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Out of School and Into the Military
A ll my life I’ve liked the military,” said Adrian Paez, a Colombian immigrant and a senior at East Boston High School. At 17, Paez (not his real name) says, “When I think of the Army, I don’t think about dying I think of everything I can do, everything I can learn, everything I can be.”
Paez and his family fled Colombia to escape rural violence and economic adversity in an increasingly militarized society. A year after arriving to the United States, he became a member of the Junior Reserve Officer Training Core (JROTC) at East Boston High where he has been learning the basics of military training for the past three years. Promoted as a leadership and character development program, in reality JROTC entices minority, low-income students to join the armed forces. As detailed in the Army’s Operation and Maintenance Budget Estimate for FY 2005, “JROTC does not impose an obligation to serve in the military; however, a by-product of this program may be an interest in the military service.” Conceptualized in 1916 as a collaborative effort between the Department of Education and the Department of Defense, JROTC currently serves 400,000 students in 2,600 schools nationwide at a cost of about $165 million annually.
“I wouldn’t want to go [to Iraq], but it’s not like I’m afraid to go,” Paez said about recruiting efforts at his high school. His story reflects the vulnerability that young students face to military recruitment, particularly among Latino/as, and how policies under the Bush administration have made it easier for recruiters to exploit this vulnerability.
In its 2005 fiscal report the Department of the Army stated that about 42 percent of the JROTC graduates choose either to enter a ROTC program in college, one of the service academies, or serve in the active or reserve force. “With numbers like that it’s obvious to us that JROTC is doing a great job collaborating with recruiting efforts,” said Oskar Castro, Program Associate at the American Friends Service Committee’s (AFSC) National Youth & Militarism Program. It’s illegal to recruit minors into the military, yet students as young as 14 are regularly approached and advised to pursue a military career through their high school’s JROTC. As the Department of Defense introduced two new recruiting initiatives in 2000, College First and GED Plus, Colin Powell expressed the importance of attracting students to the military at a young age. “We know why we want high school graduates. They have a tendency to be more adaptable to military life,” said Powell.
The relationship developed with school administrators is critical for recruiters. According to the 2004 School Recruiting Program Handout (SRPH) published by the U.S. Army Recruiting Command, “Establishing rapport with school officials is a key step in maintaining access to schools. To effectively work the school market, recruiters must maintain rapport through SY and develop a good working relationship with influencers.”
“Influencers” are not limited to guidance counselors. The SRPH encourages recruiters to cultivate relationships with coaches, librarians, administrative staff, teachers, and anyone else who might be helpful in providing information on how to effectively communicate with specific students.
In February 2000 the Senate Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee, chaired by then Senator Tim Hutchinson (R-AR), held hearings on armed forces recruiting and retention of personnel. At the hearings, Master Sergeant Jamie Cranada, a Califonia Air Force recruiter with five years of experience, mentioned how it was easier to approach schools with JROTC programs. “We concentrate on those schools with JROTC. The others do not let us in and we do not focus there,” he said. “I do my best in high schools with JROTC,” said Staff Sergeant Reginald Hamilton, an Air Force recruiter, in response to Senator Jack Reed’s (D-RI) question on the value of JROTC units to recruiting. “There are four in my area. They look at us to train. It helps reverse the trend. A definite plus,” said Staff Sergeant Sean McElroy, a U.S. Marine and a recruiter in Georgia. Military recruiters expressed a general frustration with having access to high school and college students’ contact information where such programs do not exist.
When asked about sanctions on high schools that were not supportive of recruiters’ efforts, most recruiter chiefs agreed that such change in policy would be detrimental to the image of the armed forces. “DOD believes it would be a lose-lose to leverage high schools. We feel it would be better to reconnect on a public relations front,” said Alphonso Maldon, Assistant Secretary of Defense, Force Management Policy. “We do not want a situation where we are let into the schools and become a target of criticism.”
Nevertheless, Senator Hutchinson introduced the Military Recruiter Access Enhancement Act of 2000, which denies federal educational assistance funds to local educational agencies that do not allow the DOD access to secondary school students. Hutchinson was instrumental in including this provision in the No Child Left Behind Act. In effect since 2001, all secondary schools must provide directory information about their students for military recruiting purposes. BeNow, a database marketing company based in Wakefield, Massachusetts, was hired to process the 12 million names collected so far.
Written into the law is the requirement that schools must notify parents and students of their right to keep their contact information private. In effect, the law coerces schools to release student contact information to the military while relegating the responsibility of informing parents of the law to under-staffed schools.
Latino/as As Recruitment Target
A t East Boston High guidance counselors like to introduce recently arrived immigrants to JROTC, particularly those students who speak little or no English and need extra support from their peers. “It’s a good way for me to say, you know, you’re going into a class that is taught by a person who only speaks English but [you’ll find] the support provided by the students in the team,” said Claudia Rodriguez, bilingual counselor.
As the fastest growing youth group in the nation, the Latino/a population has become a top priority in recruiting efforts. The Latino/a population among 18-year-olds is expected to grow from 14 to 22 percent over the next 15 years, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. “This increase, paired with the fact that the high school graduation rate for Hispanics is lower than for other groups, is an important issue given the Services’ interest in enlisting a high proportion of high school graduates,” details a report titled “Attitudes, Aptitudes, and Aspirations of American Youth: Implications for Military Recruitment,” issued in 2003 by the Committee on Youth Population and Military Recruitment under the Secretary of Defense.
Following these recommendations, the armed forces have been targeting minority youth, particularly Latino/as. In June 2001, of the $150 million that the Army spent on its campaign, $11.3 million went to Spanish-language advertising compared to $3.5 million for ads aimed at African Americans.
Latino/as meet several of the variables that, according to the National Defense Research Institute (NDRI), recruiters look for in applicants to prevent personnel attrition—mother’s education, family income, and number of siblings. These are all variables that, according to NDRI, makes these students less likely to attend college and therefore more likely to enlist in the military.
Undocumented immigrants cannot join the armed forces, but U.S. residents can. If Paez were granted legal status in this country, he would be one among the 37,000 noncitizens referred to as “green card” troops or immigrants with permanent alien cards serving in the U.S. military. Once in the military, however, green card troops face other challenges. Noncitizens cannot become officers and are excluded from technical and specialty programs, such as intelligence, electronics, aircrew, and the Navy SEALs. The Pew Research Foundation has estimated that, although under-represented in the armed forces as a whole, about 18 percent of Latino/a immigrants end up in combat-related positions.
Massachussetts High Schools
A t the local level, actual recruitment numbers per high school are hard to come by. Local recruiters will direct individuals interested in statistics to JROTC programs and JROTC instructors claim that they do not keep track. “We don’t know. Usually the kids don’t go [to the military] right out of high school. We find many more times than not that they’ll come in and go after the fact, which is very, very strange to me. You would think that they go in immediately, but they don’t,” said Colonel Gerald Wellman, a senior instructor at East Boston High’s JROTC.
The best assessment on the number of high school students who join the military is available through the Department of Education based on exit surveys taken by graduating students. According to the DOE in Massachusetts, the percentage of students who say they are planning to enter the military decreased from 4 percent in 1978 to 2.1 percent in 2003. Among racial/ethnic groups in the state of Massachusetts in 2003, Latino/as had the highest number of students planning to join the military at 3.7 percent, followed by whites and Native Americans at 2.2 percent each, and African Americans at 1.2 percent.
The presence of JROTC programs, in combination with low-income levels, plays an important role in influencing students’ decisions to join the military. At Lawrence High in northern Massachusetts as many as 10.3 percent of its students expressed interest in joining the military on their exit survey in 2003. Lawrence High has a JROTC program, 75 percent of its students were reported as low income, and it has a dropout rate of 10.4 percent; 85 percent of the students are of Latino/a descent.
An interesting exception is English High, a school with a similar profile but a much lower recruitment propensity rate. The school has a JROTC program and 77.1 percent of the students were reported as low income, and 90 percent of the students belong to a Latino/a or African American ethnic group. The number of students expressing interest in joining the military has been at 0 percent since 2001.
“I think we have a great college readiness program,” said Elena Gelinas, guidance counselor at English High, when asked about reasons for low military recruitment numbers in her school. English High’s college readiness program includes college education at assemblies, individualized meetings, and classrooms workshops. English High also manages a National College Fair every October, which 50 to 60 colleges attend. Seventy-eight percent of English High students are reported to attend a two-year or four-year college after graduation.
Undocumented U.S. Soldiers
A t East Boston High School, 4 percent expressed interest in joining the military on their exit survey in 2004, one of the highest percentages in the Boston public school system (the other one being John D. O’Bryant School at 5 percent). That number reached 6 percent in 2000 and was at its lowest in 2002, but has been growing back steadily since.
The JROTC at East Boston High used to be an elective class but officers convinced the Administration to allow JROTC to count for credit as the physical education requirement. Only 50 percent of the students at East Boston High are Latino/as, but JROTC is mostly comprised of Spanish-speaking students.
For Paez, JROTC has been the pinnacle of his experience with the military. In Colombia he remembered seeing soldiers in his town since he was four or five years old. “They were all over town and would stand in the corners making rounds. I used to love looking at them, their uniforms, and everything else. I would talk to them and I still have a bullet one of them gave me,” said Paez.
As he got older, Adrian Paez and some school friends began visiting the soldiers’ base camp where they were allowed to help disarm and clean guns. When he was nine he was recruited in a training program for children, sponsored by the Colombian national police. The kids were trained to march and keep order at public events. They wore blue uniforms, white caps, and combat boots. “They even gave us anti-riot batons,” said Paez.
According to Human Rights Watch, at least one of every four irregular combatants in Colombia is under 18. Of these, several thousand are under the age of 15. When he arrived in the United States, Paez’s environment changed drastically, far from the day-to-day militarized society in Colombia, until he entered high school. “In seventh and eight grades here everything was normal, but when I got to ninth in high school, I found them again. It was there that I found the Army again.”
Every summer for three years Paez has been to Camp Freedom, a camp for students aged 14 to 18 at the Massachusetts Military Reservation (MMR), a 22,000-acre base used for military training at Cape Cod. Over 550 JROTC students from the Northeast attend Camp Freedom each summer. Students pay a $30 dollar fee to register. The Army covers transportation, meals, and accommodations expenses. Run by the JROTC from East Boston High, the Camp Freedom experience includes drills and ceremony, marching in formation, and competition among groups in several physical training activities, such as rappelling, aquatics, and rock climbing. Everyone gets graded on motivation.
As a senior cadet, Paez instructs the younger students on how to march with pellet rifles. Although not yet a citizen, he has helped teach a citizenship class as the Company Commander for his JROTC unit.
Ironically, Paez’s legal status is what protects him from being sent to war. He is currently looking into taking courses at a local community college. Many of Paez’s JROTC friends ended up in the Middle East. “Three [JROTC members] from about two years ago went to Afghanistan and Pakistan,” said Sgt. Burnett, JROTC instructor at East Boston High, “And I have one currently in Kuwait, waiting to go into Iraq within the next couple of months. And I have one who was in the JROTC, quit the JROTC, and joined the service and he’s currently in Baghdad.”
Sofia Jarrin-Thomas is a freelance journalist who has published articles in Dollars & Sense, Commondreams. org, Boston Independent Media, and Z Magazine .
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