Just Say No to Uncle Sam

Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg

To keep the war in Iraq going, the military needs soldiers, lots and lots of them. So they’ve underwritten a multi-billion dollar advertising campaign, selling adventure, money, education, camaraderie, purpose and honor. The ads play relentlessly, often interrupting a vacuous episode of some dating show I’m enjoying on MTV. They all offer variations on a theme: a young Black kid tells his mom he found a way to pay for college; a man starts a new job using the skills he learned in the Army; a father tells his pudgy uniformed son he never shook his hand and looked him in the eye before. Fade to black … the U.S. Army.

What unfolds in my edited collection, 10 Excellent Reasons Not to Join the Military, are stories by military parents, soldiers, veterans, lawyers and journalists about what doesn’t make it into those ads. They describe the real life of a soldier – complete with lifelong injuries, inadequate care, insanity and death. And if the Bush administration follows through with its plans for a nuclear air strike against Iran, as Seymour Hersh recently reported in the New Yorker, American soldiers may soon find themselves enmeshed in a worldwide war with endless military retaliations.

This one little book may not be able to topple the machine it’s up against. But the billions spent on advertising campaigns can’t change one essential truth: The military is about war.

Here is just one reason not to join the military that I can offer from my own experience with that machine: you might be lied to.

The Hard Sell

It’s either jail or the military,” said Jeannel Bishop, a senior at Brooklyn’s South Shore High School and counter-recruitment activist. Many students at her school think enlisting is their best option.

When Navy recruiters visited South Shore, students were allowed to leave class to meet with them. Bishop brought pamphlets and confronted the recruiters about their assurances of tuition and training. She pointed out to them and other students nearby that getting college money was a much more complicated and uncertain process. 

I was taking over their whole show,” Bishop said. “[The recruiters] were amazed.” 

Three students who had been pumped up about the military” had second thoughts after Bishop spoke. It took just a little information for them to have doubts, she said.

After speaking with several students like Bishop and American soldiers, I decided to see recruiters’ tactics first-hand. When I posed as a potential recruit, I stayed as close to the truth as possible. 

I told them I was temping as a secretary in a doctor’s office for $8.00 an hour. I had no health insurance, and I was about $60,000 in debt from student loans. All of this was true. Some small lies were necessary, though. I said I was 21 (I was 25 at the time) and had completed three years of college (I have a master’s degree). Most importantly, the recruiters knew that I, like so many of their young targets, had financial troubles.

When I met with the recruiters in their downtown Manhattan office, they kept holding out their golden ring: money. 

Sgt. Preto sat to my right, Sgt. Mack to my left [Editor’s Note: the names of these recruiters have been changed]. Preto barraged me with promises that the Army would make me financially secure. It would cancel my debt. If I went back to school, the Army would pay 100 percent of my tuition. I would work until 4:30 and go to school at night. Full medical and dental … Thirty days paid vacation … Unlimited sick days … Live rent free. 

He pulled out a chart divided into a hundred little boxes. He pointed to the numbers in the boxes and showed how my pay would go up and up and up. I’d earn about $1,400 a month, with all living expenses covered. His friend was earning $60,000-$70,000 after he left the Army. He said soldiers had received a twenty percent raise since Bush was in office.

What other job would promise you’d be debt free, fully insured, and making $1,400 a month?” he asked.

But when I hesitated, he asked why. 

I’m just really concerned about going into combat.”

So you’re scared?” he teased. That’s the first thing you mentioned, I don’t want to go to combat.’ “

He pointed to Sgt. Mack: He went for five months.” And then at a recruiter across the room: He went for a year. They went. They’re OK.”

The mocking continued. He asked if I had an 8:00 curfew in high school. He said I was probably the sort of kid who was locked in my house on a Friday night.

They asked me a few other questions about my limited athletic abilities and drug history. If asked if I had ever smoked pot, lie and say no, they instructed.

As I sat in the office, several teenagers who looked about 18 or 19 walked through. All were either black or Latino. Each was greeted warmly and with affection.

Finally, it was time to meet Sgt. Suarez – the closer.” He was a smiling, flamboyant, well-groomed man with carefully gelled hair and a weak handshake. He told me he grew up in Puerto Rico in a blue-collar household. He now had a college degree, he said, pulling out a white binder and flipping to a plastic-covered diploma. He had two houses. He had traveled all over the world.

At one point Suarez asked me, in classic car salesman mode, What can I do to get your name on this [agreement]?” Like all salespeople, recruiters are under intense pressure to meet their quotas. The 2006 Defense Authorization bill proposes a $1,000 finder’s fee for soldiers who successfully refer new recruits to military recruiters.

He told me I could choose any job I wanted, provided their test qualified me. If I didn’t get the job I wanted, he would get on the phone and make sure I did. I could travel to Germany, Hawaii, Alaska.

Wait. Stop right there. Would recruiters really need to lie, harass and push their way into public schools if they just gave out all-expense paid trips to Hawaii and gobs of college money? 

The truth is most people who sign up for the military aren’t going to Germany, Hawaii or Alaska. They’re going to Iraq. The Los Angeles Times reported that half the recruits going through Fort Benning in Georgia will be deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan 30 days after finishing basic training. The rest will likely go during their first enlistment

I told Suarez that my mom was worried about my going into combat.

You could get shot – God forbid – in front of your apartment. More people were killed in New York last week than Iraq,” he said repeating one of the recruiters’ favorite mantras.

Recruiters will do or say just about anything to convince young people that the Army is not about war. No, the military isn’t all guns and tears and pain. It’s hip, cool, rebellious even. (My recruiter told me to cut the umbilical cord” when I said I didn’t think my mom would approve.)

Recruiters will prey on any opening they have to young people– including military-sponsored video games and rock concerts, soliciting outside malls, accessing private information through testing, and offering free iTunes, as well as by exploiting kids’ boredom and frustrations. 

But no place is quite as fertile for recruiters as public schools. Under No Child Left Behind, public schools have to turn over their students’ private information or they risk losing federal funds. Students can opt-out” but most schools don’t publicize this option and recruiters find other ways of getting in.

The 2004 guidebook for high school recruiters offers detailed instructions on how to gain the trust of students and teachers:

  • Know your student influencers. Students such as class officers, newspaper and yearbook editors, and athletes can help build interest in the Army among the student body.” 
  • Attend athletic events at the HS. Make sure you wear your uniform.” 
  • Deliver donuts and coffee for the faculty once a month. 
  • Coordinate with the homecoming committee to get involved with the parade.” 
  • Get involved with the local Boy Scouts … Many scouts are HS students and potential enlistees or student influencers.” 
  • Offer to be a timekeeper at football games.” 
  • Contact the HS athletic director and arrange for an exhibition basketball game between the faculty and Army recruiters.”

Recruiters don’t put that time and energy into every school. They go to schools with students from poor and working class backgrounds, where young people want a way out but don’t see any. 

The National Priorities Project found that in 2004 almost two-thirds of recruits were from counties with median household incomes below the U.S. median. Seventy-five percent of the top 20 counties with the highest number of recruits had higher poverty rates than the national average.

The New York Civil Liberties Union publicized training materials from the Defense Department’s Joint Advertising and Marketing Research and Studies Web site, which explicitly targets black and Latino youth. One section details the obstacles of recruiting black teens, such as widespread opposition to the war in the black community and well-known hip-hop artists speaking out against the war.

The marketing report states:

  • Because of this influence, the Hip-Hop community’s negative views about the war in Iraq are also influencing their thinking on this subject. 
  • As a result, there is a need for the military to enlist other influencers and employ the best direct marketing vehicles to engage prospects and help counteract this view.

There may be no better example of recruiters’ exploitation of hopelessness than Hurricane Katrina. In the aftermath, the Wall Street Journal reported, military recruiters were in the Astrodome, urging folks who had lost everything to sign up.

These recruiters offer what society doesn’t – money for college, a promising future and a fulfilling career. Why is it that lower income people have to risk their lives for these opportunities?

And once you sign up, recruiters’ seductive promises often evaporate. 

The DOD Enlistment/​Reenlistment contract says: Laws and regulations that govern military personnel may change without notice to me. Such changes may affect my status, pay, allowances, benefits and responsibilities.”

Kim’s son didn’t expect to see combat when he signed up. The recruiter told him he could pick a job in accounting, but once he was in, the only jobs open to him were in infantry. He was sent to Iraq.

My son, Josh, was lied to by the recruiters– by the government – from beginning to end,” Kim told me at an anti-war protest in Harlem. My son doesn’t understand why we’re there. He tells me, I’m only 19. I haven’t lived yet and I’m already facing the possibility I might not come home.”’

Countless recruits who were told they would never see combat are shipped to Iraq. This includes people who signed up for the National Guard –so-called weekend warriors” who are supposed to work at home, helping with disaster relief. 

As of October 2005, about one-quarter of American soldiers’ deaths in Iraq have been National Guard and reservists. The Guard and Reserves have not been so widely used in combat since World War II.

And what about those promises of college tuition and job training?

Well, as Vice President Dick Cheney reportedly said, The reason to have a military is to be prepared to fight and win wars…it’s not a jobs program.” 

Just to qualify for the Montgomery GI Bill soldiers have to pay $100 a month for a year – and that is still no guarantee they’ll have their college tuition covered. If a soldier serves at least three years and is honorably discharged then he or she is eligible to receive up to $1034 a month for up to thirty-six months – a total of $37,224. As of 2005, four years for an in-state student at Rutgers University costs $72,540. For an in-state student at Indiana University, four years cost $50,912 to $57,104.”

According to Tod Ensign’s book, America’s Military Today, 15 percent of those who use the GI Bill earn four-year college degrees. To qualify for that $50,000 splattered on the Army ads, recruits have to sign up for infantry, armor or artillery – which greatly diminishes their chances of making it to college in one piece, or at all.

And the recruiters mocked me for being scared of going to Iraq?

As of this writing, more than 2000 American soldiers have been killed in Iraq and more than 30,000 have been injured. 

The New England Journal of Medicine reported that about one in six soldiers returning from Iraq experience mental health problems. Military families are often abandoned by the Army and forced to fight for proper medical care, as well as deal with the financial pressures of deployment, extended tours, and illness. And don’t look to the Bush administration for help. They’ve cut funding to VA hospitals and soldiers’ combat pay.

But in the recruiter’s shiny office there was no mention of death or injury or killing. Instead, they offered me a way out of a dead-end job and overpriced New York rents. For every problem I had, they had a solution. 

Needless to say, the truth is not an effective recruiting tool.

This excerpt originally appears as You May Be Lied To” in 10 Excellent Reasons Not to Join the Military. Reprinted with the permission of The New Press.
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Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg is the editor of 10 Excellent Reasons Not to Join the Military, published by The New Press.
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