Hell no, they won’t go

Veterans for Peace set up a permanent intervention outside Sacramento’s military processing center

George Main (in the foreground) and friends work the dawn shift, greeting a busload of new recruits.

George Main (in the foreground) and friends work the dawn shift, greeting a busload of new recruits.

Photo By Devin Bruce

It’s another day in the grind, and turnout is low, but that really doesn’t matter to the folks gathered outside the Sacramento Military Entrance Processing Station—just as long as their message gets out. Huddling in the 5 a.m. darkness are four members of Veterans for Peace, a Sacramento group that’s come to try to intervene in the last steps—literally—between remaining a civilian and becoming a member of the military.

In the darkness of an otherwise sleepy commercially zoned area off Northgate Boulevard—replete with business suites, a seemingly endless honeycomb of them wrapping back off Rosin Court—anti-war activists are hoping to start a small spark that eventually will catch on and turn public opinion against sending more troops overseas to what the activists feel is a pending disaster in Iraq.

The procedure this morning, known as MEPS (Military Entrance Processing Station), is a 10-hour-plus day in which recruits do everything from providing documentation to undergoing medical exams before finally getting sworn in as members of one of the four branches of the armed services.

While the quartet readies its signs and American flags for the incoming buses, a young woman in her late teens or early 20s approaches the station. George Main and Denise-Christine (no last name given) attempt to convince her not to join.

“What I want to do is go to OCS [Officer Candidate School],” she says. “And I think the Reserves is a good place. I plan on at least a 20-year career.”

“They can keep you there,” says Denise-Christine, who served 20 years in the Air National Guard. “Literally.”

Military life, they insist, is especially hard on women.

“The pictures they paint of dorm life aren’t true,” says Main, an Army veteran who served from 1969 to 1977, working as a Russian linguist in Africa and Germany. “There’s a lot of discrimination in the military against women. Let’s go with 28 percent of women who are raped in their first year.”

The woman nods her head.

“That’s pretty bad,” she says.

They talk for a minute or so more, and she leaves, exiting on a cordial note but unconvinced. She heads through the glass doors.

Two busloads will arrive this morning, and Veterans for Peace will form a sort of last-ditch sounding board for any lingering doubts. It’s an odd scene, with recruits coming off the bus and then walking into the station under the watchful eye of recruiters while Veterans for Peace try to convince them to think it over.

“We’re veterans,” says Pat Driscoll, holding a “Recruiters will LIE to you” sign. “Consider your options.”

Members hold up signs that say “It’s not too late! Delayed Entry can be canceled” and one with a phone number that says “G.I. Rights Hotline.”

“Think it over,” Main says, as the recruits amble off the bus, making the walk into the processing station.

Veterans for Peace have been at the facility during its Monday-through-Thursday intake of recruits since May 19. They say they will keep coming throughout “the summer protest season” and likely beyond.

Main, president of the Sacramento chapter of the group, who served in the Army during Vietnam, says morning turnout ranges anywhere from three to 20 members.

In mid-June, the group says, it convinced one female recruit coming off the bus to reconsider joining—and that’s when things turned ugly. On June 21, Main says, he started receiving telephoned threats.

“I got a call at 6:43 p.m. A guy just told me, ‘I think you are a coward.’ He mumbled and hung up,” Main says. “The next morning, he called again. He said we’re lying and causing trouble for the kids out here. He said, ‘I’m going to kick your ass the next time I see you.’”

Main believes the caller may have been a recruiter, but he really doesn’t know. He reported the threat to the Sacramento police.

While vets wait for the bus to arrive at around 5:30, various staff from the processing center materialize inside and outside the front entrance, some to take smoke breaks and others on unspecified errands to vehicles parked outside, or perhaps merely to keep an eye on the situation at hand.

On June 21, the Sacramento police showed up but determined that the protesters had a legal right to be there, says Cres Vellucci of Veterans for Peace.

“We looked at the code and really couldn’t find how it applied to us,” adds Vellucci, who served in the Army in Vietnam “taking pictures of generals” and doing other “flack stuff.” He refused to carry a weapon, though it was offered to him, because it would get in the way of all his equipment.

Vellucci also worked for The Sacramento Bee in the late 1970s, he says, blaming disenchantment with the blurred line between journalism and shill work for his decision to become a full-time activist. Vellucci functions as a de facto media consultant and legal adviser to Veterans for Peace and takes no small pleasure in befuddling would-be evictors of various activists.

“It’s always nice to tell them I served in Vietnam,” he says.

There’s no talk between the vets and the recruiters as both wait for the first bus to pull in, although the Veterans for Peace members appear pleased with their impregnable fly-in-the-ointment status here, at the very last step where recruits could possibly encounter someone to actively convince them to rethink joining the military.

As soon as the two busloads of recruits are unloaded into the station—there are no ship-jumpers in either batch—the MEPS staff gets to work processing them behind locked glass doors. Denise-Christine and Driscoll, holding their signs, continue watching the recruits for about 10 minutes, until an Army man comes over and closes the blinds on the windows.

Driscoll, a semi-retired software engineer, says he was largely “apolitical” until 9/11 and realizing what he believes are parallels between Iraq and Vietnam.

“We’re just asking for a 72-hour cooling-off period,” says the former Green Party candidate who lost a bid for Robert Matsui’s 5th District congressional seat in 2004. “It’s no different if you were gonna buy a house or buy a car; it’s a huge decision. We’re just saying let’s treat our kids as we would treat buying a house or buying a car. Let’s offer them the same protections.”

Personnel at the processing station did not reply to SN&R’s repeated requests for an interview.

Last week, the Pentagon disclosed that it had begun working with a Massachusetts marketing firm, BeNow Inc., to create a database of 16- to 18-year-old high-school students and all college students. The database, which sparked concern among privacy advocates, will include a cross section of information on potential recruits, including Social Security numbers, e-mail addresses, grade-point averages, subjects studied and, curiously enough, ethnicity.

Recruiter access even extends to high-school students’ contact information, as part of the No Child Left Behind Act, says Denise-Christine.

“As part of the act, the federal government requires schools to give [recruiters] kids’ info,” she says. “Schools lose money if they don’t provide students’ information.”

Driscoll figures that by forcing public sentiment against enlisting, activists will force the Bush administration to confront the prospect of a draft or pull out of Iraq entirely.

“The weak link in the Bush neocon strategy is the military. And so, we’re focusing on educating kids to their options, so they understand the military might not be the best place to go,” he says. “The families with their children are voting to not support the war. You can’t go to war if you don’t have the troops. So, what we’re doing is making sure that, from a military perspective, they’re not going.”