Duty. Respect. Loyalty. Courage. These words, written in tiny white type, scroll across the homepage of the Army National Guard's website, at http://www.1800goguard.com. But the more attention-grabbing text flashes across the screen in large, bold, black print: "Receive 100% Tuition Assistance." The offer is juxtaposed with eye-catching images of red-white-and-blue stars and stripes.
The rising cost of a college education makes this an attractive offer for many high school students -- tuition, fees, and room and board at four-year public schools averaged $10,636 last year, up 9.8 percent from 2002. And military recruiters aren't just promoting this benefit online -- they're taking the message directly to students in their high school hallways.
For the past three years, one Vermont group has used the same tactic to advise students to be skeptical of the military's promises. Representatives from Alternatives to Recruitment in the Military, or ARM, have set up their own tables in a number of Vermont schools, mainly in the southern part of the state. Late last month, after a yearlong wait, they received permission to set up at Rutland High School. Plans are currently underway to approach high schools in Middlebury and Burlington.
ARM member and Pittsford resident Don Gray, who often staffs the tables, says his group exists to give potential recruits more information about this important decision. "We try to debunk some of the claims the military uses to convince students to enlist," he says.
Gray was drafted during the Vietnam War but did not serve due to a 4-F designation. He insists that his group is not political. "We don't engage in any inflammatory rhetoric. We don't try to scare kids," he says.
The statistics are scary enough on their own. Gray tells students it's much harder to get tuition money than the military makes it seem and, though every soldier pays directly from his or her paycheck for the benefit, only 35 percent of them ever actually take advantage of it. As for the job training the military offers, Gray says that promises made by recruiters are often unfulfilled, and that studies show only a meager 12 percent of male veterans ever use that training in civilian life.
Gray also cautions students about the harmful effects of depleted uranium, currently in use in weapons in Iraq. And he warns potential female recruits that fully 90 percent of recent women veterans reported being harassed in the military. A third of those women reported being raped. And all of this is in addition to the hazard of being killed in Iraq.
An Army recruiter who answered the phone at the Williston office refuted some of Gray's charges. The recruiter, who declined to identify himself, said he had never heard of ARM, but called Gray's information on educational benefits "absolutely not true."
He also denied that recruiters reneged on job-training promises. "Everything as far as the Army is concerned is guaranteed in a written contract," he said. "The job that every recruit picks, that's the job they're guaranteed to train on." The recruiter offered no comment on the use of depleted uranium, but noted that the Army has "a zero tolerance policy" on sexual harassment.
Wendy Coe, a Burlington resident and mother of two sons, ages 17 and 12, is skeptical of military recruiters' claims, and supports ARM's efforts to counter them. An office manager for the Peace and Justice Center, Coe says she strongly favors ARM's efforts to educate kids about Conscientious Objector status. Despite reassurances from President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that the military will remain an all-volunteer force, Coe fears that the War on Terror will soon necessitate a draft. And she wants her kids to know how they might avoid it, should they chose to do so. "At some level, their lives might depend on this," she says.
Gray agrees that students' lives are at stake, but he also emphasizes that his intent isn't to dis the troops. "We're not trying to say the military and everybody in it is bad," he says, noting that his real beef is with the way the military presents the opportunity to serve. "I feel bad that we're trying to sell this to our kids like buying a car," he says. "I think it's not right."