Juan Antigua still remembers the day last June when students at his Bronx high school poured out of the building during lunch hour to hover around a brand–new Hummer decked out in Army paraphernalia and blasting loudspeakers. Now, Antigua, 16, is bringing a counter recruiting message inside his school.

Dayl Wise survived Vietnam. These days, the 57-year-old civil engineer-turned-poet regularly visits local high schools and encourages students to come up with a plan for their lives before the military gives them one.

Maggie Gram of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) has been helping teams of volunteers flyer outside the city’s largest high schools since the new school year began. The goal: Let students know they have the right to ask their schools not to hand over their personal information to military recruiters.

Antigua, Wise and Gram are part of a disparate but growing movement against the Pentagon’s recruiting machine. Composed of concerned parents, students, longtime peace activists and graying Vietnam vets, it is a movement that has gradually gained momentum over the past couple of years both here in the city and around the country, even when the larger antiwar movement faltered and demobilized. The counter-recruiters are energized by the chance both to prevent young people from ending up in Iraq and to directly affect the military’s ability to continue prosecuting the war.

“For 20 minutes, nobody will pay attention to you and then they will be swarming us asking for more information and telling us stories about recruiters in their school,” says Gram, who is the director of the NYCLU’s Project on Military Recruitment and Students’ Rights. “The kids we have talked to know what it means for recruiters to target communities of color and to be told that the military is the only chance for making it in life.”

RECRUITING SLUMP

The renewed surge in counter-recruiting comes at a time when the Army is trying to rebound from its worst recruiting year in over a quarter century. In the fiscal year that ended on Sept. 30, the Army fell 6,600 enlistees short of meeting its year-end recruiting goal of 80,000. The Army Reserves and Army National Guard experienced even steeper declines in their recruiting. The Army’s New York City recruiting battalion alone fell almost 2,000 enlistees short of its assigned goal of 3,858 new active duty recruits, according to a battalion spokesperson. With its nearly unlimited resources, the Army has responded by adding another $130 million to its advertising budget and bumping up its total number of recruiters to 12,000.

“This issue has caught fire around the country,” says Steve Theberge, an organizer with the War Resisters League Program on Youth and Countermilitarism. “It’s about shifting consciousness and getting people to see that recruiters are predators who don’t belong in our schools and our communities.”

Here in New York, as elsewhere, the movement’s progress has been painstakingly incremental. In August, the city’s Department of Education (DOE) agreed after two years of protests to distribute “optout” forms in class to high school juniors and seniors who face having their personal nformation given to military recruiters under a provision of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. Previously, opt-out forms were only sent in the mail to parents.

“The fact they are trying to organize it is a major step forward,” says David Tykulsker of Brooklyn Parents for Peace. “Before, it was every school for itself. There was no policy or system. It wasn’t even clear where those forms were supposed to go, and they were only printed in English.”

Gram says the NYCLU has persuaded the school district to create a system of accountability for high school principals to make sure they are following through and keeping track of whether each student opted out or not. “It’s a small technical thing but we think it’s a big victory in a low-key way.”

Gram says New York’s efforts can be duplicated elsewhere. “If the biggest school district in the country can do it right, then other school districts can do it right too…We think we can push other school districts that say they are too big or unwieldy to fully protect their student’s privacy rights to do so.”

Hoping to build on the success of the opt-out campaign, many counter-recruiters are restlessly looking for other ways to make an impact. A coalition of local peace groups has a resolution before the City Council Education Committee and the Panel for Educational Policy (the successor to the former city school board) that would restrict the movements of recruiters inside schools and guarantee equal access to pro- and anti-recruitment messages. “Have you ever seen a recruiter from Yale or Harvard have the run of a school, including the gym and the library?” asks Jim Murphy, an administrator at West Side High School in Manhattan. “It’s ludicrous.”

REMEMBERING VIETNAM

Others like Dayl Wise are taking a more direct approach. He and Murphy (who is also a Vietnam vet) will speak at about 25 high schools this fall. “I’m trying to reach the kids in the back row, because that’s where I sat– in the back row,” Wise said recently before speaking to a 12th-grade English class at West Side High. A ripple of unease moved through the room when Murphy described sitting up with mortally wounded Marines who had had chunks of their brains blown away and were waiting to die, and again when Wise described the putrid smells of the veterans hospital where he recuperated from a serious leg wound.

“I want you to have a plan. Do you have a plan?” Wise asked, moving toward a student who was nodding off in the back of class.

“No.”

“Get a plan,” Wise snapped. “I don’t want you to end up in the hospital like me.”

YOUTH LEADERSHIP

While adults continue to play a crucial role in the counter-recruiting movement, Theberge is optimistic that young people will increasingly emerge as its leaders.

“The conversation is going to be much more real. It’s going to be about youth taking back control of their lives, not adults coming in and saving them.”

For Juan Antigua that means starting a counter-recruiting group at DeWitt Clinton High School that will allow students to talk to other students about military recruiters and their promises. “They will tell you anything,” he says. For the YA-YA (Youth Activists Youth Allies) Network, it means organizing an alternative career fair early in 2006 that will give students access to information about vocational trade schools, college prep, financial aid, Americorps and overseas volunteer opportunities.
“We need to provide alternatives instead of just telling them [other students] not to go into the military,” says Raymond Cyrille, 17, a YA-YA organizer who attends Mt. St. Michael High School in the Bronx. In Bushwick, 18 students from the El Puente Peace and Justice Academy have been canvassing since the summer to warn about deceptive recruiting practices and to spread the word about non-military options for youth.

Theberge is facilitating regional youth leadership training camps around the country this fall. The most recent one, held in Voluntown, Connecticut from Oct. 8-10, brought together about 35 youth activists from around New England, two thirds of which were working-class youth of color who live in urban centers. On Nov. 17, the National Youth and Student Peace Coalition will hold a nationwide “Not Your Soldier” day of counter-recruiting actions and speakouts.

“The vision is that a year from now we can hold a national week-long camp,” Theberge says. “We want to build a national youth movement against the war led by youth who are most affected by it.”

With Iraq serving as the most powerful antiwar message of all, the counter-recruiting movement is likely to grow stronger over the next couple of years. Some organizers see that as only the beginning of a much larger task.

“The system that produced the war still needs to be changed,” says Oscar Castro, Director of the American Friends Service Committee’s National Youth and Militarism Program. “We can have a great impact on this war. But by design, our work is intended to end U.S. militarism around the world and here in the U.S.”

For more news on the counter-recruiting movement, see counterrecruiter.net