Counter-Recruiting in the Red Zone

John Tarleton Apr 6, 2005

Debbie Roath’s husband is an Army reservist who spent 15 months in Iraq fighting a war that neither of them believed in. Roath, a pastor at a small church in Slater, Missouri, is now leading the effort to bring more information about the military to students at her daughter’s high school in the nearby town of Marshall.

“I feel my husband and many, many other soldiers were used for the financial gain of those in power,” says the 41-year-old mother of five “I find a lot of scriptural support that leads me to believe that peace is the better way.”

With the military’s enlistment numbers dropping and a “counter-recruitment” movement becoming increasingly active in college towns and major urban centers, the battle for the hearts and minds of possible enlistees is spreading to the more conservative parts of the country, where the military draws a substantial amount of recruits. Small-town counter-recruiters like Roath are working on difficult cultural terrain, but the bloody stalemate in Iraq has given them a chance.

Roath and two other peace activists tabled at Marshall High School for the first time on Feb. 25. She said about 50 students approached her. To her surprise, many were critical of the war. She plans to table again in April, and will also try to get counter recruiting information into the guidance counselor’s office.

“They [the students] were very interested in conscientious-objector status and what it’s about and how you build a file,” Roath said. “We also wanted to get across that the military is not the only way to get college money.”

“We asked them to consider if they would be able to kill even if they think they are going in for the money,” added Wanita Blumhorst, who tabled with Roath.

An Old Soldier’s New Mission

Tim Pluta of Mars Hill, North Carolina, asked himself that same question before he was discharged from the Air Force in 1979 as a conscientious objector. Spurred by the Iraq war, he helped start a North Carolina Veterans for Peace chapter that has grown to 67 members. Pluta, 49, has spoken about military life to high students in nearby Asheville and to students at Mars Hill College. He emphasizes that he never tries to tell young people what they should do.

“I started out thinking of myself as doing counter-recruitment and modified my approach to being a military-enlistment educator,” Pluta says. “We don’t want kids going in for educational benefits and four years of seeing the world, because that’s not what it’s all about. There are people who come up to us and say, ‘This really happens in the military? We didn’t know that!’ We know some of this material is making an impact.”

While Asheville is relatively liberal, Madison County, where Pluta lives in the Smoky Mountains, is fiercely conservative. He plans to table at the county’s only high school this spring, and is also raising a ruckus with letters to his hometown paper about plans to bring Junior ROTC into the high school – with taxpayers in a poor county footing half of the estimated $80,000 bill.

Where every day is military day

In Reedley, California, Victoria Benavidez, 18, can’t recall a single day she hasn’t seen military recruiters at her high school. Located in the deeply conservative Central Valley, Reedley is a poor, predominantly Hispanic town of 20,000 where there are few jobs, and the military is seen as a promising alternative. Career Day at Reedley High draws few college representatives, but is a magnet for military recruiters who arrive in flashy Hummers and offer students a chance to test their mettle with rock-wall climbing and chin-up contests.

Benavidez helped start Students for Peace at her school two years ago. The group recently decided to focus on counter-recruiting, with an eye toward May 20, when the school hosts its annual Military Day.

“It’s exciting because this is the first year we’re taking action,” says Gigi Fejardo, also a senior at Reedley High.

Students for Peace, which has about 15 members, will pass out literature during the week leading up to Military Day and will hold a teach-in at school on May 19. Fajardo says at least one student she knows has already backed out of enlisting after coming to the group for more information.

“A lot of students are quite surprised,” she says. “Mainly what gets them is when they find out their recruiter gets more money for each student they get. They feel like they are being used.”

Benavidez and Fajardo, both of whom plan to attend college next fall, say that they emphasize to fellow students that it’s still possible to find money to go to college without enlisting in the military.

Challenging the military in deeply conservative communities isn’t easy. Fajardo says she and her friends are derided as “hippies” by other students at school, while Pluta says he has been “lambasted” by local superpatriots. For Debbie Roath, who denounced the Bush administration for extending her husband’s tour of duty twice while trying to cut his hazardous-duty pay, speaking out has left her at times feeling like an “antipatriotic rebel” and has put her at risk of alienating her 45-member congregation.

“The first time you speak out it is a big deal. Then people come to terms with how you feel and are more accepting the next time you speak out,” she says. “We’ve come to understand that we can disagree on some things and still care for one another and love one another.”

Her daughter Kelsie, 14, is helping start a student peace group at Marshall High. Meanwhile, Roath hopes to bring a counter-recruiting campaign to Slater, Missouri, an intensely pro-military town of 2,700, where her congregation is located.

“All they are hearing is ‘Isn’t it great to be a soldier?’,” she says. “Once we get our system going here and get a good grounding, then I’ll try to recruit someone over there to do the work.”

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