On a chilly Saturday morning this month, the future soldiers of the U.S. Army huffed and puffed through push-ups, sit-ups and stretches in Whittier Narrows Regional Park in South El Monte.
There was the gangly white kid with the blond buzz cut and the buffed-out Latino dude, head draped in a black bandanna.
And then there was Jennifer Ren, small, slight and bespectacled, an immigrant from China who gamely kept up with the guys and sees the Army as a ticket to U.S. citizenship and a job in accounting and finance.
Down the training line was Christopher Ly, the son of Chinese immigrants from Vietnam who figures that the Army will help pay for a hoped-for Stanford University education and an eventual career as an Army lawyer.
Gery Denniswara, a Diamond Bar high school senior and Jakarta native, sees the Army as a way to pursue his childhood dream of becoming a doctor.
Ren, Ly and Denniswara helped drive the biggest Army recruitment boon for Los Angeles in two decades -- led by an 80% increase in Asian enlistments in the last year. Asians have traditionally joined the military at the lowest rate among all races.
But lured by job security, enhanced tuition aid and, for some immigrants, the chance for U.S. citizenship, Asians this year made up 22% of all active-duty recruits, nearly twice their proportion in the Los Angeles County population.
Latino enlistments increased by 37%, while African Americans rose by about 14% and whites, 15%.
Overall, the Los Angeles Recruiting Battalion signed up 2,300 new recruits, a 34% increase over last fiscal year.
The Southern California Recruiting Battalion, which handles Orange, San Diego, San Bernardino and Riverside counties, also reported the biggest recruiting year in two decades -- including a 33% increase in Asian recruits.
“For Asian Americans, the greatest appeal is the college benefits,” said Ly, who joined the Army over his parents’ objections to avoid heavy college debt during a down economy. “Especially with the price increases for the UC system, it’s definitely not a good time to take out student loans and go into debt.”
Lt. Col. Somport Jongwatana, Los Angeles battalion commander, said another major lure was a new program this year that offers citizenship to select candidates with healthcare specialties and language expertise.
The program was particularly popular among Los Angeles Koreans; 266 applicants vied for 48 slots and helped close that language category faster than any other except Hindi, Army officials said.
One successful Korean applicant was Dayae Yang, a Seoul native and UC Irvine student who plans to pursue a medical career through the Army.
Yang said her mother was the one who pushed her to enlist after reading about the citizenship and educational benefits in a Korean-language newspaper.
Both mother and daughter are on student visas here and barred from working. Yang said they became increasingly worried about their financial condition as the Korean won began losing value against the dollar in the last year, reducing the amount of money sent by her brother in Seoul.
Yang, 20, said some Koreans back home have called those like herself who enlist in the Army traitors to their motherland and sneered at them as “kimchi GIs.”
But she said she could not pass up the opportunity to get citizenship, tuition assistance, health insurance and the chance to make a difference.
“I want to do something that’s beneficial to people,” said Yang, who will ship out to basic training in January and then take individualized courses to become an Army pharmacy specialist. “This kind of thing will help me become a better person.”
Jongwatana said a stepped-up campaign to publicize Army benefits through more aggressive outreach to media and community leaders helped reap the recruiting bonanza.
The campaign, developed by public relations firm Weber Shandwick, was first launched in Dallas in 2007 and brought to Los Angeles and other major cities last year.
Throughout the year, Army officials have held news conferences that aim to alter perceptions that military service necessarily involves front-line fighting.
At a round table specifically for Asian ethnic media earlier this year, for instance, Army officials touted a soldier’s choice of more than 150 jobs, including those in engineering, medicine and computer programming.
They also detailed medical, housing and expanded college benefits -- up to $80,000 in tuition aid, which can be transferred to spouses and children, along with free help with standardized test preparation.
Sgt. 1st Class Llorito Todd, a recruiter in the Army’s Rowland Heights office, said he managed to placate one angry Chinese couple by placing their son, who holds a master’s degree in music, into the Army band in Virginia.
Over the last year, he said, his office has begun seeing a steady stream of applicants -- three-fourths of them Asian -- as the community’s churches and other information networks rapidly spread the word about military benefits.
One Los Angeles Korean immigrant, James Hwang, has even created a Korean-language website with up-to-date information about the application process and experiences of ethnic Korean soldiers.
Army officials also have assembled a community advisory board with a striking number of Asian American leaders.
They include representatives from the Chinese and Korean chambers of commerce, Japanese American Bar Assn., Korean churches and Filipino news publications.
Two of the six executive board members are Asian American: Lance Izumi, board member of the California Community Colleges System, and Assemblyman Ted Lieu (D-Torrance).
The connections have helped the Army wrangle invitations to Asian American events, including banquets, festivals and parades.
Janet Chin, a Chinese American Army veteran and Garvey School District board member, said she had sought to create a more “inviting climate” for Army recruiters in the district by clearing the way for them to make presentations about their educational benefits.
“Some school systems have viewed us as the enemy who takes young people out of school,” Jongwatana said. “But it’s just the opposite: We put kids in school and pay for it.”
Chester Chong, an advisory board member and Chinese Chamber of Commerce executive, said his community’s growing interest in the U.S. military reflected a coming of age of young people as they loosen themselves from the strict parental control common in traditional Chinese families.
“Traditional Chinese don’t like to join the Army or police force, but the new generation is more free-thinking,” Chong said. “It’s a huge change.”
Ly, the Alhambra student, agreed.
His parents are furious about his decision, he said, because they expected their only son to carry on the family name and perform other acts of traditional filial piety.
“They said, ‘Don’t do it. You’re stupid. You’re going to die,’ ” he said.
But this, Ly said, is America. He has enlisted as a signal support systems specialist and will work with computers, satellites and other communications equipment. He plans to make the Army a lifelong career.
“Finally being of age, I can do what I want to do,” Ly said, “and I think the Army is right for me.”