Chris Dugan, 27, signed up for his future hitch in the marines while still in high school. “I wanted to be hard and serve my country,” he says. “My grandfather was a marine.” Dugan was lucky enough to serve in peacetime, from 1995 to 1999. Included was a short stint as a recruiter for high schoolers like himself, patriotic working-class kids without a lot of options to pay for college, get job training, or find work. “These recruiters psychoanalyze you and pitch you a story,” he says. “They have a quota, and if that quota isn’t met, it’s their ass. They’ll do whatever they can to get you in.”
But now Chris is out—far out. He’s a master’s student at Hunter College and a member of the International Socialist Organization and the Campus Antiwar Network. And he’s a counter-recruiter, part of a growing grassroots national movement to keep kids like him out of Iraq.
The No Child Left Behind Act, passed in 2002, included a little-seen provision stipulating that all public high schools provide a list of students’ names, addresses, and other personal information to military recruiters. Douglas Smith, a spokesperson for the Army Reserve Command, says this provision is simply a matter of convenience. “It saves the recruiters a lot of research time figuring out how to get in contact with the students.”
But by the accounts of teachers, students, and parents, the officers in the pressed uniforms and shiny shoes are using those data to get more aggressive, particularly at poor and largely minority schools. At schools like Bronx Community College, they set up tables three or four days a week; at many high schools, they far outnumber college or other job recruiters. They call kids at home, show up at their front doors, and even threaten them, anything to get the kids to boot camp.
Activists report that one kid who signed up for delayed entry was told that backing out, which is legally allowed, would be desertion in a time of war, meaning he could be hunted down and shot. (Smith, the army spokesperson, said a recruit could be considered AWOL—less serious than desertion—only after going through all physicals and other screenings, and then failing to show up for basic training.)
On January 15 and 16, a coalition of local peace and student groups met in Manhattan to brainstorm ways to reach kids with the facts, starting with their right not to give up their personal info. “Schools are obligated to inform both parents and students of their right to opt out,” said Amy of Youth Activists-Youth Allies (Ya-Ya), which helped organize the weekend counter-recruitment workshop. “Different schools and districts are doing a different quality of job with that”—ranging from letters sent home to each student to a small classified ad in the local paper.
Ya-Ya has been meeting with high school officials, convincing them that giving recruiters “equal access” does not mean giving them free access to roam the halls and pull kids out of class. The group’s teenage members hand out flyers at area public schools about the dangers of signing up for an eight-year hitch. One of them is headlined “What Recruiters Don’t Want You to Know.” Others talk about institutional racism, sexism, and homophobia in the military, and false economic promises.
The army brags that it recently raised its top G.I. Bill award for college to $70,000. What the service doesn’t tell you is that 43 percent of veterans see none of this money. You must contribute $100 of your own paycheck each month for the first year in order to qualify. Speaking of checks, for an army PFC in 2005, the pay is $14,822 a year. Combat pay, for those in Iraq, is another $225 a month, more if you have kids at home.
Many of the counter-recruiters, not just the socialists, see their issue as one of economic justice. “Who does the military target?” asks Peter, a 17-year-old student at the specialized Urban Academy Laboratory public high school and a member of Ya-Ya. “Young men of color like me. People from the ghetto with no way out except the military. For me personally, this is about raising social awareness.”
With the pressure of Iraq, Afghanistan, and who knows what other looming commitments, the army is adding 1,000 recruiters to its staff this year, and the National Guard, which missed its fiscal year 2004 goal of 56,000 new enlistees by nearly 10 percent, is adding 700 more. The question on everyone’s mind is what will happen when shiny Hummers, free T-shirts, cajoling, and bullying aren’t enough. A Quaker woman at the workshop offered a how-to on conscientious objection—no church affiliation required.
“Students at Hunter have a vested interest in this issue,” Chris Dugan says. “We start out by asking them, ‘Are you under 27? If there’s a draft, you could go.’ “