Military Recruiters Are Now Targeting
by Karen Houppert
The Nation magazine, September
The US Army Recruiting Command has a motto: "First to contact,
first to contract." In the school recruiting handbook the
Army gives to the 7,500 recruiters it has trawling the nation
these days, the motto crops up so often it serves as a stuttering
paean to aggressive new tactics--tactics that target increasingly
To make sure they are the first folks
to contact students about their future plans, Army recruiters
are ordered to approach tenth, eleventh and twelfth graders--repeatedly.
Army officials spell out the rules of engagement: Recruiters are
told to dig in deep at their assigned high schools, to offer their
services as assistant football coaches--or basketball coaches
or track coaches or wrestling coaches or baseball coaches (interestingly,
not softball coaches or volleyball coaches)--to "offer to
be a chaperon [sic] or escort for homecoming activities and coronations"
(though not thespian ones), to "Deliver donuts and coffee
for the faculty once a month," to participate visibly in
Hispanic Heritage and Black History Month activities, to "get
involved with local Boy Scout troops" (Girl Scouts aren't
mentioned), to "offer to be a timekeeper at football games,"
to "serve as test proctors," to "eat lunch in the
school cafeteria several times each month" and to "always
remember secretary's week with a card or flowers." They should
befriend student leaders and school staff: "Know your student
influencers," they are told. "Identify these individuals
and develop them as COIs" (centers of influence). After all,
"some influential students such as the student president
or the captain of the football team may not enlist; however, they
can and will provide you with referrals who will enlist."
Cast a wide net, recruiters are told. Go for the Jocks, but don't
ignore the Brains. "Encourage college-capable individuals
to defer their college until they have served in the Army."
Army brass urge recruiters to use a "trimester
system of senior contacts," reaching out to high school seniors
at three vulnerable points. In the spring, when students' futures
loom largest, the handbook advises: "For some it is clear
that college is not an option, at least for now. Let them know
that the Army can fulfill their college aspirations later on."
Finally, recruiters must follow the vulnerable to college: "Focus
on the freshman class [there] because they will have the highest
dropout rate. They often lack both the direction and funds to
fully pursue their education." (Thus do decreasing federal
funds for college complement recruiters' goals.)
"The good [high school] program is
a proactive one," the sloganeering commanders remind. "The
early bird gets the worm."
Junior ROTC--A Vital Feeder Stream
The Army, which missed its recruiting
quotas in four out of the six months ending in July for active-duty
troops--and nine out of the past nine months for the Army National
Guard--is getting desperate. Still more than 16,000 recruits shy
of its 2005 goal, and with disaffected teens plentiful but skeptical,
the Army brass has added 1,000 new recruiters to pound the pavement--or
linoleum hallways--in the past year. New Junior ROTC (Reserve
Officer Training Corps) programs are being introduced in high
schools across the country, and lately kids as young as 11 are
being invited to join pre-JROTC at their elementary and middle
schools. The Army has increased its recruitment campaign budget
by $500 million this year, and it is slated to introduce a new
ad campaign in September emphasizing "patriotism." (In
the past, it has focused on job opportunities and personal growth.)
The Army hopes Congress will agree to a slew of new signing benefits
designed to raise average enlistment bonuses from $14,000 to $17,000
(with some recruits getting as much as $30,000 for hard-to-fill
specialties and some re-enlistment bonuses spiking as high as
Sometimes the Army gets even more creative.
On the sly, recruiters have helped high schoolers cheat on entrance
exams, fudge their drug tests and hide police records, as the
New York Times reported in May. The Times exposé
revealed that the Army investigated 1,118 "recruiting improprieties"
last year, ranging from coercing young people to lying to them.
It substantiated 320 of these.
That such tactics are deemed necessary
says a lot about the recruiters' desperation despite their extensive
opportunities to engage students at both the college and high
school levels. Recruiters' access to college campuses has been
protected since 1996 under the Solomon Amendment, which ties federal
funding to schools' willingness to permit recruiters on campus.
And the military is taking full advantage, especially at community
colleges, where students with fewer choices are more likely to
consider a military career. Now the military has gained free access
to high schools as well, under a little-known clause in the No
Child Left Behind Act. Nestled among florid tributes to education
reform and clunky legalese is a brief passage stating that all
public schools are required to share students' names, addresses
and telephone numbers with recruiters. "They have unrestricted
access to kids in the schools, cafeterias and classrooms,"
says Hany Khalil, an organizing coordinator at United for Peace
and Justice, a national antiwar coalition. "They've even
brought Humvees onto campuses to make the prospect of going to
war seem sexy and exciting."
And it works. Not necessarily for the
white doctor's son in the suburbs, who can see both Princeton
and a Porsche in his future, but for low-income urban youth. In
fact, the fewer alternatives a young person has, the better. "The
military recruiters are especially targeting working-class youth
and communities of color," says Khalil. "These are the
communities that don't have access to good schools or good jobs,
so it's easier to take advantage of them." Khalil's comments
are substantiated by Defense Department population studies showing
that most recruits are drawn from lower socioeconomic backgrounds,
that 43 percent come from the South (while only 15 percent come
from the more populous Northeast) and that only 8 percent of new
recruits come from families with a father or mother in the "professions."
On college campuses a different set of
tactics is employed--not always with enough care about the truth
of financial claims. "My son's recruiter told us that his
student loans would be paid in full if he joined the Army,"
says Kathy Allwein, an administrative assistant in Lebanon, Pennsylvania,
whose 21-year-old son was in his third year of college and constantly
worried about the $19,000 student loan he carried when recruiters
approached him in 2003. Relieved by the promise of financial help,
he immediately signed on the dotted line. After serving ten months
in Iraq, he learned the Army would not be paying his loans, because
although they were procured through the Pennsylvania Higher Education
Assistance Agency, they were not technically government loans.
"We didn't even realize the difference, to be honest,"
says Allwein. "For a long time the recruiter just told us
to be patient and the loans would be paid for. We've been very
patient, but when the bill collectors start knocking on the door,
it gets a little scary."
Deceived and disillusioned, the Allweins
are now getting mail from recruiters trying to sign up their 16-year-old
daughter. Fortunately, Allwein, who opposes the Iraq War, has
yet to answer the phone and find a recruiter on the other end
of the line: "I would tear them from limb to limb,"
Seeking to further push recruitment among
target populations, the military is expanding its Junior ROTC--a
longtime recruitment tool particularly popular in the South and
in urban minority communities. Describing JROTC as "adventure
training," the military is bringing it to ninety-one new
high schools next year. But JROTCs are already an integral part
of the formal curriculum in 1,555 high schools, in every state.
Taught by retired military--who may or may not have college degrees--the
instructors bring what the Army describes as "discipline,
leadership training, military history, marksmanship and rifle
safety" to 273,000 high school JROTC "cadets" today,
up from 231,000 in 1999. Forty-five percent typically enlist after
the experience. With the cost of the JROTC teachers' salaries
shared by the military and the school district, it's a win-win
situation: Cash-strapped schools get bargain-rate teachers for
a slew of additional elective courses; the military gets inside
the schools for one-on-one contact with potential recruits. In
some overburdened public school systems, students are involuntarily
placed in the program. Teachers and students in Los Angeles, for
example, have complained that high school administrators are enrolling
reluctant students in JROTC as an alternative to overcrowded gym
ASVAB--No Child Left Untested
To help high school students find "their
rightful place," the Army's standard recruiting tool is the
Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB). High school
juniors and seniors are encouraged to take this test to "identify
and explore potentially satisfying occupations." The Army,
which encourages high school career counselors to administer the
test--ideally, making it mandatory for all juniors or seniors--has
stopped spelling out the acronym in the past few years. Many parents
and students don't know what it stands for. Carefully described
in literature and on websites simply as a "career exploration
program," the ASVAB, according to the Army, is "specifically
designed to provide recruiters with a source of prequalified leads."
Further, "It gives the recruiter the students' Armed Forces
Qualification Test scores, military aptitude composites, and career
goals. It identifies the best potential prospects for recruitment
that allows recruiters to work smarter." It also provides
the recruiter with "concrete and personal information about
the student"--the better to contact him or her repeatedly.
"My son scored in the top 1 percent
of the ASVAB," says Lou Plummer of Fayetteville, North Carolina.
"When the recruiters got the scores we got almost nightly
calls for a while from the Air Force, the Marines, the Army and
the Navy." Plummer, an Army vet himself, encouraged his 17-year-old
son, Drew, to heed the recruiters' call and become the fourth
generation in their family to serve in the armed forces. "He
was an obviously very bright kid, but a slacker who was never
into school," Plummer says. "I thought this would be
a good opportunity for him to learn a lot." Plummer co-signed,
since Drew was under age, and just weeks before the terrorist
attacks of September 11, Drew joined the Navy. (Drew has since
been "discharged other than honorably," after publicly
protesting the US involvement in Iraq, being disciplined for disloyalty
as a result and eventually going AWOL.) Lou Plummer has become
an outspoken antiwar activist, and he bristles when he continues
to get calls from recruiters for his 18-year-old daughter. His
advice to similarly harassed parents? "Tell recruiters your
child is gay or lesbian," Plummer says. "I've heard
that works pretty well."
Meanwhile, confusion swirls around the
rules for recruiters. Though parents can sign an "opt out"
form that prevents schools from giving out information about their
kids to recruiters, and students can decline to take the ASVAB,
few families know their rights. According to Arlene Inouye, a
speech and language specialist in the Los Angeles Unified School
District and a co-founder of Coalition Against Militarism in our
Schools, it's not unusual for students to be strong-armed into
taking the test. "It's a voluntary test, but students don't
know that," she says, describing a situation in which students
at Fremont High in South Central Los Angeles didn't realize it
was a military test until they walked into the room and saw the
uniformed proctors. Nine students refused and were suspended.
Later, under pressure, administrators reconsidered and reinstated
the students. "A lot of people here are concerned about the
issue," Inouye says, "but don't know what to do about
Even those inside the military are worried
about such tactics, with critics suggesting that in the Army's
rush to fill its ranks, it is recruiting those who are ill qualified
to serve. (And weeding out poor-performing recruits just got a
whole lot harder; in the spring, Army brass moved the decision
for discharge up the chain of command--a transparent effort to
stop the costly hemorrhaging of marginal recruits.) The Army insists,
however, that this is not the case. "No, we haven't lowered
the enlistment standards in any way," says Army spokesperson
Douglas Smith. According to Army figures for 1999, 90 percent
of active-duty recruits were high school grads and 63 percent
scored in the top half of the ASVAB; thus far in 2005, 90 percent
are still high school grads and 71 percent scored in the top half
of the ASVAB.
Playgrounds and Parade Grounds
Today Chicago is the military's rising
star. Cementing its reputation as the public school system with
the largest military program, it grew last year to include 10,000
teen "cadets" in its elementary, middle and high schools.
Chicago has joined Florida and Texas in offering military-run
after-school programs to sixth, seventh and eighth graders; the
city's youngsters drill with wooden rifles and chant time-honored
marching cadences ("I used to date a high school queen/Now
I lug an M-16," etc.).
But in Chicago, as in other cities and
towns across the country, a coalition of indignant parents, concerned
teachers and savvy activists has formed in order to draw attention
to the issue. "The local school council was asleep at the
switch when the military after-school program was proposed at
Goethe Elementary School," says current Goethe school council
member Jim Rhodes, who successfully spearheaded a drive to eliminate
the program this year. "It didn't raise any red flags until
one of the teachers wrote an impassioned letter about how they
were marching with wooden guns and showing how attractive and
fun the military could be, to influence these kids to go into
JROTC when they got to high school, and then hopefully enlist
after that." Even beyond its efforts to seduce kids into
the military, Rhodes worried about its educational value. "It
was sold to the parents in a presentation as a citizen and leadership
program," he said. "But it ended up just being about
Undaunted by opposition to the military's
presence in the schools, Chicago, which already has two military
academies and a separate naval academy for high school students,
intends to add a second naval academy in September. The new, 600-student
Senn High Naval Academy will be jointly run by the Navy and the
city. In such schools students are typically uniformed, and military
bearing and discipline are required. Designed to promote discipline,
citizenship and values among troubled students, they are seen
as a solution to a problem for school districts and a pool of
potential recruits for the armed services.
JROTC spokesperson Paul Kotakis is quick
to clarify that the initiative to create such academies does not
come from the military. "In some instances, some academic
institutions have decided that JROTC is so worthwhile that they
have made it mandatory," he explains. "So when all the
students attending the school are required to attend JROTC, the
'academies' are created--and that is a decision made by the individual
school, not the Army."
But while school administrators, school
boards and politicians may be drawn to the discipline of the JROTC
academies, some parents make it a hard sell. When parents in Chicago
got wind last year of school board plans to open Senn, they mounted
a campaign to stop it. Troubled by press reports indicating that
18 percent of students in Chicago's three military academies join
the armed services upon graduation, hundreds of parents and high
school students crammed into a school board meeting to protest.
But the school board held firm. The members had the support of
Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. "I don't know why people are
so upset about this idea of discipline and this idea of military
service," Daley told the Chicago Sun-Times in December. "I
believe in military academies all over this city."
Recruiting Parents--The New Headache
Meanwhile, whether the Army solicits 17-year-old
recruits, who require their parents' signature before enlisting,
or those who've reached the age of majority, parents--or "adult
influencers," in Army parlance--are proving a serious obstacle
to recruiting goals. According to a November 2004 Defense Department
poll, only 25 percent of parents said they'd encourage their teens
to enlist, compared with 42 percent two years ago.
"For the first time, our recruiters
are having to really work not only with the applicant but with
their family members to explain why enlisting is important not
only for the applicant but for the country," says Army Recruiting
Command spokesperson Douglas Smith. When pressed by parents about
the issue of safety, Smith says, recruiters are forthright. "What
they can say is, the young man or woman enlisting is going to
receive very good basic and advanced training from the Army. And
that Army basic training is designed to prepare every soldier
with basic combat skills so they are trained to protect themselves
and their fellow soldiers if they're called upon." Recruiters
reassure parents that even though the nation is at war, the Army
hasn't shortened training or taken any shortcuts with gear or
weaponry. "But it's an emotional issue," Smith acknowledges.
"And we can't give any guarantees of safety. And we can't
say anything to lead someone to think there is such a thing as
a truly safe occupation in the Army." In the end, a plea
to patriotism seems best. "Ultimately, there is no answer
to parents but 'service to country,'" says Smith.
Thus the Army Recruiting Command both
tiptoes around the issue of a dangerous war in Iraq and simultaneously
insists that American parents need to face the facts and to ante
up their children. "What I think we've got to do is articulate
to the nation that we're at war, and this is a global struggle,
this is a generational struggle," Defense Department spokesperson
Col. Gary Keck told the Army Times in June. "It's
not going to be over in two years. It's going to be with us for
Of course, this message is the opposite
of the one the Bush Administration has been sending. Until his
June speech at Fort Bragg--in which for the first time he pleaded
for recruits by reminding "those watching tonight who are
considering a military career [that] there is no higher calling
than service in our armed forces"--Bush spent a lot of time
downplaying the sacrifices this war would exact from Americans.
The conflict between the military, which
would like Bush to turn up the volume by regularly reminding Americans
that we are at war and that war requires sacrifice, and the Administration,
which is concerned with the political need to minimize the war's
costs, is reflected in the recent linguistic debate over whether
to continuing calling the current state of affairs a "war
on terror" (President Bush) or to shift to broader, less
militaristic terms like the "global struggle against violent
extremism" (Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld). Though the
latter was clunky, it reflected Rumsfeld's response to the Iraq
War's decreasing popularity: to recast it as one aspect of an
international "struggle" against not just Al Qaeda but
all "Islamic extremists." The use of the term "struggle"
has the bonus of sounding less violent and more inclusive of nonmilitary
tactics. But just as Rumsfeld hopes to fudge things--we're not
"at war" per se, just "struggling"--a casualty
rate of 18,745 dead and wounded makes it harder to bury the cost
of this "struggle."
Historically, what has made Americans
willing to sacrifice their lives--or let their children do so--has
been the certainty that military action is both unavoidable and
necessary to achieve some greater good. Bush tried to make this
point in his Fort Bragg speech. "We live in freedom because
every generation has produced patriots willing to serve a cause
greater than themselves," he said. But the current "struggle"
in Iraq is a hard sell; and the current struggle to meet recruiting
goals reflects that.
Karen Houppert, an Air Force brat and
a New York journalist, is the author of The Curse: Confronting
the Last Taboo, Menstruation (Farrar,
Straus & Giroux) and, most recently, Home Fires Burning:
Married to the Military--for Better or Worse (Ballantine Books),
about military wives whose husbands have been deployed.
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