You, Too, Can Rein In Military Recruiters in the High Schools

In the spring of 2005, military recruiters had free rein in some of the high schools of Lee County, Florida (which includes Fort Myers, Cape Coral, and surrounding communities, with almost 80,000 students in our public schools). Military recruiters from the Army, Marines, Navy, and Air Force set up tables and exercise equipment in the lunchrooms, courtyards, and hallways of schools, giving away tokens of military life and signing up students for more information, for special exercise and computer games based on military life, and for free trips to the nearest military enlistment center in Tampa. Many of the schools assigned a day a week to each branch of the military for recruiting, and all the schools turned over home addresses and phone numbers of students to the military so that they could contact them at their leisure.

By coincidence, we had both retired from demanding jobs and moved to the Fort Myers area a year or so before we started working against recruiting in high schools. Nancy had recently retired as a professor of Sociology from University of Toronto, and Judy retired from the practice of law. With our own children grown up, an interest in youth, and frustration over the occupation of Iraq, we both felt called to the work of counter-recruitment.

Our starting point was a great weekend workshop put on by Oskar Castro of American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia. Nancy had heard him speak at the 2005 Southeastern Yearly Meeting in Leesburg, Florida. On invitation, Oskar came to Fort Myers Meeting a few months later to work with a group of 12 members of the meeting, plus seven local peace activists who wanted to hear what he had to say. Oskar pointed out that it is easier to work in the public schools as a secular group than as a project of a religious society, and Fort Myers Meeting, where Nancy is a member, agreed to support our efforts but not sponsor them.

We did not want to get bogged down in organizational issues; “Just do it” has always been our motto. So we selected a name, “The Wage Peace Project”; had some business cards printed up; and set out to learn about how military recruiting is organized locally and what we could do to apply what Oskar had taught us about counter-recruiting. We share the title “co-chair,” and we have no other officers or committees. We personally have done 90 percent of the work of the project, with help at busy times from an informal circle of a dozen or so people willing to pitch in when needed. We called it a “project” as an acknowledgment of what our neighbors in Palm Beach, Florida, had done with their counter-recruiting group, “The Truth Project.” And we borrowed “wage peace” from AFSC, in large part because we guessed that high school students would like to have those popular rubber bracelets with Wage Peace printed on them that AFSC distributes.

We thought it would be useful to have 501(C)(3) status, so we applied to our local group, the Environmental and Peace Education Center, led by Friend Phyllis Stanley and Bobbie Heinrich, to be adopted as its project. The board of directors of EPEC accepted our proposal without wishing to exercise tight control over our activities. They could not provide funding for us, but we figured we would have tax-exempt status later if we needed to do fundraising. (In fact, we haven’t had to do any as we followed a strategy of keeping our expenses low and paying them ourselves.) We rented a mailbox from the local UPS store, to avoid using our home addresses.

We started by attending the Lee County School Board meetings as observers, and within a month we wrote to the superintendent of schools to inform him that we were organized as an official counter-recruiting group and that we intended to exercise our court-given rights to have the same access to students as the schools give to the military recruiters (see sidebar).

The superintendent of schools delegated the issue of counter-recruiting to the official school district attorney, who studied the question for some weeks and then met with us. We were informed that each school had its own policy set by its principal. When we made appointments to talk with the individual principals, we found that they were all unwilling to discuss their policy in detail without guidance from the school district attorney, and in fact we received a series of identically worded letters from principals, suggesting that they were all guided by the attorney on their responses. Eventually, the school board attorney met with us and acknowledged what we already knew: that the federal circuit courts had given permission for counter-recruiters to go into the schools, to have equal access with the military, and to present the negative side of military enlistment to the students. After he informed the principals of his conclusion, the doors opened. We tried to be as nonconfrontational as we could be, and we agreed to submit our proposed literature to the attorney’s office for review before submitting it to the principals of schools.

We started with an AFSC brochure, Ten Points to Consider Before You Sign an Enlistment Agreement, and we had to argue point by point and word by word with the school board attorney. Eventually, however, he “passed” the modified document and allowed us to append a sentence saying, “This pamphlet has been modified from one produced by the American Friends Service Committee. It has been reviewed and determined to be legally permissible by the Lee County School Board attorney for distribution in the high schools of Lee County.” With this clearance, the principals felt confident in allowing us to put the pamphlet in their career counseling centers, to be distributed next to the military recruiting literature.

By the time we got our first pamphlet approved, the school year of 2005-2006 was almost over. We met with each of the career counselors at the 11 large high schools to let them know what we planned for the next school year. It was clear that they would cooperate with us as far as the principals authorized them to do so, and no further. In five schools, we would match the military recruiters by setting up a table in the courtyard or lunchroom and actively counter-recruit over lunchtime one day each week. In four schools where the military recruiters were restricted to the career counselor’s office, we would merely phone each week and only go when a student requested an appointment with us. And in two schools we could only display literature in the career counselor’s office, because the military recruiters were not allowed to actively recruit in those schools.

The routine during the 2006-2007 school year was to go to a school around 10:30 am and set up a table and a display board with a heading like “The military is not just a job—it is eight years of your life.” When the first lunch bell rang, students poured out of classrooms headed for some calories, and we offered a leaflet to the curious on their way. Usually, serious conversations would not start until after they had their food; then they would gather around our table, some friendly, many curious, and a few belligerent. Students told us about their fears for their brothers and sisters in the military; their concerns about the plans of their boyfriends and girlfriends; and their own plans for the future, in the military or outside of it. Some told us that they were already in the military, by which they meant that they had signed a Delayed Entry Program (DEP) contract, promising to go to Basic Training as soon as they graduated. And others told us about fighting off a steady barrage of phone calls and letters from recruiters in the various branches of the military, even though they had no interest in joining. Some of those who seemed to be headed for enlistment appeared to be very mature and knowledgeable about military careers, while others seemed to have little information and understanding. Some were very interested in what we had to say while others were unwilling to hear us express concerns about the dangers and difficulties of military life for young people.

We provided information about pay, the terms of enlistment, and the problems with the Montgomery G.I. Bill of Rights. We handed out a range of pamphlets over the school year, such as Ask a Recruiter; You Don’t Have to Join the Military to Go to College; and Help Wanted, on jobs locally available. Our single most powerful piece of literature, one that we always try to have at our counter-recruiting table, is a blank copy of the enlistment document, so that we can point out to students exactly where it says in the Department of Defense enlistment form that any promises made to them (including promises made by recruiters) that are not explicitly written in this contract are invalid and will not be honored; that the length of the term of enlistment is eight years; and that the government is entitled to change all the conditions of the contract at any time, while the recruit is committed to every aspect of the contract, under penalty of law and prison.

Our task for the summer of 2006 was trying to raise consciousness of the right of parents to opt out of allowing the schools to turn over home information about their child to the military for recruitment purposes. Only 25 percent of the parents had located this box and checked it during the 2005 school year (before we started). We carried out a campaign by leafleting local fairs, and by writing letters to the editors and guest opinion pieces in our local papers, which resulted in a rate of opt-out of 46 percent in 2006, an encouraging increase. During that school year we urged the school district to revise the form so that parents would find it easier to read and understand. They agreed, and improved it greatly, and in 2007 the percentage of parents who opted out in the 11 large schools was 55 percent, a clear majority. We urge the school board to interpret that as a vote by parents to restrict the recruiters in the schools, too.

We tried various strategies, mimicking the military recruiters. We gave away candy, cheap pins, and rubber bracelets. All the giveaways were popular with students. We experimented with showing counter-recruiting films in the public libraries after school, but found that virtually no students came to see them (although we met some nice adults who wandered in). We invested work and stamps to send a mailing to parents in a high recruitment area where we could not meet students in the lunchrooms (because the school had a policy of only allowing recruiting in the career counselor’s office, by appointment), but we got no answers or signs of interest from parents. Live and learn. However, some of our efforts were unexpectedly successful. We put together a website and handed out pencils with the web address printed on them, and got more than 100,000 hits in the month of December 2006.

Did we change anyone’s mind about enlistment? We know that at our 11 large schools, of less than 3,000 graduating seniors, 55 announced that they were going directly into the military in 2006, whereas 45 made the same statement in 2007. However, we hesitate to claim success in reducing enlistments since during the time we were raising consciousness about this issue, the war became increasingly unpopular and fewer people supported the President’s plan for the surge of troops and the increased numbers of military abroad. We know only that we talked with thousands of students, parents, and others about the truth of military enlistment.

Throughout the 2006-2007 school year we regularly attended school board meetings, and we often took the opportunity of the three-minute public commentary period to remind the board and the community of our interest in this issue, and what we were learning. At the end of the school year, Nancy spoke about the varying policies in the 11 large high schools, and a school board member questioned the difference in the policies and asked the superintendent to look into it. At a meeting of high school principals with the superintendent in July 2007, the decision was made to standardize the policy for all the schools. From now on, military recruiters are restricted to recruiting only in the guidance or career counseling office, and only when a student requests an interview with a specific recruiter. Our counter-recruiting literature will continue to be displayed and available to students.

We are very pleased with this result. It means that students in the middle schools and in the early years of high school will not encounter military recruiters on school grounds, and that the older students will only encounter them at their own request. We are encouraged to find that our efforts were rewarded by attention and consideration from the school district officials and the community.

Why did we succeed in a relatively short period of time? The law was basically on our side, and the school authorities were committed to following the law and respecting the parents’ wishes when they could do so. No doubt the fact that one of our co-chairs is a lawyer with no fear of having to go to court to get the benefits promised in law added greatly to our persuasiveness. We also made it easier for them by being nonconfrontational, by agreeing that it would be inappropriate for us to engage in criticism of the President and his policies with students on school property. We expressed our respect for veterans and troops whenever we could, and often mentioned that the JROTC program is not a target of our work, as they are engaged in leadership training and education about the military, not recruitment.

In the 2007-08 school year, the military has reduced its activities in the schools of Lee County. They phone the students who have not opted out, and try to get them to request appointments in the Career Counseling office, but the volume of such appointments has gone down. The Marine Corps attempted to recruit teachers and counselors to help them influence students, and offered to pay for trips to Parris Island and for catered lunches for teachers, but when we asked the school board attorney about such gifts, a message went out to all principals and counselors that the practice must be stopped.

Of course we haven’t solved the problem. The war goes on, young people go on killing and dying, and the brutality of the war continues to harm their bodies, minds, and spirits. We would like to do more, but the Spirit urges us to do what we can, and to share the results of our efforts with others. We want to help when possible with the similar struggles going on in other communities. We are sure there are many communities where young people would benefit if the military recruiters could be restrained to the limits of the law. Feel free to contact us if we can help with your local efforts in any way.

Judy and Denis Nicholson-Asselin

Nancy Howell, recording clerk of Fort Myers (Fla.) Meeting, is a retired professor of Sociology. Judy Alves, a retired lawyer, is a member of The Grail, an organization devoted to economic and social justice for women around the world. They can be contacted at