WHEN KRISTINA MCCAULEY LOOKS BACK on her time in boot camp, one scene sticks out: she's standing in the sun as blood flows down her wrist, hoping no one will notice her among the rows of trainees chanting and brandishing bayonets.
Thinking back, she's not sure why she grabbed her weapon the wrong way during that drill. But when she saw that the bayonet on her rifle had sliced cleanly across her hand, she knew calling for help would only invite her drill sergeants to make her life more miserable.
"I was just standing out there in the heat of the day and bleeding and trying to be quiet about it," she recalled later in an interview. Soon, a female drill sergeant came over to berate her for her stupidity--as a lesson to the other trainees--and tossed a few bandages at her.
Today, McCauley, a half-Japanese lesbian, has a degree in international peace studies. She's not your "typical" veteran. As a mixed-race girl with a boyish streak in a straight-laced suburb, McCauley signed up for the military hoping "to belong somewhere." The service promised respect, power and a chance to test her physical and mental limits.
But putting on the greens didn't bring the transformation she had sought. Instead, she discovered the Army's veneer of uniformity masks deep fault lines of culture, class and sexuality. She eventually emerged from the military's rigid hierarchy to embrace what she had tried to escape--by reconnecting with her Japanese heritage, coming out to her family and reorienting her political perspective.
"I made a conscious effort to educate myself more deeply," she said. "I began to study race, sexuality and gender, with a hope to understand my own place in the world more clearly."
McCauley's quest resonates throughout the growing ranks of military women of color. Though their decision to enlist is often inspired by hopes of self-empowerment, they may quickly stumble on a landscape of familiar impediments where the rules of race and gender still dictate who fights, who wins and who suffers.
There are about 200,000 active-duty military women today, some 14 percent of the total force, according to federal data. About half of them are women of color. Women of color also now make up around a third of former service members. Of a little more than 1.7 million women veterans nationwide, about 19 percent are Black and 7 percent are Latina. Asian American, Pacific Islander, American Indian and mixed-race women each comprise up to 2 percent or less. Proportionally, people of color comprise a greater share of female veterans than of male veterans.
Women of color, like others, are drawn into the armed forces by both needs and ideals. Some are spurred by patriotism or a desire for adventure: others just want a stable job or money for college. Whatever their economic or social motives, the recruitment rhetoric pushed to youth across the country markets the military as a way out of their current circumstances and on toward where they need to go.
But the soldier's path leads many women of color back to where they started-to the turbulence and entrenched discrimination besetting their home communities. And for some, the journey veers unexpectedly toward a new political consciousness.
Maricela Guzman, a Latina Navy veteran who now works as a counter-recruitment activist in California, urges youth of color to look past the sales pitch of economic opportunity.
"You're going to this environment thinking you're going to make all this money," she warned, "but you're going back to a system that is going to keep you down."
For many young people, spending a 21st birthday in boot camp would be a sobering experience. But Eli PaintedCrow had grown up early; passing a birthday in the Army was one way to ensure her children would spend theirs under better circumstances.
She joined the Army to get off welfare and support her young sons. She also sought a kind of camaraderie she never had growing up in the barrios of San Jose, estranged from her ancestral community, the indigenous Yaqui Nation.
"It really did make me feel like I belonged somewhere and that I could be good at something," she said.
In communities where prospects for youth are dim, she said, "if you don't have a family, you go find one."
Propelled into the service more by pragmatism than patriotism, she spent more than two decades as a reservist, serving in Honduras and the Middle East and became a sergeant first class. She also put herself through school, worked as a substance-abuse counselor and raised two sons, who would later also enlist. Though conscious of racial divides in the military, she stuck quietly to her work until her tour in Iraq in 2004 turned latent cynicism into an ideological break.
Racial tensions pervaded her mission before she even reached Iraq. During her unit's training in the...