In the trenches
Chico High junior finds there’s more to military recruitment than meets the eye
Tania Flores just started her junior year at Chico High, but instead of bringing in pictures of a summer spent on the beach or at sports camp, she will be telling friends about the U.S. military.
No, she didn’t enlist.
Quite the opposite, actually. She and 19 other high schoolers from Northern California were part of an ACLU youth activist program, and they were charged with learning about U.S. military recruitment, particularly recruitment aimed at those in their age group.
Tania, a petite 16-year-old who enjoys flamenco dancing, may not fit the military mold. But she’s experienced first-hand the recruitment that goes on at high school campuses.
“My freshman year, they [military recruiters] had a much larger presence at Chico High,” Tania said. “They would just walk around.” A particularly memorable experience included a huge bounce house, with music in the quad. To join the fun, students had to sign a liability waiver—and provide plenty of personal information. “Parents got mad, and since then they [recruiters] have had less freedom at Chico High.”
Last year, the recruiters were in the career center about once every two weeks, Tania recalled.
The ACLU program—called the Friedman Youth Project—included summer reading and short workshops, and culminated in a weeklong camp. Each year the Friedman Youth Project tackles a different topic. This year’s study of the myths and truths behind military recruitment was chosen in part because the armed forces have been unable to meet their enlistment goals, program director Eveline Chang said in a news release.
“We are especially concerned about the reports of abuse and misrepresentations by military recruiters,” she said. “Young people are not getting the full story.”
In addition, with the No Child Left Behind act, schools are required to turn over student contact information to military recruiters if it is requested. Schools offer an “opt-out” form, but it means parents must be diligent so that their child’s information is not given out.
During the weeklong program, held Aug. 5-12, students heard from parents who had lost children in Iraq. They talked to military recruiters—and to a former recruiter. They toured Camp Pendleton Marine Base in Southern California. They also learned the lingo and the differences among the branches of service. And more than just teaching and exposing the youth activists to military life, the program challenged them right down to their moral cores.
Questions during one session required the teens to answer by standing in designated areas marked with “yes,” “no” or “maybe.” One question asked, “If you or your family were being threatened by someone, and could die, would you kill that person?”
“It really made us re-examine our values,” Tania said. “Plus we had to deal with peer pressure—there was one question where I was the only person who said ‘no.’ It was really hard.”
Recruiters, and even television ads for the military, take advantage of young people’s desire for anything from making money to paying their way through college to finding adventure, Tania learned. And they don’t even have to tell the truth—as evidenced by a disclaimer on enlistment papers saying that nothing the recruiter said is binding.
Two of the teens were able to talk to recruiters as if they were thinking about enlisting. Even the decision as to who should go among the 20 was difficult.
“We had to think about race, ethnicity, how they would perceive someone as maybe being an immigrant,” Tania said. “Plus, African-American enrollment is plummeting.”
A boy named Berto went to a Navy recruitment office, accompanied by one of the group’s chaperones. Upon returning to the group, Tania said, “Berto told us: ‘If [the chaperone] hadn’t been with me, I might have signed up. And I know all this stuff already—but he made it sound so good.’ “
The story Berto got, it turned out, was different from what recruiters told the group.
“It was fascinating,” Tania said. “The contrast between what they told us [as a group] and what they told the individual students was amazing.”
Berto, for example, asked the Navy recruiter if he could join even if he had a drug problem. “We’ll just keep that in here—nobody has to know,” the recruiter responded, according to Berto. When the group visited and asked the same question, the recruiter’s reply was quite different: “The Navy has zero tolerance—we would absolutely not accept someone with a drug problem.”
In recounting her experiences, Tania was animated. The well-spoken teen had learned a lot—and her emotions had been sent reeling.
While sharing the story of a mother whose son had joined the service to find adventure and freedom, tears came to Tania’s eyes. The mother had received an e-mail from her son one day, saying, “Don’t worry about me, Mom. I don’t have any intention of dying over here, in a foreign country.” The next day there was a knock on her door. Her son had been killed.
“It was so powerful because when you’re watching the news you see all these numbers, but you never stop to realize that these are people,” Tania said. “We had to write in our journals that night. I wrote about how painful it must be to bury your own son and how this whole cycle of life is coming to an end.
“She brought him into this world to give him life, and he died in a place that’s a total destruction of life.”
Tania’s own mother, Leslie Layton, looked back at her daughter’s experience with expectations exceeded.
“I don’t know if it made any dramatic difference in her political beliefs, but I think it reinforced them,” she said, “and it gave her a much better idea of how things work, and a very compassionate view of people who are serving in this war.
“She came out of it with a better idea of complexities and a greater understanding of why people go into the military and what kinds of experiences they have and what they come out of it with, from the good stuff to the bad stuff.”
In the coming months, Tania and her peers will put together a multimedia project with their findings. Judging by Tania’s tears and the emotion with which she spoke, that will be no simple task.
Military recruitment is no longer an abstract idea—it just got personal. And there’s a whole lot more to it than most people know.
“It’s so easy to see things in black and white,” Tania said. “But there’s so much gray area. These issues are so complicated.”