Wesley Hatch, a black teen-ager from Chicago's neglected West Side, graduated from high school with few choices two years ago. He dreamed of going to college to study architecture, but his mother did not have the money. That left dead-end jobs, the streets and the military. He chose the military.
"He didn't want to go," his mother, Rhoda, said. "But he thought by joining the Army he'd be able to do better, help me out and go to school."
Now he is a foot soldier on the Kuwaiti border, on the front lines of war in the Persian Gulf. He is one of about 104,000 black men and women who, Defense Department statistics show, account for nearly 25 percent of the U.S. troops in the gulf region and almost 30 percent of Army troops.
Despite their numbers in the armed forces, blacks make up only 12 percent of the nation's civilian population. And as the gulf conflict moves closer to ground combat, a painful debate has divided many blacks about their role in the war and in the military.
Statistics documenting the number of blacks in the gulf have stirred deep resentment in some blacks who fear that their community will pay disproportionately for a war many of them do not support.
The most recent New York Times/CBS News Poll, conducted Jan. 17-20, asked 3,002 adults whether they favored starting military action or continuing the use of economic sanctions.
The 250 blacks in the poll split about evenly on the question, and whites favored war by a 4-1 ratio.
Some black critics of the war say they are bitter that their sons and daughters are being sent to war by an administration that they see as insensitive to minority groups.
Still, other blacks express pride and comfort in Gen. Colin L. Powell, the nation's first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Pentagon officials acknowledge the disproportion of blacks in the armed forces but say it is the random outcome of having an all-volunteer force. "Nobody's making them enlist," said Christopher Jehn, assistant secretary of defense for force management and personnel.
Those who support the war say that this is a time when blacks and whites should be pulling together in the face of a larger threat.
Bertha Bailey, a high school teacher in McKinney, Texas, whose grandson is among the blacks serving in the gulf, says she accepts the inevitabilities of war. "Sometimes, some things can't get corrected without someone getting hurt. We don't need a fight within a fight."
The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and many black congressmen have said the disproportion of blacks in the gulf was evidence of the bleak economic opportunities they have.
"This nation ought to be ashamed that the best and brightest of our youth don't volunteer because they love it so well, but because this nation can't provide them jobs," said the Rev. Benjamin L. Hooks, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.