The Re-militarized Zone

By Jill Colvin

Illustrator: J.D. King

Illustration: J.D. King

Days before classes end for the summer, Jamal Sanders, 17, cool and assured, stands with a group of friends, hanging out on the street in front of A. Philip Randolph Campus High School in West Harlem, N.Y., where thick iron bars wrap around windows and security guards quietly enter and exit the building, patrolling the block. For Jamal, like most high school students in the city who don’t have a close friend or relative serving overseas, the war in Iraq is a distant reality, though one that has brewed quietly in the background throughout his high school career. In June, the first high school class that grew up on the Iraq War graduated; this was the 9/11 generation come of age.

But at times, the war gives rise to battles of a different sort: the clash in cafeterias and counseling offices between military and counter-recruitment activists over access to the city’s schools and the tactics recruiters use to entice students too young to drink legally but old enough to enlist for war. In recent years, peace activists, parents, and students have joined together with groups like the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) to stage their own counter-insurgency against what they describe as the military’s use of heavy-handed tactics that go well beyond the appropriate means of conduct. They accuse the military of harassing students, manipulating them with lies and slick marketing, and disproportionately targeting low-income students and students of color.

Jamal and his friends complain of constant bombardment by military recruiters, whom they report are a common fixture in the school’s hallways and counseling offices. “They be up in the school. We try to get away from them,” he described, earning a chorus of nods from his friends. Jordan Smith, an 11th grader who is also 17, agreed. “They just don’t give up,” he said. “You get away from one person, and then you get another one.”

According to Jordan, recruiters often pressure students by telling them again and again that the military is the best or only way to pay for an education. “That type of stuff gets me mad,” he said.

But whether the experiences of these students are widespread is hard to say. While Jamal and Jordan estimated that there are about four to six military recruiters operating in the school in any given week, other students at A. Philip Randolph said that the number is really much lower and that recruiters aren’t much of a problem. Others said that recruiters tended to remain outside of the school, soliciting students on nearby street corners.

According to one Marine recruiter, asked that his name not be printed, the situation has changed substantially since the war began, with parents and teachers increasingly resistant to giving recruiters school access. The Marine, who now spends his afternoons standing in full uniform with three or four others on busy Midtown intersections, said the military faced a similar situation back during Desert Storm and Vietnam. “It all just depends on the time,” he said. “It’s real, and kids are taking casualties. If there was no war going on, the teachers wouldn’t have a problem.” As for interacting with kids, he says, “we only see them maybe now and then.”

But local antirecruiting activist groups like Youth Activists-Youth Allies (Ya-Ya) and the NYCLU report that military recruiters have not been dissuaded by opposition to the war, and still get far more access to students than other organizations. Amy Wagner, executive director of the Ya-Ya Network, a nonprofit, citywide child advocacy organization composed primarily of high school students and recent graduates of color, described how recruiters at William Cullen Bryant High School in Queens to Dewitt Clinton High School in the Bronx show up in big, flashy vans, blaring music to attract interest. It’s almost like drug dealers — showing their bling to impress and recruit — except instead of narcotics, they’re pushing service to country. At Bryant, she said, recruiters set up obstacle courses in the gym, taking over regularly scheduled classes, which isn’t allowed. Students can participate for a simple fee: turning over their personal contact information to recruiters.

For the military, recruiting is a $4 billion industry overseen by teams of market researchers, advertising agencies and recruiters, all working furiously to find willing bodies to fill empty boots on the ground. According to Army spokesman Douglas Smith, the military spent an average of $16,199 for each of its 73,373 individual recruits in 2005. That’s nearly $5,000 more than what the city spent on education per student in 2004. Yes, that’s right: The country can spend more to recruit a child for the military in a given year than to educate her.

Interestingly, statistics show that the number of accessions (military-speak for people who actually shipped to training) who were in high school at the time of enlistment has been declining since long before the war in Iraq, not only in raw numbers, but as a percentage of total recruits. In 2000, 19,044 accessions were high school seniors. That number had dropped to 11,302 in 2004, and stood at just 9,772 in 2006. That means that only about 10 percent of accessions last year signed their contracts while in high school, raising questions about whether results justify the military’s effort. According to the New York City Department of Education’s Division of Assessment and Accountability survey on the post-high school plans of 2005 graduates, only 1.2 percent planned to join the military services, while 63 percent planned to attend either a two- or four-year college.

“The focus on high school has changed over the past decade, with so many young people now wanting to go to college,” explained S. Douglas Smith, Department of the Army civilian public affairs officer at the U.S. Army Recruiting Command in Fort Knox. “As a result, young men and women may see the army as a barrier.”

However, The School Recruiting Program Handbook, printed in 2004 by the U.S. Army Recruiting Command, tells a very different story. The handbook, designed as a guide outlining regulatory requirements as well as successful recruiting techniques, begins with the following directive: “School ownership is the goal.” Recruiters are advised that they must “ensure total market penetration” with “an Army presence in all secondary schools.” The guide also advises recruiters to become as involved in school communities as much as possible, participating in social events and volunteering their service in order to make themselves indispensable. They are even told to always carry gifts to give administrators — from pens to mugs to donuts — to establish good will.

Many counter-recruiters also accuse the military of making promises to students that are either exaggerations of the truth — or outright falsehoods. In an effort to set students straight about these so-called “military myths,” the Ya-Yas run information workshops and distribute fliers that include statistics about how much money recruits actually receive towards school following service. Fewer than half of enrollees who pay into the GI Bill actually receive any money at all, they say, due to individuals’ non-completion of full enlistment contracts or because of disqualifications for receiving a “general discharge under honorable circumstance” instead of an “honorable discharge” for things like not paying child support, talking openly about being gay, or not meeting weight requirements. In addition, the organization distributes information about high rates of racism and rape in the military, as well as information about the high levels of unemployment, disability, and homelessness among former enlistees.

Christine Feliciano, a current Ya-Ya member who has just graduated from Christopher Columbus High in the Bronx, said that the war was also rarely mentioned by recruiters, who told students that their chances of being deployed overseas were slim. “They didn’t want to talk a lot about the war,” Christine said. “When people would ask, they’re like, ‘No, I don’t know. There’s a slight chance, but it’s likely you’ll just be, you know, running computers or something.'” That simply isn’t the case.

Counter-recruiters also charge that the military is unequally targeting a particular demographic: minority students who come from low-income communities. Statistics show that while nationwide the majority of recruits are white — often coming from poor, rural areas across the country — the case is reversed in NYC. Here, recruits are much more likely to be African-American or Hispanic than white. “In New York, it is clearly youth of color being targeted,” Wagner said with certainty.

But that’s a difficult charge to prove, especially in NYC, where, at the vast majority of public high schools, white students are in the minority and students are overwhelmingly poor. In 2005, the year of the most recently published statistics, only 14 percent of public high school students in the city were white, versus 35 percent black and 37 percent Hispanic. And over half of those students qualified as eligible for free lunches — often used as an indicator of poverty.

Evidence that recruiters specifically target minority-heavy and low-income schools has, until now, been for the most part anecdotal, relying mainly on the observations of advocate groups and students. According to Ari Rosmarin, field organizer at the NYCLU, the organization “has recently obtained recruiter school reports from many areas in New York that helps to illustrate the way that the military prioritizes its recruiting targets” through a Freedom of Information Act request over a year ago. But to bolster their case, the “Students or Soldiers?” coalition — which includes the NYCLU, New York Collective of Radical Educators, and Ya-Ya — has teamed up with the Manhattan Borough President’s Office to conduct a survey investigating the issue as part of its Project on Military Recruitment and Students’ Rights.

While the coalition is still processing the data, Wagner said that some trends have begun to stand out. “From what we’ve found from unofficial spot polling and from the data that’s available on the Board of Education website, it looks as though schools with large immigrant populations are heavily targeted.” She also said the data show that recruiters tend to target larger, general schools and to stay away from magnet schools and smaller, specialty schools where kids are more likely to go to college.

But military officials deny all charges that they specifically target certain groups. “There are a lot of myths out there about who we recruit and where from,” Smith explained. He says that recruiters simply can’t afford to target specific populations.

“Our goal is to reach as many potential candidates as possible. We could not possibly meet our mission by targeting limited communities,” he said. “Our mission dictates that we focus on all potential schools, communities and populations. If we didn’t, we’d be putting ourselves at a huge disadvantage in achieving recruitment numbers.”

However, Smith did say that recruiters naturally spend more time at schools with larger populations, where there are more students to contact, as well as at schools that have been more “productive” in the past.

“We’re like any other business,” Smith explained. “We’re like McDonald’s… [We’re] trying to give each recruiter a population that is large enough to recruit from.”

Emily Gockley, chief of advertising affairs for the NYC Recruiting battalion, echoed Smith’s words. “Our recruiters are expected to visit all high schools and colleges in the area,” she said, although the number sent to each school varies from station to station and school to school. Gockley also denied that the army specifically targets racial minorities or low-income communities. However, she did say that the military relies on “elaborate marketing segmentation analysis,” which uses a database of zip codes and other demographic information to determine which schools have a higher propensity for enlistment.

Students at targeted schools say that much of the problem is that, while recruiters may be present multiple times per week — often armed with flashy cars, cool activities, and slick sales pitches — students are presented with few other options. Wagner was particularly harsh on high schools for failing to help provide students with opportunities for the future.

“Our schools are being militarized. Recruiters don’t belong in schools. It lets too many schools off of their obligation to make sure that young people have post-high school plans,” she said.

“Many schools use the recruiter as a place to send the students they don’t quite know what to do with,” she said.

Jill Colvin is a writer based in New York. This is an excerpt from an article originally published in the New York Press. The full article can be read at