not to encourage me. Not to recruit me for college . . .

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But wait — they are recruiting. For the U.S. Army.

Those calls rang my bell again in the context of two recent news stories. First off, last week's umpteenth Clinton apology had nothing to do with sex . . . and everything to do with murder. While surveying Hurricane Mitch damage during his Central America trip, the chief executive officially apologized to the Guatemalan people for our role in that country's decades-long civil strife. And he vowed to reverse the discriminatory policies that have favored refugees fleeing non-U.S.-supported left-wing regimes, while not affording the same concern to those fleeing right-wing governments. Not in my lifetime did I ever think I'd hear an American president acknowledge such a thing, much less apologize for it.

So the CIA and other U.S. government agencies did support any number of Central American right-wing authoritarian governments, most of them gross violators of human rights. Well, gee whiz! As if this wasn't already clear to me back in '82. There was no way I was going to suit up, learn how to shoot straight and get packed off to sticky Central American jungles on behalf of some immoral tinpot dictator. (I'm talking Reagan here.) I was an old-fashioned peacenik, and I wasn't about to shoot anybody! (Who'd have thought the '80s would be my '60s?)

The calls were annoying at first, then disturbing. And the pace picked up as my 18th birthday approached. Sergeant Whatshisname was a very persistent SOB. He'd usually call during dinnertime, and my poor mother would end up picking up the phone. I say “poor” because 1) we really were poor, and 2) I was an only child, and my father had died almost five years earlier. Which left my mom distressed by the mere suggestion of military service in regard to her only immediate family, namely me. There was to be no Saving Private Lopez in our future.

I have to say that back then, even though I was a pimply high schooler engrossed with music, girls and dancing to music with girls, I knew what was going on politically in the world around me. I knew that something was terribly wrong with that demented viejo in the White House, that he was redirecting public resources away from my stratum of American society, the poor and the brown, and toward the repression of an even lower stratum of hemispheric society, the Central American poor and brown.

“Have you thought about the service, son?” Sergeant Whatshisname would ask. “Ha!” I'd say with all my 17-year-old bravado. I'd tell him I didn't need his “Army crap.” I was destined to be a Chicano college student, so there! “The Army can pay for your college, son.” “I'm already getting financial aid!” I told him, referring to a program of assistance for college students that used to exist way back when. The last time he called me, I told him to “F___ off!” Yes Sir, with a one-fingered salute, Sir!

It was that very salute that came to mind as I read in February that Army Secretary Louis Caldera, looking for a way to get more Latinos into the service, had proposed making it easier for potential recruits without high school diplomas to join the Army.

During Vietnam, Latinos and blacks died in battle in disproportionate numbers, because somehow they ended up disproportionately on the front lines. Nowadays, however, Latinos are underrepresented in the Army, thanks to historically low high school graduation rates. Which begs the question: Why, when Latinos in 1996 were 37.6 percent of all high school dropouts while accounting for only 13.8 percent of the total population, ease the entry of young Latinos and Latinas into the Army? The “mission objective” should be to get the high school dropout rates down for young Latinos and find creative ways to get them into college.

But then, why do that when there are so many prisons to fill, kitchens to clean, leaves to blow, “trouble spots” to police . . . You get the picture.

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