No recruit left behind

Operation Enduring Reality battles military recruiters for the hearts and minds of Sacramento high-school students

George Main gives students a brief history of cannon fodder.

George Main gives students a brief history of cannon fodder.

“The reason to have a military is to be prepared to fight and win wars. … It’s not a jobs program.” —Vice President Dick Cheney

“There’s over 375,000 people in the Navy right now, and they’re all making it work,” said Navy recruiter Steve Rosehill at the beginning of his 50-minute talk to a classroom full of seniors at the West Campus at Sacramento’s Hiram Johnson High School last week. “They’re all getting their college degrees. They’re doing their job. They’re seeing the world. They moved out at 18. They’re 22 years old, and they are in charge of $30 million pieces of equipment—so it does work.”

A few days later, George Main, Maria Cornejo and Don Knutson spoke to the same students—but with a very different message. Their talk marked the beginning of a new “counter-recruiting” campaign called Operation Enduring Reality, whose aim is to offer an alternative view of military service. Main, a Vietnam-era veteran who heads the local chapter of Veterans for Peace, described himself as an “American and a patriot” and called the military-recruitment efforts a “bait-and-switch fraud scandal that is not delivering what they are promising.”

In the coming weeks, several two-person teams from Operation Enduring Reality plan to visit high schools in Sacramento and Dixon as well as one Sacramento community college. During the next school year, they hope to bring their program to more local high schools. “We just want to bring the message of Operation Enduring Reality to as many schools as will allow us,” said Cornejo, a board member of Sacramento Area Peace Action.

Phil Pantages, a teacher at West Campus, invited both Operation Enduring Reality and the Navy recruiter to speak to some of his classes. “Our kids need to take a look at their arguments,” he explained, “and try to weigh them out and see if they make any sense with them.”

This was the first visit for Operation Enduring Reality but not for recruiters. The campus recruiters—like the glossy brochures in the counselor’s office and the slick TV commercials students see at home—all are part of the Department of Defense’s $1.9 billion-per-year program to persuade teenagers to enlist in the armed services. “We have the recruiters begging to come on campus,” said Pantages, “and they come on quite frequently.”

Rosehill is 27 years old but still seems very much in tune with an average high-school senior’s interests. He told students the Navy has a plan to for them to “move out and have your own place,” to “get your college degree” and “see the world.” In the Navy, he added, “you can do all of those at the same time.”

Rosehill presented himself as a prime example of the Navy advantage: “I have been to 11 different countries in five years. I’ve got about 90 college credits earned.” He explained that all of his college credits were earned through online courses. The 11 countries were visited while stationed on an aircraft carrier. He noted that the carrier remained in foreign ports for “a decent amount of time” (never more than a week) and that he always made it safely back to the ship before midnight.

Onboard, he said, they have “pretty much whatever you want: We have PlayStation 2. We get new-release movies that are in theaters. We get them on the ship and get to watch them for free. We get bands onboard the ship; guys can go and hang out. We have satellite TV.” As for the food: “We send all of our chefs to culinary-arts school.” He talked about basketball hoops and gyms to work out in and weightlifting contests. He noted his own physical transformation: “I went in, and I couldn’t do more than 10 sit-ups, and I couldn’t do more than 15 push-ups. By the time I left boot camp, I was maxing out my push-ups at 80. I was maxing out my sit-ups at 100.”

Rosehill mentioned several guarantees given to new recruits, including a “guaranteed job of your choosing” and $35,000 for college. “Everybody gets it,” he told them. He also said that “medical and dental is 100-percent paid for” and that the Navy has “some of the best hospitals in the nation.”

Most of the students who listened to Rosehill’s presentation already have been told about the advantages of enlistment; military recruiters are calling students at home. “They call about once a week at my house,” said one student. Of 34 students in one class that heard Rosehill’s talk, 26 had received phone calls from military recruiters.

Recruiters get the names, addresses and phone numbers of students directly from the schools. In order to qualify for funding from President Bush’s No Child Left Behind program, high schools’ administrators must give students’ personal information to recruiters. “It’s an unprecedented partnership between the Department of Defense and the Department of Education,” said Cindy Litman of Davis. “And it’s a partnership that is really creepy. I think it’s unethical, just incredibly unethical to do that. … My son has been getting recruitment information in the mail since he was 15.” In addition to calls and letters, teenagers get e-mail and are sent gifts like T-shirts, videos and computer games.

Litman is part of a group called Alternatives to the Military, which has successfully fought to alert parents in Davis about this “unprecedented partnership.” They also brought to light section 9528a(2) of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. The section, buried deep in the 700-page document, states: “A secondary school student or the parent of the student may request that the student’s name, address, and telephone listing described in paragraph (1) not be released without prior written parental consent.” The group worked with the American Civil Liberties Union and developed a simple legal form that can be signed by parents to prevent personal information from being released to recruiters. They also persuaded the Davis Joint Unified School District to send out the forms to parents at the start of each school year.

At Sacramento’s West Campus, teacher Pantages is aware of the “escape clause” in the No Child Left Behind Act but said, “I don’t think it’s a priority for the school district nor our particular administration to inform the parents. That information, to the best of my knowledge, has not been provided to the parents of the students we have at West Campus—although I think it should be.”

Students often are drawn to the military by the GI Bill’s offer of a free college education. However, today’s GI Bill is not the same as the one created 60 years ago. The old GI Bill, appropriately called the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944, was designed to allow GIs to ease back into society after the mass mobilization of World War II. But, throughout the years, revisions to the GI Bill gradually have reduced the educational benefits.

In 1985, a new GI Bill was crafted after five years of studies, experiments and test marketing; the primary goal of the new Montgomery GI Bill was not educational assistance but recruitment. A complicated, multi-tiered program that promised big money for college was set up to look attractive to college-bound recruits and their cash-strapped middle-class parents.

Enough years have elapsed since the passage of the Montgomery GI Bill for statistical patterns to emerge. Cornejo and Main told the students that two-thirds of all recruits never get any college funding from the military and that only 15 percent go on to graduate with a four-year degree. (New recruits have $100 deducted from their monthly salaries for their first year, and it is never refunded if they get less than an honorable discharge—one in five are booted out without an honorable discharge.) “You can get more from a Cal Grant than you can from the maximum for the Montgomery GI Bill,” said Main. “It’s more money, and it’s free, and you don’t lose four to eight years of your life.”

The counter-recruiters also critiqued the military’s job-placement claims, citing statistics that show only 12 percent of men and 6 percent of women actually learn a skill that they can bring to the civilian workplace. “There’s only so many jobs out there for helicopter mechanics, and you can’t get a job driving a tank,” said Main. He claimed women often end up doing “women’s work” while in the service and are often sexually harassed—or worse. Veterans-administration statistics, he said, show that 90 percent of women are harassed and a third are raped.

Cornejo used lengths of yarn to demonstrate the relative amounts of money spent on various government programs. With one inch of yarn equal to $1 billion, the length of yarn representing the $399 billion defense budget stretched across the large classroom and went four more yards out into the hall. In comparison, the length of yarn representing spending on health care for children was only a little more than one yard long.

As to all the promises from recruiters, Main said, “Ask the National Guard in Iraq about guarantees.” Main took out a copy of an enlistment contract and read several paragraphs, including a section that says: “Laws and regulations that govern military personnel may change without notice to me.”

“What that means is whatever you sign, they can just tear it up—it doesn’t count,” argued Main. “You’re government-issue; you belong to the military. You’re cannon fodder.”

Main then extended an offer to all the students to help them read through their enlistment contracts before they sign. He also presented a brief history of “cannon fodder” to the class, chronologically running down a list that included mustard gas in World War I, atomic tests after World War II, Agent Orange in Vietnam and depleted uranium in the Gulf and Iraq wars. He talked about the wounded and dead, both civilian and military. He mentioned suicide, drugs, alcohol and mental illness. He said one-third of the homeless are veterans.

Unlike Main, who talked at length about the situation in Iraq, Navy recruiter Rosehill would not give an opinion when students repeatedly asked about it. “We just do what we are told to do,” he said. “I work for the president; that’s my job. We’re protecting you guys and the freedoms.”

Rosehill did note the relative safety of being a sailor in the Iraq War: “I wanted to make a difference, but I wanted to do it from about 400 miles away—I don’t want to be shot at.” He explained that Navy ships are 400 miles off the coast of Iraq in the Persian Gulf and that only five sailors had been killed so far in the war.

Kao Saechao, a 17-year-old student who listened to both the Navy recruiter and the Operation Enduring Reality team, said, “I was kind of worried about college, about financial needs and stuff like financial aid. I was actually thinking about joining the Navy to help pay for college, but [Operation Enduring Reality] put down a lot of facts and really discouraged me from actually joining the Navy or something. I do want to go to college, but I don’t think the Navy is the right way for me to go about it.”

Civilian alternatives to military service can provide recent high-school graduates with work experience, money for college, travel and even a little fun and adventure, according to Knutson, the third member of the Operation Enduring Reality team. AmeriCorps, a public-service organization begun in 1993, offers only a minimum wage, but after one year, members can get a $4,725 grant for college. They also can get some valuable experience by building affordable housing, teaching computer skills, running after-school programs or cleaning up the environment—and they can do it anywhere in the country.

Knutson talked about his own experience with AmeriCorps a few years ago. He said it was “amazing” how AmeriCorps volunteers organized a project that resulted in getting fresh coats of paint on seven houses belonging to elderly people in Oak Park. Knutson also mentioned the Job Corps and said that the California Conservation Corps was a great way to work in the outdoors.

Sixteen-year-old David Woodward, who is skeptical of both recruiters and Operation Enduring Reality, concluded, “I think it’s good to see both sides.” He is considering joining the military but says he’ll be careful about signing any enlistment contract: “You should use a keen eye when you sign things.”