‘Counter-recruiters’ shadowing the military
NEW YORK — The Marines didn’t have to recruit Greg McCullough. He signed a promise to enlist last year, while he was still in high school. But now McCullough has had second thoughts, and he’s talking to a different kind of recruiter.
Jim Murphy is a “counter-recruiter,” one of a small but growing number of opponents of the Iraq war who say they want to compete with military recruiters for the hearts and minds of young people. (Related story: For Guard recruiters, a tough sell)
“I don’t tell kids not to join the military,” says Murphy, 59, a member of Veterans for Peace. “I tell them: ‘Have a plan for your future. Because if you don’t, the military has a plan for you.’ “
Since the advent of the all-volunteer military three decades ago, the armed services have used an array of tools, from recruiting in schools to TV advertising, to successfully sell careers in the military. But with ground troops in Iraq still under fire, the Army and Marines are struggling to get enough enlistments.
The armed services need many recruits each year — the Army and Army Reserve alone need more than 100,000 — and less than 10% come knocking on the door. The rest must be recruited.
Anti-war activists such as Murphy charge that to fill their quotas, some military recruiters make promises they can’t guarantee, such as money for college or training in a particular specialty, and give misleading descriptions of military life.
Murphy says high school graduates don’t need to join the military to learn a skill, pay for college, see the world or learn discipline.
Building a network
Counter-recruiters formed a national network at meetings in Philadelphia in the summers of 2003 and 2004. They range from Vietnam War veterans, such as Murphy, to high school students trained to talk to their peers about enlistment.
The American Friends Service Committee, one of several peace groups opposed to what it calls “militarization of youth,” has prepared a brochure titled Do You Know Enough to Enlist? In a tip of the hat to the opposition, it’s deliberately designed to look like a military recruiting brochure.
Using a 1986 federal appeals court decision that supported the rights of draft registration opponents to equal access to students, the Los Angeles Unified School District teachers union has helped get counter-recruiting into some schools regularly visited by military recruiters in the nation’s second largest public district. The counter-recruiters make public address announcements, distribute literature, show documentaries and give classroom presentations.
In the San Francisco area, members of a group called the Raging Grannies dress up in flamboyant old-lady attire (big hats, long, flowered dresses) and visit high schools. They offer a selection of political buttons and make their pitch while students are choosing. Sometimes the Grannies sing peace songs and dance.
“When you kick up your heels, it gets their attention,” says Ruth Robertson, a 52-year-old Granny.
But in most places, the contest between military recruiters and counter-recruiters is a mismatch. The former are full-time, uniformed servicemembers; the latter are volunteers working on a small budget, if any.
While military recruiters often enjoy free rein in high schools, anti-war activists say it’s difficult just to get in the door.
Off school grounds
Eric Peters is an anti-war organizer in Chicago, where most public high schools have Junior ROTC programs. He says some administrators think counter-recruiters are unpatriotic, and others fear parental or public criticism. As a result, his group must distribute fliers off school grounds.
“Where the need is greatest, it’s hard to find groups committed to go into schools,” says Bob Henschen of the Houston Action Committee for Youth and Non-Military Options. He says it’s so hard to get permission to enter schools that he won’t say where his group has access. He says he’s afraid publicity would jeopardize the arrangement.
Nationally, says Maj. Dave Griesmer, spokesman for the Marines’ national recruiting command, counter-recruiters aren’t much of a factor: “We don’t spend a lot of time thinking about these people.”
A change of mind
Jim Murphy does not look like a recruiter of any kind. His untucked shirt covers a pot belly, his gray hair reaches his shoulders, and he favors blue jeans and windbreakers. But he has two credentials for counter-recruiting: He’s a high school administrator who knows how to talk to kids, and he’s an Air Force veteran who served in Vietnam in the mid-1960s.
When Greg McCullough met Murphy, he had already joined the Marines’ Delayed Entry Program, which allows high school students to sign up for the Corps before graduation.
McCullough seemed a perfect candidate. He was a member of the Junior ROTC honor guard at his Brooklyn high school. He loved everything about the Marines, from the lore to the uniform. After being rebuffed twice because he was too young, McCullough passed a physical and an entrance exam last June.
But McCullough says he has concluded, after talking with Murphy and other veterans, that military life is not for him.
For one thing, Murphy helped convince him that he could go to college to pursue his interest in criminal justice, and that there was no guarantee he’d get his request for assignment to military police. For another, he’s worried about combat in Iraq.
Murphy told him that even for Americans from the most violent neighborhoods, combat is a shock. “It’s gonna change you forever, and not necessarily positively. Think of all the civilians killed in Fallujah. You’re gonna see something like that for the rest of your life,” he told him.
“Poor kids listen to recruiters because they’re scared about what’s going to happen to them,” Murphy says. “They know they need to get out of the neighborhood, but they’re afraid to leave the corner. In the military, they know they won’t have to make any decisions for four years, and they’ll make their parents proud.”
But McCullough had signed up for the Delayed Entry Program, which the Marines told him was a binding commitment, and which Murphy told him was not.
Murphy gave him a form letter to send to the commander of the Marine recruiting station, saying he’d changed his mind and was going to college. Murphy told McCullough that the armed services don’t consider recruits to have joined until they go to basic training — “until they shave your head,” as he put it.
People like Murphy annoy Maj. J.J. Dill, commander of Marine recruiters in metro New York. “These counter-recruiters don’t know what they’re talking about,” he says. “But saying that we’re tricking and lying, that certainly has an impact on a young person. A lot of them are influenced by these counter-recruiters or by negative media coverage (of Iraq).”
Discussing their concerns
When he gets a form letter like the one Murphy recommends, he says, “We call the recruit in and talk about it: ‘What’s your concern? What’s changed?’ We generally have a good success rate at turning them around.” But, he adds, “We’re not going to force anybody to go to (basic) training. I will discharge them.”
McCullough, 19, knows he’ll get the call, but says it won’t do any good. He’s going to attend John Jay College and major in international criminal justice and Arabic.
He says he appreciates Murphy’s assistance: “Jim showed me the options.”
This school year, Murphy says he’ll counsel about 20 students. He’s proud of his record — he says that four years ago he got six students to change their minds about joining the Marines.
But, he adds, “I don’t always win. I lose a kid for every one I get into college or a union (training) program. I’ve got one in Iraq right now.”