Growing Problem for Military Recruiters: Parents
Rachel Rogers, a single mother of four in upstate New York, did not worry about the presence of National Guard recruiters at her son’s high school until she learned that they taught students how to throw hand grenades, using baseballs as stand-ins. For the last month she has been insisting that administrators limit recruiters’ access to children.
Orlando Terrazas, a former truck driver in Southern California, said he was struck when his son told him that recruiters were promising students jobs as musicians. Mr. Terrazas has been trying since September to hang posters at his son’s public school to counter the military’s message.
Meanwhile, Amy Hagopian, co-chairwoman of the Parent-Teacher-Student Association at Garfield High School in Seattle, has been fighting against a four-year-old federal law that requires public schools to give military recruiters the same access to students as college recruiters get, or lose federal funding. She also recently took a few hours off work to stand beside recruiters at Garfield High and display pictures of injured American soldiers from Iraq.
“We want to show the military that they are not welcome by the P.T.S.A. in this building,” she said. “We hope other P.T.S.A.’s will follow.”
Two years into the war in Iraq, as the Army and Marines struggle to refill their ranks, parents have become boulders of opposition that recruiters cannot move.
Mothers and fathers around the country said they were terrified that their children would have to be killed – or kill – in a war that many see as unnecessary and without end.
Around the dinner table, many parents said, they are discouraging their children from serving.
At schools, they are insisting that recruiters be kept away, incensed at the access that they have to adolescents easily dazzled by incentive packages and flashy equipment.
A Department of Defense survey last November, the latest, shows that only 25 percent of parents would recommend military service to their children, down from 42 percent in August 2003.
“Parents,” said one recruiter in Ohio who insisted on anonymity because the Army ordered all recruiters not to talk to reporters, “are the biggest hurdle we face.”
Legally, there is little a parent can do to prevent a child over 18 from enlisting. But in interviews, recruiters said that it was very hard to sign up a young man or woman over the strong objections of a parent.
The Pentagon – faced with using only volunteers during a sustained conflict, an effort rarely tried in American history – is especially vexed by a generation of more activist parents who have no qualms about projecting their own views onto their children.
Lawrence S. Wittner, a military historian at the State University of New York, Albany, said today’s parents also had more power.
“With the draft, there were limited opportunities for avoiding the military, and parents were trapped, reduced to draft counseling or taking their children to Canada,” he said. “But with the volunteer armed force, what one gets is more vigorous recruitment and more opportunities to resist.”
Some of that opportunity was provoked by the very law that was supposed to make it easier for recruiters to reach students more directly. No Child Left Behind, which was passed by Congress in 2001, requires schools to turn over students’ home phone numbers and addresses unless parents opt out. That is often the spark that ignites parental resistance.
Recruiters, in interviews over the past six months, said that opposition can be fierce. Three years ago, perhaps 1 or 2 of 10 parents would hang up immediately on a cold call to a potential recruit’s home, said a recruiter in New York who, like most others interviewed, insisted on anonymity to protect his career. “Now,” he said, “in the past year or two, people hang up all the time. “
Several recruiters said they had even been threatened with violence.
“I had one father say if he saw me on his doorstep I better have some protection on me,” said a recruiter in Ohio. “We see a lot of hostility.”
Military officials are clearly concerned. In an interview last month, Maj. Gen. Michael D. Rochelle, commander of Army recruiting, said parental resistance could put the all-volunteer force in jeopardy. When parents and other influential adults dissuade young people from enlisting, he said, “it begs the question of what our national staying power might be for what certainly appears to be a long fight.”
In response, the Army has rolled out a campaign aimed at parents, with television ads and a Web site that includes videos of parents talking about why they supported their children’s decision to enlist. General Rochelle said that it was still too early to tell if it is making a difference.
But Col. David Slotwinski, a former chief of staff for Army recruiting, said that the Army faced an uphill battle because many baby boomer parents are inclined to view military service negatively, especially during a controversial war.
“They don’t realize that they have a role in helping make the all-volunteer force successful,” said Colonel Slotwinski, who retired in 2004. “If you don’t, you’re faced with the alternative, and the alternative is what they were opposed to the most, mandatory service.”
Many of the mothers and fathers most adamant about recruitment do have a history of opposition to Vietnam. Amy Hagopian, 49, a professor of public health at the University of Washington, and her husband, Stephen Ludwig, 57, a carpenter, said that they and many parents who contest recruiting at Garfield High in Seattle have a history of antiwar sentiment and see their efforts as an extension of their pacifism.
But, he added, parents are also reacting to what they see as the military’s increased intrusion into the lives of their children.
“The recruiters are in your face, in the library, in the lunchroom,” he said. “They’re contacting the most vulnerable students and recruiting them to go to war.”
The access is legally protected. As recently as 2000, said one former recruiter in California, it was necessary to dig through the trash at high schools and colleges to find students’ names and phone numbers. But No Child Left Behind mandates that school districts can receive federal funds only if they grant military recruiters “the same access to secondary school students” as is provided to colleges and employers.
So although the Garfield P.T.S.A. voted last month to ban military recruiters from the school and its 1,600 students, the Seattle school district could not sign on to the idea without losing at least $15 million in federal education funds.
“The parents have chosen to take a stand, but we still have to comply with No Child Left Behind,” said Peter Daniels, communications director for the district. In Whittier, a city of 85,000 10 miles southeast of East Los Angeles, about a dozen families last September accused the district of failing to properly advise parents that they had the right to deny recruiters access to their children’s personal information.
Mr. Terrazas, 51, the father of a Whittier High School junior, said the notification was buried among other documents in a preregistration packet sent out last summer.
“It didn’t say that the military has access to students’ information,” he said. “It just said to write a letter if you didn’t want your kid listed in a public directory.”
A few years ago, after Sept. 11, the issue might not have gotten Mr. Terrazas’s attention. His father served in World War II, his brother in Vietnam, and he said that he had always supported having a strong military able to defend the country.
But after the war in Iraq yielded no weapons of mass destruction, and as the death toll has mounted, he cannot reconcile the pride he feels at seeing marines deliver aid after the tsunami in Asia with his concern over the effort in Baghdad, he said.
“Because of the situation we’re in now, I would not want my son to serve,” he said. “It’s the policy that I’m against, not the military.”
After Mr. Terrazas and several other parents expressed their concern about the school’s role in recruitment, the district drafted a new policy. On May 23, it introduced a proposed opt-out form for the district’s 14,000 students.
The form, said Ron Carruth, Whittier’s assistant superintendent, includes an explanation of the law, and boxes that parents can check to indicate they do not want information on their child released to either the military, colleges, vocational schools or other sources of recruitment. Mr. Carruth said that next year the district would also prohibit all recruiters from appearing in classrooms, and keep the military ones from bringing equipment like Humvees onto school grounds, a commonly used recruitment tool.
He said that some of the information from the 11-by-17-inch poster that Mr. Terrazas sought to post, including how to verify recruiters’ claims about financial benefits, will be part of a pamphlet created by the school for students.
And at least a dozen other districts in the area, Mr. Carruth added, up from three in November, are considering similar plans.
Unlike Mr. Terrazas, Ms. Rogers, 37, of High Falls in the upper Hudson Valley, had not thought much about the war before she began speaking out in her school district. She had been “politically apathetic,” she said. She did not know about No Child Left Behind’s reporting requirements, nor did she opt out.
When her son, Jonah, said he was thinking of sitting out a gym class that was to be led by National Guard recruiters, Ms. Rogers, who works part time as a clerk at the local motor vehicles office and receives public assistance, said she told him not to be “a rebel without a cause.”
“In this world,” she recalled telling him, “we need a strong military.”
But then she heard from her son that the class was mandatory, and that recruiters were handing out free T-shirts and key chains – “Like, ‘Hey, let’s join the military. It’s fun,’ ” she said.
First she called the Rondout Valley High School to complain about the “false advertising,” she said, then her congressman.
On May 24, at the first school board meeting since the gym class, she read aloud from a recruiting handbook that advised recruiters on ways to gain maximum access to schools, including offering doughnuts. A high school senior, Katie Coalla, 18, stood up at one point and tearfully defended the recruiters, receiving applause from the crowd of about 70, but Ms. Rogers persisted.
“Pulling in this need for heartstrings patriotic support is clouding the issue,” she said. “The point is not whether I support the troops. It’s about whether a well-organized propaganda machine should be targeted at children and enforced by the schools.”