Tug of war

In August, a Placer County teenager will begin a tour in the Army that may place him in war-torn Iraq. Can a Vietnam veteran talk him out of it?

Eric Salmonon heads to boot camp in August—unless Veterans for Peace can change his mind.

Eric Salmonon heads to boot camp in August—unless Veterans for Peace can change his mind.

Photo Illustration by Don Button and Larry Dalton

Eric Salmonon gives nothing away. For the past hour, two members of Veterans for Peace have been attempting to persuade the 17-year-old Placer High School senior to abandon his plans to report for active duty with the U.S. Army this August. On a chilly winter morning outside the Starbucks in Colfax, they tell him the Army has no intention of honoring the promises made to him by his recruiter. There’ll be no training that leads to a professional career, no cushy stateside assignment. In all likelihood, they explain, he’ll be sent to Iraq, Afghanistan or some other godforsaken outpost in the War on Terror, where he may have to kill innocent civilians, risk being killed himself or, at best, return home emotionally scarred for life.

If Salmonon believes any of what they’re saying, he isn’t letting on. Six-foot-6-inches with gawky, coltish limbs and a blemished pale complexion, he sits stoically in a patio chair, poker-faced, a blank slate. He listens attentively but rarely speaks; when he does talk, it’s in a halting whisper that hints at a shy, uncertain teen beneath the placid exterior. Two black rubber wristbands, fashionable accessories provided by the Army recruiter in Auburn, adorn his right wrist. One reads “call to duty”; the other “honor the fallen.” Although he says he’s still willing to be persuaded otherwise, Salmonon intends to fulfill his commitment to the Army’s delayed-enlistment program by reporting for boot camp in August.

That’s why Scott Johnson and Dan Buckley, two members of the Auburn chapter of Veterans for Peace, are fervently attempting to convince the high-schooler that he’s making a mistake. Johnson is one of the nationwide activist organization’s many civilian members and the local chapter’s secretary; Buckley is a battle-hardened Vietnam vet who, like many of his comrades, suffers from PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder. In addition to protest activities that have placed both men, along with other local members of Veterans for Peace, on a Pentagon terrorist watch list, they frequent schools throughout Placer County, countering the efforts of local military recruiters to fashion today’s students into tomorrow’s heroes—or, as Johnson and Buckley might put it, tomorrow’s cannon fodder.

There’s no question that military service has become increasingly dangerous since the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. A grim reminder came on Christmas Day, when the number of U.S. casualties exceeded the 2,973 people killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The U.S. death toll currently stands at 3,006; more than 22,000 soldiers have been wounded in action. It’s even more hazardous to be Iraqi. Estimates of the number of Iraqis killed in the war so far range from a minimum of 52,000, a number based on deaths reported in newspapers, to the high of 655,000 reported in a statistical survey conducted by the British medical journal the Lancet last July.

Yet Salmonon seems unconcerned with the risk to life and limb that service in the Army presents. Although he believes the United States invaded Iraq without just cause and that killing other human beings is morally wrong, he sees no contradiction between those beliefs and his pending enlistment. As a mental-health specialist, his chosen military occupational specialty, or MOS, he’s convinced that he’ll be helping treat patients in a hospital far from the dangers of the battlefield. His recruiter has sold him on the notion that military service is like an ordinary job.

“The recruiter said it’s guaranteed,” he says in the chilly air outside Starbucks. “You work pretty much nine to five, have nights and weekends off.”

“That’s unadulterated bullshit,” Buckley says, shaking his head in disbelief. He tells Salmonon that it’s highly unlikely he’ll be assigned stateside, let alone in a hospital helping patients. Johnson repeatedly points out the clause in Salmonon’s delayed-enlistment contract that states that the Army can reassign him as it sees fit. Both men stress that the most likely scenario is that the Army will send him where it needs help the most: Iraq, directly into harm’s way.

“They’re going to tell you to suck it up and deal with it,” Buckley says, “if you even get that.”

If he’s buying any of it, Salmonon isn’t letting on. Later, after the meeting at Starbucks, I stop by the recruiting station in Auburn to see exactly what the new recruit was promised. The station commander, Sgt. 1st Class Will Campos, won’t let me question Salmonon’s recruiter directly. I ask Campos if Johnson and Buckley are correct, that Salmonon very well could be sent to Iraq. The wiry, buzz-cut sergeant, a native of El Salvador with nearly 16 years in the Army, fairly bristles at the question.

“I don’t have a crystal ball,” he scoffs. “Do you?”

Filling in the blank slate
No one can say exactly what the future has in store. But anyone within the vicinity of a television set the past several months could hazard a guess that the Bush administration believes the United States desperately needs more troops to fight the War on Terror, generally, and the war in Iraq, specifically. As this story goes to press, President Bush is set to propose immediately increasing the number of soldiers serving in Iraq by as many as 30,000 troops, a “surge” designed to thwart a civil war many observers say is already beyond control. This so-called surge is supposedly only temporary, but, just in case, the administration has floated the idea of permanently increasing the size of America’s fighting force to combat the nebulous, never-ending War on Terror in the long term.

Some politicians, most notably Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., have proposed reinstating the draft to meet the military’s increased demand for bodies. Rangel, a Bush administration critic, hopes to galvanize public support against the war with the proposal, but at the present moment neither Republicans nor Democrats seem particularly keen on bringing back the draft, which was halted in 1973 and remains a political third rail. Still, a substantial number of Americans aren’t inclined to trust politicians on the issue. In a recent Associated Press-AOL News poll on predictions for 2007, 35 percent of the people polled said the draft probably would be reinstated this year.

Until then, the options for increasing the number of boots on the ground in Iraq are limited to extending enlistments beyond the contractually agreed-upon term through use of the stop-loss policy, shortening the time period soldiers are rotated in and out of the war theater, and by sending new recruits to the front sooner than normal, in some cases before they’ve received MOS training. In fact, all these options currently are being exercised to the extent that many experts believe the Army has been stretched near its breaking point. If Congress grants President Bush the sought-after escalation in troops, Salmonon could conceivably be sent to Iraq after he completes boot camp in October.

Working-class kids like Salmonon are the blood and guts of the all-volunteer military, and recruiters are given an array of tools to draw them into the fold, from a sense of patriotic duty to $40,000 cash-enlistment bonuses to alleged dream jobs unavailable in the real world without years of training. For instance, in high school Salmonon developed an interest in psychology; the Army has offered him a position as a mental-health specialist, for which he’ll receive 23 weeks of individual advanced training. While that’s far short of the training required to be a psychologist, it’s much more than the domestic economy currently offers Salmonon, who works part time at the Taco Tree in Auburn and has no immediate college plans despite above-average SAT scores.

However, the chance of furthering his career goals is not the main reason he’s joining the Army. He views military service as a way to gain life experience, to fill in the blank slate of his young life.

“I really wanted to be an independent person, to get away from my divorced parents, the battling over money—all the issues of paying for college,” he says. “Joining the Army seems much more simple. It’s all on me. The recruiters and the guys I met are really my kind of people. They’re really nice, especially the values the Army lives by. I think that’s really a good thing.”

He’s referring to the seven “core Army values” that can be found listed in recruitment brochures: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage. Campos wears the values on a plastic dog tag hanging around his neck.

“I would hate for people to see the Army as a last resort,” he says. “The Army, the military as whole, is a good opportunity. Not just professionally, but to make a stronger individual, mentally and physically. There are a lot of people who say it should be mandatory. It’s not as bad as a lot of people might think it is. A lot of these kids, they want to do something with their life. They want to find a sense of order, a sense of structure, a sense of discipline.”

A history of violence
“It’s a myth that the Army makes you into a man,” Buckley says. “A little combat goes a long way.”

Unlike Salmonon or Campos, Buckley didn’t choose to join the Army. Born in 1945, he was drafted in 1965, just as the U.S. effort in Vietnam was gearing up. His tour in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division’s Third Brigade ran from 1966 to 1969. During that time, U.S. troop strength was ratcheted up from 125,000, about the number presently serving in Iraq, to 500,000. More than 58,000 American soldiers eventually were killed in the conflict. Five million Vietnamese were killed, including four million civilians.

Veterans for Peace members Dan Buckley (left) and Scott Johnson (center) hope to persuade young recruits like Eric Salmonon against joining the military.

Photo By Larry Dalton

“Nine out of 10 people who get killed in combat are innocent civilians,” Buckley says. “There’s evil in all of us just below the surface. Atrocities on civilians happened every day in Vietnam, and they’re happening every day in Iraq.”

Of the former, Buckley speaks from personal experience, having served with distinction in Vietnam as an artillery officer from 1966 to 1969, the most violent years of the conflict. He calls himself one of the “good guys” who tried to do what he could, but still laments that he was unable to prevent all the atrocities that went on around him.

“The way it mostly happens, you go into a house, you get angry and you start lighting it up,” he says. “Flame on! That’s what happened in My Lai. I’ve seen it in people’s eyes. It’s almost like their eyes are glazed over. They know they have the power to kill somebody and they’re going to exercise that power. I have a visual of walking through this village and watching these people just cringing in fear because they knew if they made one little mistake, one false step, somebody was going to shoot them. It didn’t have to be for a good reason. That’s what war does to you. It turns that evil inside out so it’s right there on the surface. It’s an excuse to be evil. This myth about it making you a man, it’s a sales pitch the recruiters use. If you’re lucky enough to come back whole, physically, you’re going to leave part of your soul behind.”

If you’re not so lucky, you’ll be coming home in a body bag.

Buckley says that ambushing was easily the scariest aspect of combat in Vietnam, whether you were on the giving or receiving end. In one ambush by the North Vietnamese, 38 members of his platoon were killed or injured in a matter of seconds. That was bad enough, but what haunts him the most today are the countless innocent civilians who got caught in the crossfire during his tour of duty.

“I have a visual. We were getting ambushed while we were setting up our artillery battery,” he recalls. “We were taking small arms fire from the edge of a clearing. I knew where the fire was coming from, so I ordered a couple of howitzers to direct fire into the tree line. Well, there was a village on the other side of that tree line, and I didn’t know it, you know?”

He pauses and nearly begins sobbing before shakily continuing.

“Shortly thereafter, this girl came stumbling across the field with half of her skull gone. We threw her on a helicopter, the next one that came in, and I don’t know if she made it or not. She was probably just … caught in the middle, as they say. That’s a phrase I definitely hate, ‘collateral damage.’ It’s just another euphemism to excuse your conscience. It’s dead innocent people.”

Buckley talks a lot about conscience. “We can’t excuse ourselves,” he says. Certainly he hasn’t excused himself. He’s struggled with his own guilt and PTSD for nearly four decades, abusively self-medicating before finally getting the help he needed. “I know what it’s like to be depressed and angry,” he says. “I’m depressed because I allowed my government to put me in the position of killing innocent people. That’s why I’ve been angry ever since I got out of the service. I got suckered. I got chumped. I got used.”

Preventing the same thing from happening to today’s potential recruits has become his life’s mission.

“It’s just a damn shame that these kids are doing the wrong things for all the right reasons,” he says. “It’s sad to see them get sucked into this situation by people who have never laid down their own lives for their country.”

Campos understands that PTSD is one of the hazards of military service, and although he doesn’t agree with Buckley’s actions, he empathizes with his motives. He’s no stranger to violence. In addition to serving in Afghanistan, he grew up in El Salvador in the 1980s during the civil war, when encountering corpses in the streets on the way to school was a frequent occurrence. A good friend of his, just 23, was killed.

“It’s understandable. I would have to sympathize with the fact that he [Buckley] has good intentions; obviously he doesn’t want people to get hurt,” he says. “I don’t want any one of my guys to not come back.” He pauses, realizing that last year, one of his guys didn’t come back.

Army Spc. Harley Andrews enlisted at the Auburn recruiting station. He was killed by an improvised explosive device in Iraq on September 11, 2006. The 22-year-old had written letters home to his brothers mentioning the satisfaction he received from saving lives in Iraq. His commanding officer sent a letter to the family praising Andrews’ selfless service, Campos says.

“That’s the kind of thing sometimes that keeps me doing what I’m doing,” he says. “That’s the kind of guy that sets an example for all of us.”

Lowering standards, twisting arms
The pressure for recruiters to meet enlistment goals has grown intense as the war in Iraq has become increasingly unpopular with the American public. Buckley notes that in 2005, for the first time in its history, the Army ordered a one-day suspension of all its recruiting stations to conduct ethics training. The move came after widespread reports of recruiting abuses. Douglas Smith, a spokesman for the Army’s recruiting command, told the New York Times that the training would “re-introduce recruiters to the rules that prohibit them from lying to applicants or hiding information from the military that could make them ineligible.”

“It was due to some improprieties,” Campos says, adding that he had no direct knowledge of any wrongdoing. “It happens. The army is just like any other corporation. We might have bad employees sometimes.”

When the Army and the Marines fell short of enlistment quotas in 2005, enlistment requirements were relaxed. The enlistment age was increased from 35 to 42, and testing requirements were lowered. Recruits with criminal records, who were once deemed ineligible for service, now can be granted so-called moral waivers. Campos said new prospects can have up to two felonies. Sex offenders are barred from service. He said that all applicants with criminal histories, including misdemeanor offenses such as a DUI, are reviewed by higher-ups in the recruitment command.

“We understand people make mistakes, We all were young once,” he says. “Some people were just lucky enough to get away with it, smart enough to not get caught.”

A report on the liberal Web site Tomdispatch.com was highly critical of the lowered standards, quoting major newspaper articles from around the country that collectively seem to indicate the military has been infiltrated by thugs and other miscreants.

“One thing veterans have told me is that your unit is only as strong as the weakest link in it,” Johnson says. “Because they lowered the standards, there’s an indication that there are a lot of white supremacists, gang members, more criminal records and drug users entering the military. Your life will be dependent on them holding up their end of the bargain.”

Army strong in Auburn: Sgt. Ronald Howell and Cpl. Bryan Burubeltz flank recruiting-station commander Sgt. Will Campos.

Photo By R.V. Scheide

The Army also added 1,000 new recruiters, who, armed with fat enlistment bonuses for certain occupations—$20,000 for truck drivers in Iraq, currently one of the most dangerous jobs in the Army—aggressively have sought out new recruits in malls and high schools across the country.

Last November, San Francisco voters, by a margin of 60 percent to 40 percent, elected to ban military recruiters from local high schools. Measure I, “College Not Combat,” was non-binding, but sent a clear message to the Washington political establishment. “Far from being an isolated occurrence, San Francisco’s approval of ‘College Not Combat’ is simply the first local success of the national antiwar movement’s newest tactic: ‘counter recruitment,’ ” wrote conservative pundit Stanley Kurtz in the Weekly Standard. “With slogans like, ‘Don’t Die for Recruiters’ Lies,’ and ‘An Army of None,’ counter-recruiters aim to stop the war in Iraq by starving our army of troops.”

No doubt the measure would not have fared as well in Placer County, where Republicans outnumber Democrats 51 percent to 29 percent, according to the secretary of state’s October 2006 report on voter registration. Last year, 42 recruits enlisted in Auburn. Recruiters are a common sight at Placer High School, where men in combat fatigues standing behind tables stacked with pamphlets urging students to “Check out the Army’s increased enlistment bonuses,” “Be an Army musician” and “Make a difference” can be found two to three days per week. A chance campus encounter with recruiters can send a student such as Salmonon careening down a previously unforeseen career path.

“I met these recruiters who were presenting around the school,” Salmonon says. “I was just going to pass them up, but I started talking to them. I made an appointment [with the Auburn recruiting station] and went over there to talk to them. It seemed like they had a lot to offer in the Army: college money, a job right off the bat, to be independent and get away from my parents.”

Salmonon chose mental-health specialist from the Army’s list of 200 occupational specialties, which vary from attack-helicopter repairer to guitar player to water-treatment specialist. He’d developed an interest in psychology after taking a class from Mark Underwood, a psychology and U.S. history teacher who’s taught at Placer High School for 33 years. Ironically, Underwood, as sponsor of the Young Democrats, a student club, was instrumental in bringing the Veterans for Peace to the Placer campus. He’s had his own experience with Army recruiters as well.

Like Salmonon, Underwood’s son joined the Army three years ago under the delayed-enlistment program, which allows new recruits to register months ahead of the day they actually have to report for boot camp. Although recruits take an oath to report for duty, it is not legally binding. But that’s not what recruiters told Underwood’s son after he elected to go to college instead of the military.

“He had never legally gone in; he was in his early entry program,” Underwood said. “They were telling him he wouldn’t be able to hold any federal job, that this was going to be on his record.”

Nothing ended up on his son’s record, because he hadn’t done anything illegal. Campos says that while recruits in the delayed-enlistment program aren’t legally obligated to report for duty, the Army emphasizes that they have made a commitment that should be honored. He says the Army understands that the circumstances of a person’s life can change.

“Nobody is going to twist their arm,” he says. “Nobody is going to force you. We’re not going to send out the sheriff, the FBI to come and get you.” He admits that some arm-twisting is known to occur. “The arm-twisting thing, that would be desperation and frustration at the same time. The 17, 18-year-old guys, they don’t realize this is a good opportunity.”

He’s in the Army now
Thanks in part to his son’s negative experience with the delayed-enlistment program, Underwood fairly jumped at the chance when Johnson offered to bring Veterans for Peace’s presentation on the downside of military life to the Placer High School campus.

“I said, ‘Yeah, darn right, give kids an opportunity to look at that,’ ” he said. “What they decide to do with it is up to them, but to open students’ eyes to different vantage points is part of my job as a teacher of social sciences.”

Johnson and Buckley have paid several visits to the school. They routinely visit other high schools in the Foothills area, as well as Sierra College. Much of what they present is practical information that anyone preparing to sign away four years of their life might want to know. For example, they suggest that students take a witness with them to the recruiting office. They caution that there is no “period of adjustment” where new recruits can request and receive an immediate discharge, as some recruiters promise. They point out that there are no job guarantees in the Army, a fact that is specifically stated in every contract. Then there’s the visceral knowledge that only a combat veteran like Buckley can provide.

“I try to tell them what it’s like to take an innocent life,” he says. “In many ways, the people who come back are the unlucky ones. I tell them what it’s like to be part of something evil, instead of something good. If you can get these kids to understand the unfairness of it all, you can turn them.”

They’ve had some success. Last year they convinced a Placer High student and a Sierra College student to pull out of the delayed-enlistment program. Other students have balked at enlisting after hearing their presentation. Their efforts have caused Salmonon to reconsider his decision to join the Army.

“After I signed up, I talked to Mr. Underwood and he urged me to call them,” he says. “So I talked to them, and they gave me this packet, saying that there were other options, like I could go to college. There were some things they were saying negative about the Army. I started having second thoughts. I started having a different perspective on the Army.”

Buckley, who was awarded three bronze stars in Vietnam, is grateful Underwood has provided him with the opportunity to reach young kids like Salmonon. In a sense, it permits him to partially right the wrongs of a past that continues to torment him.

Outside Starbucks, he and Johnson press their case. Salmonon listens attentively, but appears as unperturbed as ever. For every claim they make, he offers a counter-claim given to him by his recruiters, which the two veterans for peace then shoot down like an errant Scud missile. Once again they point out the clause in his contract that states the Army can revoke all the agreements in his contract and send Salmonon wherever it sees fit, including the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq. Buckley asks if he’s read news reports about the marines who killed 24 civilians in Haditha, Iraq.

“I heard about it on TV,” Salmonon answers.

“They called them insurgents, and the next day they said they were all civilians,” Buckley says. “Those are the kinds of things that happen every day, and the reason they’re happening is that our government puts us in the position. They peel off that skin that covers the deep evil anger in all of us.”

Ever the blank slate, Salmonon seems unfazed by Buckley’s recounting of the atrocity. More than an hour of relentless badgering by the two Veterans for Peace seems to have had little effect.

“I’m still thinking about colleges, weighing the options,” he says. “But I talked to my recruiters again, and I think I’m leaning more to the Army. I think I can trust them; they’re really honest guys. That’s where I’m at.”

For his part, Buckley intends to keep pressuring Salmonon to change his mind. He’s offered him a summer job at his white–water-rafting company and a place to stay. He’s encouraging Salmonon to explore other options, such as scholarships and school loans. He says he’ll be crushed if the young recruit doesn’t change his mind.

“I think he’s really fooling himself to think he’s going to get what he wants from the military, especially at a time when they’re talking about surging the forces,” he says. “What a joke. It’s escalation, just like they did in Vietnam. He has until August, so we can work on it a while. Maybe we’ll talk him out of it, like we did some of these other people.”