View Full Version : Counter-recruiting battle may head to court

09-03-08, 08:48 AM
Counter-recruiting battle may head to court
By Mitch Weiss - The Associated Press
Posted : Wednesday Sep 3, 2008 8:06:42 EDT

WILKESBORO, N.C. — Sally Ferrell bounded from the truck and grabbed a posterboard sign that read: “War is not the Answer.”

Over the years, she’s organized dozens of peace vigils like this one being set up in a parking lot. Find common ground, she has always preached, and any conflict can be resolved.

But she’s now engaged in a conflict of her own — a dispute over military recruiting in high schools that has polarized rural Wilkes County.

Ferrell is a Quaker, a faith known know for opposition to war. For three years, she has asked permission to distribute pamphlets that warn students to think twice before joining the military. But the school superintendent has stopped her, calling her activities unpatriotic. The American Civil Liberties Union, seeing this as an issue of freedom of speech, has threatened to sue.

“The students need to know there are alternatives to the military,” Ferrell said. “But they’re not getting the other side.”

Recruiters have turned to high schools to help fill the ranks of the military. And they need volunteers more than ever. After five years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and longer deployments, the military has been hard pressed to meet recruitment demands. They say U.S. casualties — more than 4,600 troops killed and 64,000 wounded in both wars — have dampened recruiting.

In recent years, thousands of people like Ferrell have joined dozens of counter-recruiting groups. They say some recruiters give misleading information about military service and often target high schools in poor, rural areas where options for graduating students are limited; the activists want students to know they have prospects other than joining the services.

Most schools have allowed counter-recruiters inside. Wilkes County’s opposition could trigger a legal battle.

“Are we going to pursue litigation? I think it’s pretty clear that the school board isn’t giving us any choice to do anything else,” said Katherine Parker, legal director of the ACLU’s North Carolina chapter.

On the slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Wilkes County is a rural area where people worked in textile mills and furniture factories until those manufacturers left. Now most jobs are in fast-food and retail, and members of Ferrell’s group say the faltering economy has made the county a fertile recruiting ground for the military.

“Many students feel like they have no future,” said Tom Morris, 56, a retired engineer and small business owner.

Helen Clark, another activist, recalled the night Ferrell decided to become a counter-recruiter. She and Ferrell were having dinner with friends, including several high school teachers who complained about recruiters coming into high schools and approaching students in the lunchrooms.

For Ferrell, 63, the conversation brought back memories of when her son Jesse was in high school and a recruiter kept calling her home — even after she told the military to stop.

Growing up in a Quaker household, Ferrell remembered her mother espousing nonviolence and heard stories of her grandfather’s suicide after he was gassed in World War I. Her parents counseled Vietnam-era draftees about becoming conscientious objectors.

After that night, Ferrell began collecting materials from anti-war groups, filling her home with boxes of pamphlets. She never expected resistance from the school district, but Superintendent Stephen Laws reviewed the materials and told her in the spring of 2005 that he wasn’t going to allow her in the schools.

He said the military was a good career choice for students who weren’t going to college. He also didn’t think people should say anything negative about the military.

Disappointed but determined, Ferrell called lobbied school board members, but the board backed Laws’ decision. Ferrell then turned to the ACLU, and after two years the group reached an agreement with the board allowing her in the high schools twice a semester.

Ferrell set up a “peace table” in the hallways, where she handed out materials and talked to students about AmeriCorps and other alternatives to the military.

“All we want to do is make students aware that there are other ways to find college money and serve your country without joining the military,” she said. “We want to save lives.”

But by December, Laws said he had complaints about Ferrell and told her she was no longer welcome.

“We allow recruiters into the schools to recruit for post-high school opportunities. But she wasn’t offering that,” he said.

Recruiters say the controversy has made their job more difficult. Before Ferrell’s campaign, they had unfettered access to schools. Now, they can only visit twice a semester. And they have to stand at a table outside the cafeterias; they can’t sit down and talk with students eating lunch.

“I may not like it, but you have to live by the rules,” said Army Sgt. R. Scott Gianfrancesco.

High schools are still the best place for leads, said Gianfrancesco, 38. Under federal law, schools are required to turn over students’ names, addresses and phone numbers to military recruiters. The Army wants 80,000 enlistees a year, and Gianfrancesco says his office has to sign up four people a month.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, enlistments shot up amid a surge of patriotism. But Gianfrancesco said many parents now fear their children will be sent to fight in Iraq or Afghanistan.

A recent recruit, 20-year-old Josh McGrady, said it was a recruiter’s pitch in school that eventually led him to the Army. He was working at a retail store after spending parts of three years at a community college. His bills — including student loans — were piling up. His father worked at a window-and-door factory for 30 years, but McGrady said he didn’t want that life.

“You could be laid off at any moment,” he said.

Tired of struggling, he walked into the town’s Army recruiting office. His parents support his decision, but his sister, a bank supervisor, tried to talk him out of it. Three soldiers from the county have been killed in Iraq.

“She’s worried I’m going to get blown up,” McGrady said. “I’m a little nervous, too, but there’s not much else here.”