Boston: Counter-military recruiters take to the high schools

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And they say we don’t have a partisan press in this country? Yesterday two articles were published in Boston newspapers. One, in the Boston Herald, is essentially a press release for military recruiters on how they’re meeting their quotas. The other article highlights the growing counter-recruiting phenomenon as it manifests itself in Boston’s high schools. It’s quoted below.

From the Boston Globe:

When a shy, worried-looking Cohasset High School student told him quietly that he was thinking about joining the military, Bill Sweet, a war opponent visiting the school, launched his counteroffensive. Did he know how long he had to enlist to receive a signing bonus and tuition assistance?

No, the student said.

Did he realize he might be sent to Iraq? And did he think he could kill someone?

The student didn’t say a word.

“He didn’t have a good sense of what he was getting into at all, ” recalled Sweet, who coordinates the statewide Counter-Recruitment Campaign for United for Justice with Peace. “I told him military service . . . might not be all you envisioned.”

Just as military recruiters visit area schools, so do counter-recruiters, as they are known. By law, both groups have access to schools.

Over the past many months, the counter-recruiters say they have stepped up their efforts to warn teenagers of the dangers of entering the military during wartime. They accuse recruiters of glorifying military service and glossing over its risks, and want to give high school students a second opinion, a better-think-twice message.

“We tell them to ask questions. Think about the consequences and the alternatives,” said Kristine Piatt, a member of Milton for Peace, which has been counter-recruiting at Milton High School. Most students there are quick to dismiss the idea of enlisting, she said. But Piatt still worries that students looking for a way to pay for college or those without concrete plans after graduation could make a decision they will later regret.

“I’m not against military enlistment per se,” she said, but is opposed to how enlistment is sometimes presented to teens with few other options.

While military recruiters point to the benefits of service — professional training, money for college, direction and discipline, and the honor of defending one’s country — the counter-recruiters stress the dark side of military life. They talk about the prospect of being sent into combat, the potential loss of life and limb, of post traumatic stress disorder.

Counter-recruiting campaigns began shortly after the invasion of Iraq four years ago, and gained credence in the wake of a 2006 Government Accountability Office report that found that the number of alleged and substantiated incidents of recruiter wrongdoing had increased by 50 percent from 2004 to 2005.

Military recruiters deny they mislead teenagers, and note, pointedly, that it is the military that protects the rights of free expression that counter-recruiters enjoy.

“One of the reasons we wear the uniform is to defend everybody’s right to free speech,” said Major Winfield Danielson, a spokesman for the Massachusetts National Guard.

Noting Massachusetts enlistment rates that have exceeded expectations the past two years, Danielson said the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have not deterred recruits from joining the reserves. In surveys, enlistees cite educational benefits and patriotism as their main motivations, he said, evidence that they are not being lured by false promises.

“Anyone who thinks we’re pulling the wool over these kids’ eyes is not giving them nearly enough credit,” he said. “It’s not like we can hide the fact that there’s a war.”

Critics of counter-recruiters say that their message is overtly antimilitary and poisons teenagers against an honorable path of service, and that recruitment is essential for a volunteer military to maintain its ranks. A counter-recruiting flier, for example, states that “the image of enlistment as an honorable career choice must be challenged.”

During the war in Iraq, military recruiters have received greater access to public schools through a provision of the federal No Child Left Behind law, which requires that high schools provide military recruiters the same access as colleges and employers.

That access worries some parents. Sweet said growing parental concerns have made schools more open to counter-recruiting visits, and the group plans this fall to expand its visits well beyond its current 75 schools, mainly in the western part of the state and north of Boston.

Howie Altholtz, whose daughter attends Cohasset High School, welcomed the recent counter-recruiting visit. In his mind, it provided a balance to military recruiters’ flashy promotions and presentations that glamorize military duty and minimize its risks.

“Students should hear both sides,” he said. “If recruiters are going to be allowed in schools, students should certainly be presented with alternative views.”

But some schools believe that allowing counter-recruiters is inviting trouble, despite court rulings that allow them the same access as the military, particularly at events involving outside groups.

Milton for Peace made inquiries about a visit to Blue Hills Regional Technical School, a vocational school in Canton, but was denied. Blue Hills principal Jim Quaglia said that only groups that are discussing specific postgraduation options, namely college, job, and military recruiters, are allowed to attend the school’s college fairs and financial aid nights. The school has barred military recruiters from visiting during the day and from approaching students directly, he said.

“You have to be careful not to appear you’re choosing sides,” he said, “because it’s obviously a hot political issue.”

Cohasset High School principal Joel Antolini said he allowed the counter-recruiters in the interest of fairness and exposing students to a range of views. Several parents requested the visit, he said.

The No Child Left Behind provision also requires schools to give the military contact information for all students unless they specifically request otherwise. Counter-recruiters consistently mention this “opt-out” alternative to students, saying it is little known. Sweet said none of the 30-odd Cohasset students he spoke with knew about it.

In Scituate, the School Committee last month adopted a policy restricting recruiters to the guidance office and requiring that students get permission from a teacher before meeting with a recruiter.

“Students are very vulnerable to their message,” said Louellyn Lambros, a Scituate mother who lobbied for the new restrictions. “All the benefits” of military service are presented, “but none of the risks. And no one is giving these kids the other side.”

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