It’s been nearly three years since the war in Iraq began — and with more than 2200 American casualties to date, it’s no secret that military recruiters are being forced to work harder than ever. The most obvious reason is that our current military involvement is not slowing down. Last month the US suffered almost exactly as many casualties as the first month of the war (61 in January 2006; 65 in March 2003). But recruiters are still forced to fill their quotas — which means that despite plummeting interest, military enlistment must somehow remain as steady as the discouraging casualty rate.
How is this possible? Some people, like 19-year-old Deering High School graduate Bret Tonelli, believe high school students may not be properly educated about post-graduate alternatives to military service.
“Military service is obviously a very important decision in anybody’s life,” says Tonelli. “If you’re going to sign on, you should know everything about it.”
Tonelli is working with Maine Veterans for Peace to promote alternatives to military service to high school students. Last month, the group, which does not directly offer education or job opportunities, was denied some forms of access to Portland’s public high schools.
“The superintendent of schools said that she was denying us because they don’t allow groups in for the use of ‘debate’ — but we’re not trying to debate ... the military recruiters pretty much have unlimited access — so we’re just trying to balance that out,” explains Tonelli.
But Superintendent Mary Jo O’Connor explains that the group was not entirely refused. “I told [Tonelli] that we’d be happy to have them in to do an assembly...but they wanted access in the same way that our college recruiters and military recruiters have.” Public schools are bound by law to open their doors to college and military recruiters. The problem with giving alternative groups “equal” access, O’Connor explains, is that they do not directly offer career options for students. “They aren’t recruiting anything other than a point of view.”
But Tonelli’s effort is not exactly counter-enlistment. Combining recent high school graduates with war veterans, the group hopes to provide information to all kinds of students — including important tips on reading the fine print for those who plan on enlisting. But the idea of "alternative" is a tricky issue.
“Part of what makes this tough is that everything is an alternative to military service — Disney, Microsoft, and every prospective employer — those are all alternatives,” says Ben Meiklejohn, an at-large member of the Portland School Committee, which recently passed a policy limiting any group — public or private — to seven recruiting visits a year. But since all five branches of the military (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard) qualify as separate groups, it is still possible for Portland’s high schools to host a military recruiter every week of the school year.
“There’s no other side to the story that is at least as accessible as military recruiters,” says Tonelli, who complains about being his access being restricted to assemblies and other “indirect” forms of advertisement.