Fighters on Both Fronts

Fighters on Both Fronts

The number of Americans volunteering for the Armed Forces is dropping. While recruiters work to sell military life to recent high school graduates, a counter-recruitment movement builds momentum.

Military recruiters landed on the El Cerrito High campus almost weekly last spring, passing out key chains and inviting kids to submit their names for a drawing. The prize: a video game featuring simulated wartime combat.

It upset English teacher Roderic Ridgway that the military had access to the “pit,” a plaza at the center of campus, instead of Room 110, where most college recruiters wind up. It bothered him more when the Marines successfully recruited one of his seniors, Alex, with the carrot that he might join a special Marine troop if he passed a written exam and was willing to ship to boot camp immediately. Ridgway, who discusses the war in his classroom and supports student peace groups, was asked to sign paperwork to allow the 18-year-old boy to graduate early.

“I put it to the mom: ‘If you want me to say no, I will,’ ” says the veteran teacher, who has two small children of his own. “It was a very uncomfortable position. I felt a lot of sympathy for his mother.”

In the face of Alex’s enthusiasm for the offer, Ridgway reluctantly signed off. Alex failed the exam but landed in the Marines anyway. Now he’s on active duty.

More than two years into the Iraq war, enlistment numbers are down–especially for the Army and its reserves, the main fighting forces in the Middle East war. A recent wave of nationwide protests sparked by bereaved mother Cindy Sheehan will likely dampen these numbers further as skeptical parents counsel their children to avoid the Armed Services. By the end of July, the Army had signed up only 55,207 of the 80,000 soldiers it sought to recruit by October. Defense Department hopes of pumping up the Army force to 510,000 from 480,000 this year are quickly fading.

The Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marines–as well as the reserves for each branch–jockey to tap the well of high school juniors and seniors in schools, a job made easier by a provision in the federal No Child Left Behind law, which ties school funding to a requirement that administrators hand over the names and contact information of 17- and 18-year-old students. Although parents can “opt out” and decline to pass on their child’s name to recruiters, many don’t know about that right.

No Child Left Behind went into effect in July 2002 during a waning war in Afghanistan and impending war in Iraq. Volunteers for the military always dip when there’s an actual war at hand, so it’s hard to know if the easy access to personal information has helped recruiters do their job.

But it’s clear that feeding an all-volunteer force in wartime isn’t easy, even with a steady flow of names and phone numbers.

Numbers are down in spite of increased signing bonuses for new recruits (upwards of $30,000 for those with “high-demand” skills) and an influx of 800 active-duty recruiters to the 5,000-plus already on the job nationwide this year.

This summer 20 new recruiters were dispatched to the Bay Area to pump up numbers here. Each recruiter aims to sign one or two new recruits a month–often working 12 hours a day, six days a week to meet the challenge.

Closing a few deals a month sounds feasible, if you’re selling life insurance or time-shares in Maui. But selling teens on a job that may involve combat in a foreign country is not so easy. And in the Bay Area, where parents tend to ask pesky questions and teachers actively address the war in Iraq, the job is even harder.

In fact, the Bay Area is exploding with a self-described “counter-recruitment” movement as high school students join retired peacenik grandmas to challenge recruitment and oppose a possible draft. From the “Leave My Child Alone” campaign of the group Mainstreet Moms Operation Blue (MMOB), to “College Not Combat,” to local PTA efforts to educate parents about their right to opt out and keep their kids’ contact information private, the grassroots push against recruitment is significant and growing.

Student organizations are popping up to organize teach-ins on campuses, protests at recruiting stations, and conferences about counter-recruitment. Student organizers are setting up information tables (opposite recruiters) to pass out critical literature about military service and the war. Some adult activists are hosting house parties for parents interested in learning how to opt out of No Child Left Behind. A hotline counsels soldiers and offers further information to students and parents about pulling out of “early entry” programs (which allow a person of any age to sign up for deferred service at a later time).

It’s as if activists–deflated by the last presidential election and discouraged by a weak antiwar movement–have picked a fight they feel they may win.

“The response has been overwhelming–both in terms of students and teachers,” says parent Susan Quinlan, who coordinates Alternatives to War through Education, a project of the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors in Oakland. “People think. They question us. They question the Bush Administration and they certainly question the recruiters.”

Captain James Morgan, company commander of the East Bay Army recruiters, says he has a right and responsibility to offer the military choice to kids and their families. A veteran of the first Gulf War, Morgan tries to dispel the notion that recruiters are lying to sign up soldiers. He acknowledges recent media reports about recruiters making false promises, as in one publicized case in which representatives of the military vowed to help a would-be recruit mask a drug problem. But, he says, checks and balances are in place to ensure that rogue recruiters are caught and punished.

“Recruiters have the image of the used car salesman–not unlike reporters,” he says with a smile. “Our product is basically a way of life. We’re not selling cars.”

Apparently, the best way to sell a lifestyle is by phone. In the recruitment trade it’s called P-1-ing and it’s the regular drill at the Fremont Army recruiting office, where Staff Sergeant Colleen Handle is working the lines one recent morning.

Handle makes neat notes in a three-ring binder containing names and numbers of recent graduates from Newark Memorial High School. Next to each name is space for several notations: first call, second call, third call. Sometimes Handle’s red pen notes that the number is wrong or disconnected. Other times she writes, “Going to college, don’t call.” These notes are eventually transferred to a central Army database so that superior officers can monitor the work of their recruiters.

Handle is driven by her conviction that the military life is a genuinely good life that will work for regular kids who don’t get opportunities otherwise. She also wants to meet the expectation of recruiting one or two people a month because she likes her post.

Recruiters like Handle bank on the likelihood that parents will be more open to their high school graduates signing up for service when they grow weary of having them around the house. “Their parents are not putting them out now,” says Handle as she makes cold calls in June, just after graduation celebrations. “But come July, these kids will be sleeping late, leaving food out . . . .”

She raises her eyebrows and trails off. She says she deals with hesitant parents constantly, but tells them that she has to hear “no” from the child himself or herself. Handle is not apologetic about it. After all, she says, the law allows it and U.S. tax dollars pay her to get the job done.

Even when a young person does agree to come in for an informational interview, Handle says recruiters get a lot of “no shows.” When this happens she calls the house to remind prospects about their appointments and sometimes even goes to the home and knocks on their door.

Handle puts her heart, soul, and running shoes into the effort. She once recruited a girl who needed to lose 50 pounds to make it in the Army. Handle met her at the recruiting office several times a week for months for early morning workouts. Now the girl and her sister are both serving in the Army.

Sometimes, Handle says, she calls students just to ask how finals went or to congratulate them on graduation. This type of courtesy call bodes well for the next call, she explains.

“At least once a day someone hangs up on you or yells at you,” says Handle, a 29-year-old who signed up after college and has been stationed in Korea and on several U.S.bases. “Some days you’ll let it get to you and some days you don’t.”

The toughest job she’s ever loved? Like other recruiters, Handle makes no per-head commission. A little bonus for each successful recruit, she says, might motivate her to work a bit harder. On this day in late June, she is calling her prospect list. Near the phone sits a Starbucks hot chocolate, a bottle of water, and a jelly donut.

“Enderpreet? Not home, uh huh. What college? Oh Chabot. Will she be back tonight? Two o’clock? I’ll call back.”

Handle is delighted. “So now I know she goes to Chabot and the best time to call.” She writes these discoveries in the binder.

Handle makes other notes: She notices a Korean name (writes that in the binder) and prepares to pepper her conversation with some words that she picked up in Korea. She chats with a dad who explains that his daughter is off to U.C. San Diego. She talks to a younger sister who’s in the sixth grade and admonishes her to stay away from boys and focus on school.

She makes lots of notes in the binder but doesn’t score an appointment.

Handle, who’s got striking green eyes and a bob haircut, has been married to a fellow soldier (turned recruiter) for seven years and is in the first trimester of pregnancy. These days, she’s not working as many of the 60-hour work weeks that are routine for her counterparts.

Though she still longs for a shorter day and a longer weekend, Handle is sold on the military lifestyle and believes in her mission.

“My kids don’t know it yet, but they’re going to serve,” she says. “It won’t kill them to give two or three years back.”

Capt. Morgan is shining his boots outside Danville’s Army recruiting office, sandwiched between a nail care salon and a dental care office. The 34-year-old Morgan is the kind of guy who you’d expect to see in shorts and a baseball cap drinking a soda at a pizza place–not dressed in fatigues and a black beret. He’s affable and chatty, and not as “on message” as one might expect.

Inside his office, Morgan points to a color-coded map denoting the area’s hottest recruiting spots–most notably East Bay high schools. Other spots include shopping malls such as Hilltop in Richmond, where each armed forces branch has an office. He explains that some schools are more open than others to hosting military recruiters on campus. He says Berkeley High, for example, chooses to have an open forum where kids can ask questions of each branch of the military all at one time. Other schools, such as Newark Memorial, invite the recruiters to carry the flag for school events.

Compliance with No Child Left Behind legislation varies slightly from district to district.

In some, the only notice about their right to opt-out is embedded in the parent handbook provided at the beginning of the year. In other districts, parents must look for an opt out form in the paperwork that comes home in September. Still others have PTAs that educate parents about their rights and provide additional forms.

Some schools, such as Skyline in Oakland, have Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) that students can pick in lieu of regular physical education classes. Though Skyline’s Captain James Madison insists his program is about keeping kids in school and teaching them about civics and personal responsibility, JROTC programs are generally seen as feeding grounds for the Armed Forces.

While most districts use the standard opt-out form to allow parents to remove their child’s name from a potential recruit call sheet, Berkeley Unified uses a form (that’s not legally recognized) to allow parents to “opt in” if they want their child’s name given to the Armed Forces. As a result, instead of turning over the names of the approximately 2,000 eligible students this year, the district turned over some 27.

District Spokesman Mark Coplan says this policy, which the Berkeley School Board believes is following the letter of the law, is actually better for the military.

“Our tax dollars pay for them to recruit,” says Coplan. “I’d much rather give them 27 leads than 2,000 cold calls. For them it’s a better solution and it’s a better use of our tax dollars.”

So far, the district hasn’t been reprimanded or penalized for its policy.

In May, the Alameda County Board of Education passed a resolution to encourage its school districts to inform parents that they have the right to withhold contact information from the military.

“Many people are shocked when they find that their personal information is being given out [without their knowledge],” says Terri Hardesty, the spokesperson for the Alameda County Office of Education. She says parents should be on the lookout for the form as kids head back to school.

Congressman Mike Honda, D-San Jose, is sponsoring legislation called the Student Privacy and Protection Act–H.R. 551–that would, like Berkeley, flip the process to opt-in, requiring parents to explicitly request schools to give their child’s name and number to recruiters.

These efforts may not matter much when a new electronic rolodex of American teens, put together by the Pentagon and a private marketing firm, is ready for use. According to the Washington Post, the database–which had some 12 million names as of this summer–culls information from drivers’ licenses and other public documents to list phone numbers, E-mail addresses, grade point averages, and ethnicities for 16- to 18-year-olds and all college students.

If the binders and detailed databases aren’t enough, some wonder if a military draft might be in the cards. Numbers are down. Parents are skeptical. But the war continues to require fresh soldiers. So far most recruits come from relatively poor families.

Steve Morse, G.I. Rights Program Coordinator for the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors in Oakland, says the military is doing what it has always done: recruiting heavily from communities where kids feel like they have few choices, economically and academically.

“We’re trying to say that the draft exists now,” Morse says. “There’s an economic draft and a back door draft.”

Quinlan, a parent of a 16-year-old boy and a 14-year-old girl, agrees. Although she’s helping students prepare for a possible draft by teaching them how to document their Conscientious Objector status (by building a file that shows a personal history of antiwar sentiments), she’s more focused on bringing veterans to schools where recruiters have free access to recruit students who may believe their choices are limited.

During the summer, Quinlan trained three students from Oakland’s Youth Empowerment School to be interns who talk to their peers about military service and alternatives, such as how to find college money and civilian jobs.

She says one veteran told students last year: “Dying for your country can be a lot easier than killing for your country. If you kill for your country, you have to live with it for the rest of your life, particularly if you find out it’s not justified.”

“I think it’s possible there will be a draft,” said Zamill Bonner, 16, a counter-recruitment intern from Youth Empowerment School (YES). “But I’d rather go to jail.”

“I’m going to run,” adds fellow intern Khalif Belser, 16, with a chuckle. “I don’t know about you all.”

Belser, Bonner, and their counterpart, Ruby Butler, 15, spent the summer making phone calls and organizing papers in the Oakland office of the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors. They also spoke to hundreds of fellow students at camps and in summer classes and began planning a fall conference called “On the Front Lines: Options for Youth in Times of War” to be held on October 21- 23 at U.C. Berkeley.

Last spring, at Berkeley High, students Rico Chenyek and Danielle Schnur helped to organize a massive teach-in. The event drew more than 500 students each period and featured veterans, pacifists, recruiters, and counter-recruiters. Aidan Delgado, a 23-year-old conscientious objector, showed graphic and disturbing war photos. An ACLU representative discussed student rights.

Chenyek and Schnur are part of a small school within Berkeley High called Communication, Arts, and Science (CAS), which emphasizes social action with a focus on “service learning,” putting knowledge into action, as opposed to charity work.

“I just hadn’t been active ever before or interested in our country and how it would affect me. But once we did this teach-in, I learned stuff can be done,” says Chenyek, 16.

The YES students said they hadn’t been particularly active before either. But something about this issue touched home.

Butler says she didn’t think much about the war or military recruitment before this internship. Now she’s angry about what she believes is misinformation given to young people to coax them into the military.

She worries that her peers might spend eight years in the service, being trained how to kill people.

“[Killing] will be like getting a soda or something,” she says.

As part of their internship training, the three met with a recruiter to hear his rap and ask questions. When the recruiter noted Khalif’s football jersey and mentioned that he might be able to play wide receiver in the Army and make money for college, Khalif was not impressed. He questioned the recruiters claim and wants to help other teens question such offers in the same way.

Not everyone who meets with a recruiter feels they’re getting sold a bill of goods. Army Specialist Korey Simmons, 23, says he was “living good” but not really going anywhere when he joined the Army in May 2003. At that time he was working at Home Depot in Fremont and supporting his young son.

“There wasn’t too much room to grow,” says Simmons. “The Army has definitely given me a lot of opportunity that I wouldn’t have gotten.”

Simmons, who now has a four-year-old son and nine-month-old daughter and is stationed in Texas, is a specialist who heads up human resources in his infantry battalion, meaning he pays soldiers and handles other administrative tasks. But he has also seen combat.

Less than six months after boot camp, Simmons was in Baghdad and says he’ll probably go back to Iraq sometime next year. He doesn’t deny he’s afraid, but says he knows what to expect this time.

“On a personal level, I’ve grown a lot,” he says. “Before going to Basic [training], you think you’re limited. But in Basic, you don’t have an option. You go in and do it. It motivates you. It’s definitely a good experience.”

While some teens may have recently become active in the anti-recruitment effort, the anti-draft and conscientious objector movements go back decades. Adult volunteers–some of them parents–may have grown up in the antiwar movement of the 1960s and ’70s. Some have connections to the Quakers. Others are bouncing back from disappointment they felt over the results of the last presidential election.

Bobbie Steinhart, a member of MMOB and the project “Leave My Child Alone,” has two grown children and a four-year-old grandchild. A retired social worker from Children’s Hospital, Steinhart joined scores of people nationwide in June hosting house parties to inform people about the privacy provision in No Child Left Behind, explain the opt-out policy, and present form letters urging school superintendents to reject access for recruiters. Steinhart had high hopes that Democrats would win the last presidential election (she was a Howard Dean supporter) and was devastated by the loss. A month after the election she began devoting her free time to counter-recruitment and other MMOB issues.

“When we were out protesting Vietnam, I thanked goodness my son was not military age,” says Steinhart, who lives in the Berkeley hills. “Now I need to do something for my granddaughter.”

She says it feels good to be doing something with her anger about Bush Administration policies.

Volunteers like Steinhart focus on educating parents before recruitment has taken place, but others focus on families of teens who realize after the fact that they’ve signed up for more–or less–than they bargained for.

Chuck Vandagriff is an Air Force veteran and a G.I. Hotline volunteer working at the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors. He’s a furniture designer who began working with the Quakers ages ago. He says he needs to do something to challenge what he calls the “outrageous” policies of the Bush Administration.

For the past two years, Vandagriff has spent a few hours every Friday working the phones, answering calls from distraught parents or enlisted men and women. Some of the calls to the G.I. Hotline are from minors who have signed up for the “delayed entry” program, which allows 17-year-olds to sign up without parental consent, in anticipation of service after their 18th birthday. What Vandagriff tells parents is that they can get out of delayed entry by simply not showing up on the boot camp ship date. Once a recruit arrives, exiting the military is more complicated.

On this day, his regular Friday morning volunteer shift, Vandagriff returns a call to Maria, the mother of a new recruit. While he’s on the line, the other office phones are ringing incessantly. Some of the calls are routed to other cities where volunteers from veterans peace groups or the American Friends Service Committee answer the phones.

“Maria? This is the G.I. Rights Hotline returning your call,” says Vandagriff.

“He left to boot camp on July 6,” says the mom, her voice cracking. “But he doesn’t like it and he doesn’t know what to do and how to get out of there. He was crying, and [ever] since he was a little boy he’s had trouble speaking. I just don’t know what to do, sir. We found you on the computer.”

After listening to Maria’s story–a story he’s heard before–Vandagriff is not optimistic. Part of his job is to be straight with families about the choices and consequences. “The solutions available to him are not real easy,” he says over the speaker phone so that a volunteer-in-training from Santa Cruz can learn the ropes.

The mom is crying. “He left right after he graduated from high school . . . . He didn’t have a chance to think much about what he can do.”

Vandagriff, in a wool cap and khakis, explains that because her son went to boot camp, he can try to get out with “early entry separation,” which means he must show that he can’t sleep and that he’s depressed. It’s not easy to make this claim, says Vandagriff, because most people don’t like boot camp and officers are trained to pull recruits through, one way or another.

Activists claim recruiters aren’t always straight with the young men and women who sign up for service. They say promises of college money and specific job training in the military don’t always pan out. Military critics say 60 percent of soldiers don’t end up collecting any college money. This can happen for a number of reasons, they say: when a soldier gets a dishonorable or less-than-honorable discharge, and then can’t collect money, or when a soldier has to work after military service, missing a chance to use college money that must be used within ten years.

As for job training, some soldiers receive training in technology that is behind the times or not applicable in the civilian workforce. Activists say recruits who think they’ve signed up for a specific military job have a rude awakening when they learn that their mission can be changed at will, depending on the military’s overriding need.

The fine print is in Section 9b of the Armed Forces Contract from 2001: “Laws and regulations that govern military personnel may change without notice to me. Such changes may affect my status, pay, allowances, benefits and responsibilities as a member of the Armed Forces regardless of the provisions of this enlistment/reenlistment document.”

Recruiters insist that the terms of the contract are read and re-read to recruits throughout the process and that there should be no mystery about the commitment.

“For someone to say they joined the U.S. Army and didn’t know what they’re getting into,” says Handle, “they weren’t paying attention.”

In Fremont’s recruiting station, Capt. Morgan, the East Bay’s company commander, leads Justin Gearhart, 21, into a room dubbed “The Battle Room.” This is where the one-on-one recruiting shakes down, where recruits negotiate the nuts and bolts of their contracts and dream about signing bonuses and college money.

Using drugs, including marijuana, while serving in the Army is punishable by a dishonorable discharge, which would result in the forfeiting of college loan money and other benefits. Potential recruits are quizzed at length about drug use and a number of drug tests are administered before and during a soldier’s time in the Armed Forces. If a recruit tests positive on a drug test–”peeing hot”–they face off with officers like Capt. Morgan, who are charged with assessing moral character (after an infraction of one kind or another) and judging whether the recruit gets another chance.

“You came out hot for marijuana,” says Capt. Morgan. “What happened there?”

“I was thinking day to day,” says Gearhart, who tested positive for drugs at the Military Employment Processing Station (MEPS). Gearhart explains that he has smoked pot heavily for the past three years.

Morgan admonishes Gearhart, and tells him that he simply won’t be able to use marijuana from here on out. Morgan warns Gearhart that he could be put in a leadership position shortly after signing up and he has to be ready to take up the challenge.

When the captain leaves the room, Gearhart explains, with some urgency, how his stepfather favored his own children and put them through college, leaving his stepson to fend for himself.

“I had to figure out a way to do it on my own,” says Gearhart, who is attending Chabot College part-time, modeling, and helping manage a local band called Nexus. “I have to think about my future. I just woke up one day and thought, ‘I don’t want to be doing what I’m doing when I’m 25.’ “

Gearhart says his brother Kyle is stationed in South Korea and recently received a signing bonus of $18,000 to extend his time in the military. Several months before, Gearhart negotiated a contract with the Army Reserves that included an $11,000 signing bonus and a job in communications, which could mean repairing radios or tending satellite transmissions during active duty in Iraq or elsewhere. His bonus, job, and contract are now in question because of the drug issue.

Gearhart doesn’t really envision a tour in Iraq. He says he’ll do his time–one weekend a month for eight years–collect about $300 a month in pay, use the $20,000 in college grant money to attend Chabot without having to work for minimum wage at a sporting goods store. He’ll put his energy into becoming an actor–something he has wanted to do since the second grade. He plans to finish his education at a four-year school, perhaps in Los Angeles.

He wishes his friends and everyone else would just stop saying that he’s going to be shipped to Iraq.

“I got some fears on it,” says Gearhart, who has modeled for Banana Republic and Ralph Lauren. “But if I go, I go.”

Capt. Morgan signs Gearhart’s paperwork and gives the young man a green light for the Reserves. That’s one more for the Fremont station.

As Capt. Morgan heads back to his Danville office from Fremont, he stops by Borders Books to buy a present for a recruiter who’s taking another post and to grab a chocolate mint frappuccino from Starbucks. He talks about how his own mother in Portland, Oregon was at first upset about him joining the Army more than a decade ago, but then she watched him move up in the ranks and go to college. She now thinks he made the right choice.

Morgan talks about how his Army officers made sure he could immediately fly home through Kosovo’s snowy winter to be present for the birth of his youngest daughter.

The military life has been good for him, he says.

Recruiting, however, is particularly tough these days, Morgan says, with pressure from all sides. If it weren’t for his family, he says he might request active duty. “This is tougher than Kosovo,” says Morgan of his assignment. “This is tougher than when I went to Iraq.”


Andrea Lampros is a freelance writer who lives in Berkeley.

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