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Activists launch a counteroffensive on armed-services rectuitment in schools


Published November 5, 2003 at 6:46 p.m.

At least once a semester high school students around Vermont can stop by a display table in their school cafeteria, learning center or guidance department and pick up some of the trinkets and doodads offered by U.S. military recruiters. There are ball caps, bumper stickers, water bottles and key chains, as well as plenty of glossy pamphlets featuring photos of scuba tanks, ATVs, motorcycles, rubber rafts and other action-adventure gear.

Amidst all the free swag is a brochure for the U.S. Marines that proclaims, "For in knowledge there is power." In recent months, antiwar activists have turned that sentiment around. In Vermont and around the country, peace promoters have been taking their message into the schools. They're figuring the more young people know about the realities of war and military life, the less likely they are to enlist.

As a result of a 1986 federal ruling that acknowledged "the subject of military service is controversial," public schools that allow military recruiters on their grounds must also grant equal time and access to those who want to convey an opposing message. As a result, several groups in Vermont, including Veterans for Peace and Alternatives for Recruitment by the Military, have been visiting high schools and telling students about less aggressive options for travel, college money, community service and career development -- in effect, taking aim at the military's most effective selling points.

"We get a chance to talk to students and say, ‘You're about to make a really, really important decision that could affect you in ways you can't even imagine yet,'" explains Ellen Kaye, a "counter-recruiter" with ARM in Brattleboro. "‘And the least you can do is please promise to read some of our stuff before you make that decision.'"

Recruiting able-bodied youths for military service even before they've come of age is as old as war itself. Armies marching off to battle have always relied on propaganda about honor and glory for God and country to fill their ranks with young, idealistic adventure-seekers. The technology behind that sales pitch today may be as sophisticated as the military's most high-tech weaponry, but the underlying message remains the same.

Folks like Kaye know that the military's campaign for the hearts and minds of America's youth is more powerful and well-funded than ever; this year, the Department of Defense will spend $2.3 billion on recruitment alone. That money helped pay for one of the U.S. Army's most seductive recruitment tools, the ultra-realistic PC video game "America's Army," which promises players they can "gain experience as a soldier in the U.S. Army without leaving home." Released last year at a development cost of more than $6 million, it almost instantly became the most downloaded video game in Internet history. "America's Army," which is now available on CD-ROM, also contains plenty of information on how players can sign up for the real deal.

It's not just high-tech video games and animated TV ads that peace activists are up against. Buried in the 670 pages of the federal "No Child Left Behind" Act is a provision that says public schools are not only required to allow military recruiters on their premises, but must provide them with students' names and contact information. Schools that refuse to do so risk losing their federal funding. Last year, for example, the principal of Mount Anthony Union High School in Bennington faced this prospect when she told recruiters it was against school policy to give out student contact information to anyone. A compromise was reached when the school allowed students or their parents to opt off the list provided to military recruiters.

Elsewhere in the country, schools have faced similar threats, including districts in San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, that tried to bar access to recruiters on the grounds that the military discriminates against gays and lesbians. Some schools have taken a different approach, allowing students to opt onto the list given out to recruiters. Otherwise, their names and contact information remain confidential.

Despite the lopsided nature of the fight, however, counter-recruiters say they can shoot holes in the military's biggest recruitment weapon -- the promise of five-figure sums for college. A commander at the U.S. Army Recruiting Station in South Burlington explains that new enlistees are eligible for up to $50,000 in education grants under the Army College Fund, or up to $35,460 through the Montgomery GI Bill. To qualify for that money, a recruit just needs to be between 17 and 34, enlist for a minimum of three years, pass a physical exam and get a passing grade on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test, according to Staff Sgt. Richard Lange. Recruits who serve full-time in the military while taking college classes get their tuition paid 100 percent. "It's a very, very simple process," Lange says.

But not that simple, Kaye argues. She quotes figures provided by the U.S. Department of Defense showing that the average grant most soldiers receive through the GI Bill only amounts to about $6800. Moreover, in order for soldiers to be eligible for that money, they have to first pay $100 per month out of their paychecks for 12 months -- something she says many recruiters don't mention. "If you get discharged for any reason, even if it's not dishonorable, you're out of the running," Kaye points out. "You spent $1200 and you got nothing."

Kaye also reminds young people that enlistment in the military isn't just a four-year obligation but an eight-year commitment: four years of active service followed by four in the reserve. "Many of those cheerful photographs we saw this spring of people leaving their infants and spouses and medical practices for Iraq are people who thought they were done and who were assured they would only be doing their one weekend a month," Kaye says.

"We tell kids to make sure to get everything in writing," she adds. "There was one woman who was a career military officer, and she said the biggest phrase she heard coming out of recruits' mouths during basic training was, ‘But my recruiter said…' You know, they'll promise you the world."

The anti-recruitment offensive has another potent weapon in its arsenal -- veterans who are willing to tell students about the grim realities of war. Gary Cheney is a veteran who does counter-recruiting in several high schools in the Brattleboro and Windham areas. Like many young military recruits of the 1960s, Cheney enlisted in the Army after he was led to believe that it would keep him from being drafted and sent to Vietnam. It didn't. He fought in the war from 1967 to 1970.

Cheney explains that when he goes into the schools, pro-military students and faculty members give him a chilly or hostile reception -- until they learn he's a Vietnam vet. Then, he says, their attitude softens dramatically, and young people seem more willing to trust that what he's saying is true.

"I try to explain to young people that everything you do in life, it's not just that you do something and then leave it behind," Cheney says. "That's what a lot of young people don't realize. Everything you've ever done is like this long movie that you have to watch over and over and over when you can't sleep at night."

So far, neither Cheney nor Kaye has encountered a military recruiter during their high school visits. Their goal, however, is to be in the schools as often as military recruiters are, and eventually expand their ranks so that counter-recruiters can deliver their message into every school in the state. Unlike Uncle Sam, Kaye's group has to pass the hat at fundraisers and will be lucky if it secures a $1000 grant. Though she admits that not everyone welcomes them with open arms, even some people who are staunchly pro-military admit that teens should get a balanced picture so they can make an informed decision -- whatever that decision is.

Has the anti-recruitment campaign been effective? Hard to say. Sergeant Lange has never even heard of it and says his recruitment numbers are as strong as ever. And Cheney won't hazard a guess as to whether his anti-military message is getting through to young people. "I just do this to keep myself sane," Cheney says. "You can't talk people out of anything, but you can sort of put a little reality in front of them."