Second Thought: Wednesday, June 12, 2003
Playground to Parade Ground

School info is private — except to military recruiters.


I proudly served 18 years (active and reserve) in the Air Force and was honorably discharged from the inactive reserve in June 2002. Still, I felt distinctly ambivalent last November, when my bohemian middle daughter announced on her 18th birthday that she wanted to enlist.

“A dangerous time to be doing that,” I said. Her reply: “It’d be chicken-shit not to enlist because we’re about to go to war. That’s what the military does.” It was like coming face-to-face with myself at age 25, and I found it unnerving.

I also found it infuriating that my daughter’s military inclinations had been helped along by a recruiter who talked to her at school. In a time when school and medical records are increasingly — sometimes ridiculously — private, the Bush Administration has thrown open the doors of our kids’ schools to military recruiters.

If you want a working definition of the phrase “hidden agenda,” look no further than Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” education act. The provisions of that law and the National Defense Authorization Act for 2002, both of which took effect last July, give military recruiters unprecedented access to American high-schoolers.

Under the law, public and private high schools that receive federal aid must furnish the names, addresses, and phone numbers of students to military recruiters who request the information. Only students whose parents request that their personal information be withheld from third parties escape the disclosure requirements. But information on how to “opt out” can be buried in the middle of a thick student handbook, and even parents who read it might not understand the ramifications of making their children’s personal information available.

The law also forces schools to let military recruiters contact students on campus in the same way colleges or other prospective employers can. For schools that don’t comply with the new law, the penalty is severe: the loss of their federal funding. No surprise, then, that according to an Oct. 9, 2002, U.S. Department of Education fact sheet, 95 percent of affected schools are currently complying. The Fort Worth Independent School District didn’t return my call, so I don’t know how many of their schools are giving up student info.

Not long after my daughter announced her infatuation with khaki and helmets, a friend of hers who’d done Army basic training between his junior and senior high school years shipped out for Afghanistan. Since the spring, he’s been in Iraq. That gave her cause for pause — nothing like a little dose of reality to do that. But I think what ultimately decided her against joining up was some advice from one of her most revered teachers, who also happens to be the command sergeant major for an Army Reserve unit based at Fort Hood that’s since been mobilized. “You need to go to college first,” he said.

Around the same time she was considering enlistment, she was also talking about writing a screenplay, volunteering for Americorps, going to nursing school, and opening a coffeehouse in Oregon. A fairly typical teen — all over the map and susceptible to influence by anyone who talks a good game. That’s part of the problem with giving recruiters such free access to kids as young as 14. The current crop of teen-agers has grown up thinking of war as a video game, and their sales resistance is notoriously low.

Make no mistake about it: Military recruiters are salespeople. They have monthly quotas, and their advancement is directly tied to their ability to meet or exceed those quotas. While it’s not any service’s policy to have recruiters lie to prospective enlistees, any service member or veteran can tell you tales of a recruiter who took liberties with the truth. (My ex-wife swears mine told her I wouldn’t be stationed outside the continental United States. My first duty station: Kunsan Air Base, Republic of Korea. My first week in basic training, they offered a no-fault early-out to anyone whose recruiter had told them to lie about pre-enlistment drug use.)

Thus, recruiters talk up the military’s educational benefits to kids who might never have heard about college loans and grant programs. (Not surprising, since it’s easier for kids to get an audience with a recruiter these days — or the Wizard of Oz, for that matter — than with a high school counselor.) The recruiters promise kids high-tech, useful-in-civilian-life training when in reality they might wind up digging ditches or, God forbid, carrying an M-16. They tell kids it’s easy to get out if you don’t adapt well to military life, without mentioning that a less-than-honorable discharge will make it hard to find a job once you’re back in the civilian world.

And recruiters can be relentless. Once they’ve got a line on a kid, they’ll call her at home, visit her at school, even go to an after-school job if they can find out where she works. I remember a Paschal High student I used to moonlight with, eight or nine years ago. When he got kicked out of his house, an Air Force recruiter he’d spoken with found him sleeping on a bench in Trinity Park and gave him the hard sell. And yes, the kid wound up in uniform.

It’s hard to understand why recruiters need more access to teens when the services report they’ve been exceeding recruiting quotas for the last couple of years. All of the services have shifted the emphasis in their ad campaigns from personal benefits like travel, adventure, and money for college to intangibles like the dignity of service and the military’s heritage and tradition. When push comes to shove, though, a recruiter will use any available tool of persuasion to get a kid to sign on the dotted line. And now, there’s nothing to protect our kids from that.

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