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Military Recruiters Face Resistance From Young Anti-War Activists

by Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg

U.S. Army Recruiters Leave No Latino Youth Behind

The military spends about $3 billion each year to convince young people that enlistment will give them college money, job training and an alternative to working at McDonald's. In the wake of the growing conflict in Iraq, which has resulted in over a thousand U.S. casualties, the military has become more aggressive in scouting out high school students willing and able to serve.

In many New York City public schools that are predominantly Black and Latino, military recruiters are a heavy presence, promising young people financial security and a fulfilling career. Recruiters roam the halls, set up tables and even pull students out of class. But in recent months, a group of teenagers and anti-war veterans have been canvassing the neighborhoods where the recruiters frequent, hoping to convince students to consider other options.

''We've heard everything up to and including having a desk in the guidance counselor's office,'' said Amy Wagner of Youth Activists-Youth Allies (YaYas), a group that focuses on counter-recruitment. ''When the kid comes in to talk to the counselor about college, before the kid can get there, they've got somebody in their face saying, 'You want to go to college? How are you going to pay for college?'''

New York City organizers are educating people about alternatives to enlisting and the realities of military life. Vietnam veterans and anti-war activists Jim Murphy and Dayl Wise visit high schools, where they recount for the students stories about their time in the service. In one class of juniors at West Side High School, Murphy told them that before the service he spent time making money playing seven-card stud.

Once he left community college, he was drafted. ''I wasn't smart enough to have fear about it,'' Murphy told the class. ''I didn't have a clue.'' Wise, who was in the infantry, didn't want to go to war when he was drafted. His father offered to help send him to Canada. ''I took the easy way out by reporting for duty,'' he said. ''It takes a braver person. I let it happen to me -- I didn't have a plan. I gave up control.'' He warned the students: ''Please have a plan. Don't let others make plans for you.'' The YaYas, staffed almost entirely by high school students of color, work to make sure young people avoid falling into military service because it seems like the only option for advancement.

''It's either jail or the military,'' said Jeannel Bishop, a senior at Brooklyn's South Shore High School and a YaYa staffer. Many students at her school think enlistment is the best they can accomplish. When Navy recruiters visited her school recently, students were allowed to leave class to visit with them. Bishop brought pamphlets and confronted the recruiters about their assurances of tuition and training. She pointed out to them and other students nearby that getting college money was a much more complicated and uncertain process.

''I was taking over their whole show,'' Bishop said. ''[The recruiters] were amazed.'' Three students who had been ''pumped up about the military'' had second thoughts after Bishop spoke. It took just a little information for them to have doubts, she said. Besides speaking out in their own schools, the YaYas hold workshops for teenagers and make presentations to PTAs. They encourage students to post literature in the guidance office and set up counter-recruitment tables next to military recruiters. Most importantly, they want young people to make an informed choice, Wagner said.

For instance, most students don't know that:

  • Two-thirds of recruits don't get any college money, according to the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors.
  • Most people in the military do not have time to attend college while in the service.
  • To qualify for college money recruits have to pay $100 per month for a year.
  • The unemployment rate for veterans is three times higher than the national average.
  • People who sign up with the Delayed Entry Program are told they can't change their minds, but getting out is as simple as writing a letter.
  • The enlistment contract is for eight years.
  • There are other ways to finance college, like federal financial aid, private scholarships, going to community college or joining AmeriCorps.

But educating youth is not just about these facts and figures, Wagner said. The war in Iraq makes their work much more urgent, she said. ''They're still telling people you can go to Germany, Japan, but the reality is the vast majority are going to Iraq,'' Wagner said. ''You risk losing life and limb; you risk being a murderer.'' Giving young people a complete picture of enlisting rests on the courage and initiative of activists, guidance counselors and principals.

Often, the recruiters' sales pitches, brochures and posters go unchallenged. Many educators fear principals will retaliate if they speak out, Wagner said. Some schools are reticent to limit the military's presence because they think they will lose federal funding, she said. No Child Left Behind, the educational policy touted by the Bush administration, requires that recruiters and college representatives have equal access to students. This is often misinterpreted as unlimited access. Policy on recruiter access in New York City public schools is determined school by school and varies widely.

But some school districts have taken a more active role and regulate recruiters' visits. In Madison, Wisconsin, recruiters are only permitted to be in each high school three days during the school year. Their policy states that guidance counselors can distribute both military and counter-recruitment information. There is also no uniform, enforced policy in New York City governing opt-out forms, which let students choose whether to release their personal information to recruiters. Many principals, Wagner said, are not even aware of the opt-out form. Some schools give out the form, without any explanation and make no effort to collect it from students, she said.

Wagner said some students think that signing the forms will mean their information is not released to any institutions, including colleges. Other students, often immigrants, fear they will get in trouble for signing, she said. Currently, New York City students are often only given the opt-out form in the ninth grade, Wagner said. Because recruiters ask for eleventh- and twelfth-grade lists, schools should send out the forms each year, she said.

In Montclair, New Jersey, the high school sends a fact sheet with the opt-out form. Tenth-graders who have not returned the forms are called. If the form is still not turned in, it will be passed out the following year. Activists have discussed working on a New York City Council resolution to require schools to collect the forms from every student. Members of the YaYas and the New York Civil Liberties Union have met with the Department of Education (DOE) to discuss putting together an information packet for principals about opt-out.

Wagner said the DOE was receptive. Calls to the DOE were not returned. Local counter-recruiters also plan to make use of the recent Third Circuit Court's ruling that Yale Law School, which has a non-discrimination policy, can ban recruiters from its campus without risk of losing federal funding, because the military discriminates against gays.

However, without the help of the Department of Education or the City Council, counter-recruiters' efforts can only go so far. This frustration is evident in veteran Dayl Wise when he said that giving presentations, classroom by classroom, is like ''throwing grains of sand on the beach.''

This commentary first appeared in the New York Amsterdam News
Reprinted by permission

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Albion Monitor March 7, 2005 (

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