Congress takes DoD to task over commitment to diversity

Wednesday - 3/7/2012, 3:21pm EST

Frustrated with the slow pace of reforms, lawmakers Tuesday gave the military a three-month deadline to prove it is committed to building a diverse and inclusive officer corps.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Hispanic Caucus and Asian Pacific-American Caucus took a panel of human resources officials from each of the military services to task for failing to move fast enough on 20 recommendations that a congressional commission made one year ago.

"The commission did a wonderful job," Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) told the panel. "I don't want their work to be in vain."

He asked the panelists to submit in writing, by next week, their commitments to fulfilling the recommendations. Cummings said he plans to bring them back to Capitol Hill in June to explain how they've implemented the recommendations.

Last year, the Military Leadership Diversity Commission found that current leaders don't accurately represent the population they serve or the forces they lead. For example, 13 percent of active-duty officers are either Black or Latino, compared with 27 percent of the U.S. population.

It recommended the military services and Defense agencies make diversity a key part of their officer training and organizational cultures. It suggested the military must do more to recruit a diverse array of officer candidates, especially those with regional and cultural expertise. DoD also needed to do a better job of retaining women, the commission said.

Progress is slow

Retired Air Force Gen. Lester Lyles, who was the chairman of the commission, handed lawmakers a one-year report card filled with half-circles, indicating that the services had addressed, but not satisfied, most of the recommendations.

Nonetheless, leaders seem committed to making the forces more diverse and inclusive, he said.

"That's the number one thing that needs to be addressed if we are going to change the culture," he told the lawmakers. "I don't sense any push back from military leaders."

The Defense Department has incorporated many of the commission's recommendations into a strategic plan to increase diversity and inclusion, as President Barack Obama directed in August with an executive order, Diversity Management and Equal Opportunity Director Clarence Johnson said. The services also have diversity-management policies. Many of them have appointed a "chief diversity officer" to oversee implementation.

But some of the basics are missing, according to the report card. The Pentagon has yet to officially define "diversity," leaving each service to adopt their own definition of what, exactly, they are striving for.

Lyles said he's worried about losing momentum before achieving tangible results.

"I want to make sure that we begin to institutionalize the things that we thought were very, very important — accountability reviews, establishment of metrics, changing the training programs in education — that we begin to inculcate those as quickly as possible and not study them," he said.

ROTC programs key to increasing diversity

He urged lawmakers not to let the military cut its ROTC programs at universities with high percentages of students of color, despite budget cuts. With 70 percent of young people ineligible for the military because of health, education or criminal issues, he said outreach programs were "more important than ever" to find those students who may qualify.

Representatives of the services said they planned to recruit and reach out to young people in areas, such as downtown Los Angeles, which they traditionally have not focused on.

This month, the Marine Corps is launching a new campaign aimed at millenials of diverse backgrounds "who want to serve the public some place and want to help people, but don't see the military as a viable option," said Director of Manpower Plans and Policies Mike Applegate.

Hazing has 'racial overtones'

Recent hazing incidents suggest that the focus on diversity and inclusion hasn't trickled down through the ranks.

For Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), the issue hits close to home. Her nephew, Marine Lance Cpl. Harry Lew, killed himself after enduring three hours of hazing by his fellow platoon members in Afghanistan.

A military court recently found two of the defendants in the case not guilty. The third received a month in confinement and a demotion.

"I've been struck by the entrenched attitude that hazing is a necessary part of military life," she said. "In the mainstream world, people are horrified. It's like Lord of the Flies, where peers are allowed to assault other peers. But in the military, it seems that, almost to a person, the reaction of soldiers is that this is absolutely necessary to toughen up people, otherwise we can't fight a war."