Defending the galaxy

Grand opening of new military recruitment center draws protests

Welcoming the steady stream of young people headed to the opening weekend of the new Star Wars movie was a giant black bounce-house parked in the dirt lot next to the Tinseltown parking area. The brand-new Marine Recruiting Office had inflated it for the grand opening of the new military recruitment center located nearby in the North Valley Plaza shopping center. The center also houses the offices of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Air Force Reserves.

With help of the sunshine and the amplified beats of event sponsor Club 96.7FM, the scene was magnetic. Kids were attracted to the toys, and a few young men and their parents were attracted to the Marine and Air Force info tables set up under tents in the parking lot.

Also attracted to the event was a handful of protesters from the Chico Peace & Justice Center, spread out around the perimeter and holding signs.

Zen Buddhist activist Lin Jensen sat silently, meditating cross-legged against the recruitment building during the low-key protest, with the 10 or so participants mostly letting their signs do the talking, with frustrations spilling over only in the form of questions posed to the event’s participants.

“Our goal is just to make a statement different than that of going to war and involving our country and ourselves in violence in order to accomplish our aims,” Jensen said. “My personal belief is very simple: War does not end war. The consequences of war are so great and so continuous that we have to seek some other way to do things. I’m opposed to the recruitment of young people to be sent off to either kill or be killed.”

Protester Caroline Kittrell, a Butte County social worker and a fixture at the long-standing Saturday-afternoon peace vigils in downtown Chico, saw the grand opening as part of a bigger problem of misplaced priorities.

“When we say we’re fighting terrorists, it’s like swatting mosquitoes, and we need to drain the swamps of poverty and injustice and what’s going on in the world’s financial system [the things breeding in the swamps], because we’re hurting other countries.”

The consensus for the showing, other than to express a general anti-war stance, was to call attention to what is seen as military recruiters’ misrepresentation to prospective recruits of the realities of service during a time of conflict.

Dick Gould, a retired Chico State counselor, said he saw no way to achieve peace by engaging in war and did not trust the military’s intentions: “I am aware that people have been recruited and given the idea they’ll get a free education, free career opportunities, and they end up in Iraq. They end up getting killed and maimed and psychologically damaged for life.”

The sentiments are reflective of a general image crisis the military is suffering as casualties continue to mount in Iraq. The military’s recruitment numbers have been taking a hit. The Army in particular is missing its projections, and it’s getting worse. February’s numbers were down 27 percent, and March’s missed by 32 percent.

Gary Stauffer, from the Army’s Public Affairs Office for this area, said that, “In Chico, they’re standing at about 80 percent of their mission for the year.”

Alleged recruiter improprieties currently under investigation, such as the case of the Houston, Texas, recruiter who threatened issuing a warrant if a recruit didn’t show up for a meeting, aren’t helping matters. In fact, Chico’s Army office skipped the grand-opening festivities due to a nationwide stand-down that very day of all Army recruitment centers for training sessions to reinforce recruitment policies in response to the investigations.

Gunnery Sgt. Glenn Blakey is the man in charge of the Marine Recruiting Office. In his pixilated-pattern camos, he assumed a command position under the Marine tent. “Things like today. … [It] just lets people know we’re here and what we’re about,” he said.

When asked about his thoughts on the protesters’ concerns, Blakey was understanding, saying that his recruiters are always up front about the possibilities of being deployed and adding, “War isn’t the end-all, be-all to answer the problems of humanity. The military for the United States is here to protect our freedom and democracy and to promote freedom and democracy.”

In response to the protesters’ presence on this day in particular, he dryly replied, “I’m glad I gave them the right to do that.”

Shortly after Sgt. Blakey uttered those words, however, the shopping center’s maintenance supervisor, Jim Temple, and a couple of security guards showed up and began telling protesters that they were on private property and that the owner didn’t want them to gather there. Pressed by Jensen to explain who had contacted the owners to complain, Temple replied, “the military.”

After discussing the matter with Sgt. Blakey, Jensen and the other protesters decided to respect the military’s wishes and move the signs out to the public sidewalk at the driveway entrance to Tinseltown.