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DURHAM, North Carolina (Reuters) - The all-volunteer U.S. military has performed well during nearly a decade of continuous combat but shifting trends threaten to transform it into a force very different from the society it protects, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Wednesday.
Gates, in a speech to students at Duke University, said despite racial disparities in some ranks and specialties, the U.S. armed forces are now broadly representative of the country as a whole, drawing predominantly from the working and middle classes.
But members of the military are increasingly based in and recruited from rural and small-town areas of the South and mountainous West, partly as a result of cost-cutting that has led to the closure of military facilities in the Northeast and West Coast, he said.
"Basing changes in recent years have moved a significant percentage of the Army to posts in just five states: Texas, Washington, Georgia, Kentucky and here in North Carolina," Gates said, adding that young people are more likely to join the military if they know someone who has served.
"For otherwise rational environmental and budgetary reasons, many military facilities in the Northeast and on the West Coast have been shut down, leaving a void of relationships and understanding of the armed forces in their wake," he said.
Gates said the trend also affected training and recruitment of new officers. Alabama, with only 5 million people, has 10 Army reserve officer training programs in its colleges and universities. By comparison, the Los Angeles metropolitan area, with 12 million people, has only four programs and the Chicago metro area, with 9 million people, has three.
"There is a risk over time of developing a cadre of military leaders that politically, culturally and geographically have less and less in common with the people they have sworn to defend," he said.
Gates noted that reserve officer training programs had been shut out of many elite Ivy League universities, initially as a result of opposition to the Vietnam war and later due to the "don't ask, don't tell" policy requiring gays in the military to remain silent about their sexual orientation.
"Institutions that used to send hundreds of graduates into the armed forces," he said, "... now struggle to commission a handful of officers every year."
Gates, who is expected to leave the administration next year, offered no solution to the issues he raised. A Pentagon official said it marked a return to the kinds of speeches he was making toward the end of President George W. Bush's administration, before he was asked to remain as President Barack Obama's defense secretary.
Gates raised his concerns about the stresses on the all-volunteer force at Duke because it is in one of the states with a concentration of military bases and has maintained an active reserve officer training program, the official said.
"No major war in our history has been fought with a smaller percentage of this country's citizens in uniform full-time -- roughly 2.4 million active and reserve service members out of a country of over 300 million, less than 1 percent," Gates said.
Since the wars have been fought by a small proportion of the country, for many they are "a distant and unpleasant series of news items that does not affect them personally," he said.
But military families are under great stress, with anxiety and disruption inflicted on children, increased domestic strife and a growing number of suicides. Divorce rates in the Army have doubled since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began.
Gates, however, said there was no desire to return to military conscription.
Editing by Paul Simao