Beyond the Call of Duty | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Beyond the Call of Duty

Anti-war activists believe they can muster the might to counter armed-forces recruitment

The last straw for Dave Frantti was the game of "gator ball" in his gym class.

As a 15-year-old sophomore at Penn Hills High School this year, Frantti had noticed the Army National Guard display in the guidance counselor's office, and the flight-simulator truck parked outside his school. He had endured overhearing "screaming and marching," as he describes it, outside his last-period chemistry class from dozens of uniformed students in the school chapter of Navy Junior ROTC.

Frantti was in favor of the Iraq War when it started, and has never attended an anti-war protest. But when a pair of recruiters in Army T-shirts and camo pants took over his phys-ed class in early March, he'd had enough.

"Do we have to do it?" Frantti says he asked the gym teacher.

"Just like a normal day," came the reply, "you'll drop a letter grade if you don't do it."

Playing the recruiters' game (which involved running between cones with a ball) instead of the usual hockey wasn't an issue for Frantti. What bugged him was the recruiters' "spiel," says the student, about how great the Army is, "how you could pay for college and there were tons of opportunities."

At the end of class, one recruiter passed out a form, asking students' names and addresses, whether they liked the game and whether they wanted information about the Army.

"I was disgusted with it," Frantti says. "I wasn't sure what to do. He didn't say, 'You have the option of filling this out.'"

Frantti wrote "No" as his game assessment and placed the paper on a gymnasium bench without volunteering any other information.

"Nothing you can do about it," he recalls his father saying when he got home.

Indeed, says Matthew Cummings, Penn Hills School District spokesperson: The school was just following part of the federal No Child Left Behind education act, which says public schools must provide "the same access" to military recruiters as they give to college recruiters and prospective employers. It's rare to find a representative of local businesses or universities taking over a class, but hhile Cummings would not discuss the gym teacher's grading policy, he says it's proper for Frantti's participation in "gator ball" to count toward his phys-ed grade, "because it was a physical activity."

Military recruiters are "in no way a threat to any child," assures Dale Terry, chief of advertising and public affairs for the Pittsburgh Recruiting Battalion of the U.S. Army. (One of the recruiters who visited Frantti's class, whom Frantti later identified at a Penn Hills High School career-fair table, did not return several calls to his Monroeville recruiting office.)

A few weeks later in Newsweek, Frantti's father spied a note about Pittsburgh punk band Anti-Flag's new anti-recruiting Web site, The site offers links to groups leading the counter-recruitment movement across the nation, as well as information on how to oppose the Junior ROTC and contact local media. It also told Frantti about another provision of No Child Left Behind: the chance for a student's parents to opt out of giving away their child's contact information by sending the school a simple letter.

But Frantti and his parents were concerned that if he didn't allow military recruiters to get contact information, college recruiters wouldn't be able to find him either. They haven't sent the letter in yet. Next year, Dave Frantti says, they will.

"Next year, when I see that [gym] program coming in, I'm definitely not going to do it," he concludes. "Next year I'll take the lower grade, I guess."

By next school year, Dave Frantti may have some support for his protest.

Pittsburgh Organizing Group is leading a local counter-recruitment movement that is reaching critical mass this summer. Since May, the officially leaderless and often anonymous organization, which is partly responsible for Pittsburgh's recent anti-war protests, has orchestrated pickets of several local recruiting stations and a recruiting table at Carnegie Mellon University. POG members have passed out counter-recruitment flyers at several city high schools. Now they're seeking a city permit to hold a more public counter-recruitment rally on Aug. 6 in Oakland.

Other groups have been working behind the scenes to reach kids, parents and teachers with the anti-recruitment message:

--The Quaker-based American Friends Service Committee wants to bring local kids together simply to talk about the war, its costs and other options for their future. "Do you know enough to enlist?" asks one of their latest brochures. Another decries the use of guns, real or fake, during JROTC activities where the presence of either in school would otherwise get a kid expelled.

-- Conscience, which has been encouraging current and potential soldiers to become Conscientious Objectors since the Iraq War began, has worked with Pittsburgh School Board member Mark Brentley Sr. to place counter-recruitment literature in city high schools, right beside the glossy military pamphlets. Board rules about student contacts by groups other than recruiters and employers have stymied this effort, but Brentley has pressed the board to consider notifying parents more prominently of the "opt out" option.

-- New York City-based United for Peace and Justice is planning a large anti-war demonstration in Washington, D.C., Sept. 24-26, including some mass civil disobedience. Members of the Anti-War Committee of the Thomas Merton Center, the Garfield social justice organization, will be participating. POG member David Meieran is a member of the UFPJ counter-recruitment working group, and says the combined effort is "the largest anti-war coalition in history."

-- The Merton Center is also leading the planning for an October regional anti-war conference here (see "Obviously, a counter-recruitment track will be a significant part of the event," says Meieran.

-- In June, representatives of counter-recruitment groups gathered from across the nation for their second annual strategizing session under the banner of the National Network Opposing Militarization of Youth (, with which POG maintains contact.

"After the invasion of Iraq, a lot of energy was channeled by the anti-war movement into protesting, legislative lobbying and, in some cases, electoral politics," says Rick Jahnkow, a spokesman for NNOMY. Those tactics didn't stop the war. But as the occupation has dragged on, many groups have decided that counter-recruitment may be a more effective strategy. The counter-recruitment movement has experienced "its most intense period of growth" in the last six months, Jahnkow says.

Meieran points to a June 8 Gallup poll that shows 60 percent of Americans now favor some sort of troop withdrawal from Iraq.

"The hubbub about military recruitment is directly tied to growing public opposition to the war," he concludes.

The counter-recruitment movement couldn't happen at a worse time for the military. While the Marines, Navy and Air Force met their May goals nationally, the active-duty Army -- the mainstay of Iraq War ground forces -- hasn't met its own recruitment goals since January. The Army National Guard missed its target by 20 percent in May, and the Naval Reserve and Marine Corps Reserve also fell short.

"[T]he recruiting mission has increased," says the Army's Dale Terry. "If we were judging off of last year's mission, we would be on track to make our end-of-year goal."

Army officials point out that re-enlistments for May among active duty, Guard and Reserve soldiers were more than 100 percent of the service's goals. But an Army memo obtained by The Wall Street Journal in June showed the service also searching for ways to keep new recruits from dropping out during training (in March, 17.4 percent left) or during the initial three years of duty (reportedly another 7.3 percent).

While the Army is adding recruiters and advertising dollars, it is also upping enlistment bonuses, increasing the top age range for Guard and Reserve eligibility and taking the greatest number of non-high school grads officials say they will allow: 10 percent.

Army recruiters held a "stand down" on May 20 to institute fresh trainings following accounts of alleged recruitment abuses, including a much-publicized CBS News report of a reluctant prospect threatened with arrest and another allegation of a recruiter suggesting ways in which a recruit could fool a drug test. On May 3, The New York Times reported the case of a man enlisted despite the recruiter's knowledge of the recruit's recent psychiatric hospitalization.

Meanwhile, in Iraq May was the deadliest month of the war so far for Marine reservists. And on June 23, 2,100 more Commonwealth soldiers were Iraq-bound, in what the Post-Gazette labeled "[t]he largest combat deployment of Pennsylvania Army National Guardsmen since World War II."

With troops who expected to be weekend warriors now facing deadly fire, it is the toughest atmosphere for recruiters since the all-volunteer service was created in 1973.

"There's a war going on, and the Army is competing with every other organization in the country," says the Army's Dale Terry. Parents, he admits, "weigh the odds: Do I want to send my son or daughter to the military and give them a chance of going to Iraq?" Army recruiting here "is going the same as it is across the nation. We wait until the end of the year to see what the outcome is."

Staff Sgt. Jason Rivera is in charge of training local Marine recruiters who go to high schools from Pittsburgh to Cranberry. He was a recruiter himself for much of 2003 and 2004. Despite the oft-heard charge that recruiters seek poorer minority students as likely prospects, Rivera says no demographic proved to be more desirable, or more likely to sign on.

Recruiters simply look for "good kids" who are "morally qualified," says Rivera. These are "[k]ids who want a challenge, who are looking for some sort of self-discipline" with no police involvement and "no serious drug use.

"It's a big misconception that recruiters are out for numbers and just trying to put kids in," he adds.

Nonetheless, like all service branches, the local Marines have explicit recruiting goals. They beat the 2003 goal of 553 recruits by one, then fell short of their 603-recruit goal by 35 in 2004. This year, as of April 31, the station had signed up 238, or 83.5 percent, toward its goal of 285. That's 30 percent behind pace to reach their target of 550 recruits by the end of September, says Major Michael Sherman, in charge of regional recruiting for the Marines.

Journalist First Class Joshua Hudson, spokesman for Navy Recruiting District Pittsburgh, laments the current image of recruiters: "You have the vision of the 1940s, Abbott and Costello, telling you 'This is the line for free cheese,' and the next morning you wake up and you're Shanghai'd," he says. "Don't get anybody wrong -- [recruiters] are recruiting. But they're out there recruiting among all the other recruiters" from colleges and trade schools.

. "Every college has got a recruiter who has the exact same pitch the Navy is offering. What they're not offering you is the military career mindset, the lifestyle."

The Navy, with the fewest service members ashore in Iraq, has been able to meet 1,100-person yearly recruiting goals in its Pittsburgh office, which covers the Commonwealth (except Philadelphia), for two years without difficulty, while being more selective than other branches, Hudson says.

Counter-recruitment pitches that emphasize wartime dangers hold no water for the 20-year Navy vet. "There's a cost to everything you do," he says. "I don't see anybody out there saying 'Don't be a policeman because it's risky ... don't be a fireman.' There are people in the world who need to realize that people need to take some risk to secure quality of life to be an American, or just a human being. I guess I do get frustrated over that sometimes."

"Mom, let people get by," says Katherine Drahnak, standing with a dozen POG-organized picketers in front of the military recruiting office on Forbes Avenue in Oakland. Her mother, Edith Wilson, a member of Conscience, protests beside her. The office is closed on this Saturday before Memorial Day, but that doesn't deter the group.

"I agree with that trite statement: I as a mother did not raise my children to kill other mothers' children," says Wilson. "I'm thinking it might be worse to kill than to be killed."

"I don't want my child growing up in a country that values war, violence and death more than education, health and welfare," says Drahnak, who is 22 and visibly pregnant. "God forbid I have a boy and they reopen the draft. The war might be going on in 18 years, the way it's looking."

The group gets sympathetic honks from some, the finger from others. "I love the war and I hate punk rock," one passerby shouts from a car. A black man on the sidewalk laments the proportion of African Americans in the Army: 22.7 percent by the Army's count in the January Soldier's Almanac, even though blacks make up 16 percent of U.S. population. "We're doing the dying," he says. "I'm glad y'all are here."

Piercing high schoolers' lack of interest or information may be harder. De'anna Caligiuri was among POG members who distributed 350 flyers to Schenley High School students on May 20. "The Real Deal on Enlistment" outlines: "the myth of easy money for college"; "the job training myth"; the number of casualties, including the less-publicized wounded, in the first Gulf War; and much more.

"Seeing as how it was real early in the morning, there wasn't a lot of expression on their faces," says Caligiuri. "But everybody took the flyer. Hopefully, it will make people feel like they do have options. Because that's part of the manipulation of the military: What are you going to do for money?"

Long-time local activist Alex Bradley represents POG's counter-recruitment campaign, along with Marie Skoczylas, a Merton Center employee. Opposing military recruitment, says Bradley, is one of the "only tangible ways that it's realistic for the anti-war movement to end this and future wars. Basically, we're fighting a war of containment against the government. I have no doubt that if the army had been twice as big as it was [in 2003], Bush would have pursued a different type of policy around engagement with different regimes, such as Syria and Iran."

POG intends "to confront recruiters wherever they are," Bradley says.

Adds Skoczylas: "We can be out there in the streets in Washington, D.C. or New York with millions of people saying we're against the war. But targeting recruitment here in Pittsburgh is a way we can have an impact at home."

Could a successful counter-recruitment movement reduce the all-volunteer Army ranks so much that the federal government resorts to a draft?

"Oh yes, the old canard," Bradley says. "Enlistment is (or at least should be) a quasi-referendum on how justified a non-defensive war is. ... This isn't a question of whether we'd be able to defend ourselves; it's a question of how much [we] can control the rest of the world. ... When you can't just go and occupy another place, it forces you to take diplomacy more seriously."

POG would "probably not" be starting a counter-recruitment movement in 1941, Bradley allows. "It's often clear when there's a legitimate threat" to America's safety. But that doesn't mean he agrees with all the country's war policies, no matter the era. "For me, it's not just a question of [recruiters] changing what they're doing, because I have a problem with what they do. Personally, I'd like to have recruiters kicked out of Oakland."

Brian DiPippa of Dormont, a 2005 graduate of Keystone Oaks High School, was among POG members demonstrating in front of recruiter tables at CMU on April 26. He first noticed recruiters in his school in 2002, "back when I started to get political." They were on the closed-circuit in-school TV station Channel One on mornings when he attended Parkway West Vocational Technical School. They were meeting with kids in the Keystone Oaks guidance office, manning a job-fair table at Parkway and holding a "military-style training," as DiPippa calls it, in his gym class.

"We were required [to participate] and I chose not to and lost credit for the day, along with some other individuals," he reports.

He objects to everything from recruitment practices to the very authority of the military to order the killing of others. "Throughout history, wars have generally profited the rich, and multinational corporations," he says.

POG's actions, DiPippa says, will take the counter-recruitment movement "straight to the source" -- recruiters in schools, and the potential recruits. "The military is already not meeting their quotas," he adds, "Here's a good chance to hit them while they're down."

POG's campaign charges that the main enticements for Army recruits -- college tuition and job training -- at best benefit a small proportion of ex-soldiers and at worst are misleading. Using financial incentives to recruit creates a de facto "economic draft," they charge.

"Most of the job training is for very highly technical military jobs, not necessarily skills you can use in the workplace," claims Skoczylas. And only 35 percent of people in the military ever get money for college because of GI Bill restrictions and the proportion of dishonorable discharges (which disqualify veterans from benefits), leaving only 15 percent of veterans to ever graduate from college after service.

Jose Llamas, a Veterans Administration spokesperson, said he did not have government statistics to answer POG's contention.

POG also claims that recruiter efforts to meet increasingly difficult recruitment goals have fueled an increase in reported abuses. The New York Times reports that there were only 199 "substantiated cases of what [the Army] calls recruitment improprieties" in 1999, 213 in 2002 and 320 in 2004, with charges ranging "from threats and coercion to false promises that applicants would not be sent to Iraq." One in five of all recruiters came under investigation in 2002. According to a May 18 report in The Christian Science Monitor, the Army has had "480 allegations of improprieties by recruiters since Oct. 1" of this year.

The counter-recruitment movement knows it must offer military-age adults another place to go for college money and job training, Bradley adds. One of POG's latest flyers is a guide to alternative-service programs, college scholarship opportunities, career help and social-justice groups.

The group also realizes they're beginning a public-relations battle against the military without a fraction of the federal government's advertising budget. The Army has long used a state-of-the-art videogame as a recruiting tool. This June, the Navy announced their own downloadable "Strike and Retrieve" game as a recruitment aid.

"They take what Gap and Nike do and they turn it into trying to get people to kill someone," says Bradley.

Jason McCamey's family experience in the armed services gave him many reasons to sign up with the Marines, he says, sitting in the Marine Corps Recruiting Station on McKnight Road in the North Hills.

"I'm going to be a tank driver, driving armored vehicles," says the Shaler Area High School honor student, who graduated on June 10. "I know I'll like it."

McCamey, 19, signed up for a four-year stint with the Marines in November and is headed for boot camp on Aug. 22.

"One day my dad and I came up here. They gave me a video and I watched it and I decided to join." The video, he explains was "about how boot camp is and how everyone at the end looks a lot sharper, stronger, and is able to handle situations a lot better."

The possibility of college money was a small factor, he says. He signed on "so I could learn to be physically fit and mentally stable. I am pretty smart but I wanted something more. Also, for my country too. If no one signs up, we're not going to have a country: That's the other thing.

"I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do after high school," he adds. He knew he didn't want to go to college right away. And his job in the deli at Festival Foods at McIntyre Square didn't seem like a career.

"I feel bad for some people," McCamey says. "They didn't make up their minds what they wanted to do when they were younger. Now they have these jobs that aren't so great and they aren't making a lot of money. Sometimes it's their own fault too -- they just didn't get motivated."

McCamey's motivation is easy to trace. His father served in the Navy and in the Army National Guard and will be signing up for the Guard again, McCamey says. His 17-year-old brother wants to do the same. But Marine recruiters provided the final push for Jason.

"I'm excited to go -- a little nervous, but I'll be all right," he says. "You come out so much better."

Media accounts of the dangers of the current war haven't influenced him at all. "They'll far-fetch it in particular," he says. And anti-war protesters, including the ones who say "Support our troops by bringing them home," don't impress. "It's just a shame that they don't have any respect for the country. No war is a good war. But you have to do what you have to do. I'm glad they support our troops. They should do their part by signing up."

The recruiting station's commanding officer, Major Michael Sherman, has 31 Marine recruiters covering West Virginia, plus most of Pennsylvania from the Susquehanna River west. Each has about 800 high school student prospects in as many as 15 schools. Recruiters sit at tables in cafeterias, teach history classes, run physical-fitness programs, speak to school bands, give career talks to vo-tech students and help with awards ceremonies and the color guards at football games. They can also be found at theaters, malls, gas stations, conventions, this year's Pittsburgh Regatta and community colleges.

And, of course, recruiters telephone those students who don't opt out of contact. At some high schools, Sherman says, that eliminates very few kids; at others, up to 30 percent of the student body. The Department of Defense has reportedly hired a marketing firm to supplement the No Child list.

"We don't have a sales pitch. We sell life skills," he explains -- the customs and "soldierly virtues" of the Marines. Recruiters identify potential recruits' needs "and show them how the Marine Corps can serve them." There are no quotas for recruiting particular races, he adds.

In his two years as commander here, Sherman has had to discipline only 3 of 70 local Marine recruiters for violations of recruiting procedures, he says. "Typically, it would be [that] the recruiter had knowledge of a disqualifying factor that wasn't disclosed. The important thing here is that it is taken very seriously."

The counter-recruitment movement will have a "minimal" effect, Sherman believes. The Iraq War is an impediment, of course, but parents are his primary obstacle: "We still have a lot of young patriotic people wanting to serve their country, but obviously the parents aren't doing their part, giving their support."

"Recruiters saying parents are one of their biggest problems is true but slightly disingenuous," POG's Alex Bradley counters. "It ignores the fact it's the policies of our government that are the most important detriment to recruitment. Parents no longer being a pro-enlistment rubber stamp for recruiters is merely a by-product."

Janice Hodge is one such parental obstacle for the Marines. If the Iraq war didn't create her pacifist leanings, it certainly strengthened them.

When her 16-year-old son Limiel began worrying about signing up for Selective Service, she started taking him to meetings of the local Conscience chapter, to which she already belonged. The meetings, she believed, "would give him power -- he'd know how to deal with this."

Limiel, now headed for his junior year at Shady Side Academy in Fox Chapel, has begun compiling a file to become a CO. At Conscience meetings, he is talking to the group about approaching other teens with the counter-recruitment message, "somewhere where there's kids who are on the borderline, who not only don't know whether they're going to go or not, they're at risk of being recruited," he says.

Recruiters had no entrée at his private high school, since No Child Left Behind applies mostly to public schools. But Lemiel says he was approached by two Marine recruiters as he stood outside at the Waterworks Mall in Fox Chapel. They drove off after a few preliminary questions made it clear he wasn't interested.

His friends at Shady Side, he says, don't care about the issue. They may be vaguely anti-war, but "they don't really think they're affected" by this one.

Such issues have affected the family of 21-year-old Matt Neely, who "said he wanted to enlist and he'd be going to boot camp this summer, and that was that," recalls his younger sister Ruthie, a Mount Lebanon High School student.

Matt, a political science and history major, was home for Easter during his junior year at Virginia Tech. "He said he's spent three years studying political systems and realized that we have the best," Ruthie says. "And he had done absolutely nothing to be lucky enough to be born into this. And he felt that everyone should do something to give back."

Their parents, she says, asked whether he was enlisting to get tuition help. "My dad said, 'Don't worry about it. If that's your main reason for enlisting, don't do it.' But he said no, he felt he should give something back to the country.

"Now he goes to boot camp this summer, [then] finishes his fourth year of college. They'll pay for him to go to law school and he'll do three years of active duty in the Marines."

While Neely couldn't be reached at boot camp, Lt. Scott Miller, spokesman for Marines Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island, South Carolina, confirms that Neely is in the middle of 13 weeks of training. Then it's off to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, for Marine Combat Training. Or Neely may go to the School of Infantry. "Those are the guys who are going to be on the ground over in Iraq," explains Miller.

Next, Neely will head to his Marine Reserve Unit for drills one weekend a month and two summer weeks per year. As long as Neely fulfills his reserve requirements, he can then proceed to law school and another reserve unit. Of course, if his unit should be called to active duty, presumably in Iraq, "pretty much all bets aside, his obligation is to the Marine Corps," Miller says.

"I don't know where it came from, to be honest with you," says Ruthie Neely of her brother's decision. All she knows is that she respects her brother's decision -- just not the military he has pledged himself to. "I'm proud of him -- I mean, that was a lot of willpower and belief in this country that I guess I don't have. What affected me most was when he said, 'Well, I'm going to give back.'

"Well, I'm going to give back by going to POG meetings and letting people see a different point of view than we hear every day."

Ruthie Neely, 16, joined POG months before her brother's announcement, but the two hadn't talked much since he went away to college. "He certainly knew I was anti-war but I don't think he realized how against the military I was," she says.

She began reading up on military recruitment only after joining POG, but she had attended several anti-war rallies. "I knew things weren't right in our society. The truths just weren't being spoken. ... It seemed like we weren't just trying to rebuild Iraq. It had to be something else."

When she hears that some recruiters believe there's only one way to support the troops, she bursts into tears.

"I will love my brother unconditionally," she says. "I will do anything I can to love him and I support his decisions, but I don't support the way our government is treating people -- not just Americans, but people."

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