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Army Recruiters Take Day to Reflect on Ethics of Job

Faced with declining wartime enlistment numbers and charges of inappropriate or abusive recruitment practices, in an unusual move, the U.S. Army suspended its recruiting activities Friday (May 20) for one day. The 7,500 Army recruiters nationwide were given orders to stay at their stations and take the day to review the ethical and legal guidelines of their job.

In Texas recently, an Army recruiter allegedly threatened a high school student with arrest if the student changed his mind and decided not to enlist. The recruiter didn't have the authority to threaten the young person with legal action. In Colorado, another recruiter allegedly suggested a student falsify his high school diploma and conceal drug abuse from Army drug testers.

Bill Carr, U.S. Deputy Undersecretary of Defense (Military Personnel Policy), says these incidents - if proven true -- are rare. "The vast majority of recruiters are doing a terrific job," he says, adding that "cheating, misrepresentation or encouraging people to do that" is not tolerated. "The recruiting services of the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines go after it [the problem] and eliminate it. It's not what the nation wants of us, not what we want of ourselves. When anything like that is mentioned, we'll look into it, and if a recruiter is not operating honorably, then they shouldn't remain a recruiter"

Still, U.S. Army officials report more than 300 substantiated cases of allegedly improper recruiting tactics last year, a 60% increase in 5 years. Many recruiters reportedly have resorted to aggressive tactics because they've had a hard time meeting the Army's recruiting quota of 2 enlistees a month. Enlistments are down, experts say, due in large measure to the more than 2-year old Iraq War.

The recruiters, who visit more than 20,000 high schools a year, have also been challenged on some of the campuses by anti-war activists, who call themselves counter recruiters.

Mahdi Bray is the executive director of the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation, which is part of an association of anti-war, religious groups that oppose the military presence at high schools. Mr. Bray says he is concerned that more high schools are opening their doors to military recruiters.

"Sometimes, they do it through assemblies. Sometimes, there's after-school participation in the gymnasium," he says. "Students are invited to come in. There have been actual assemblies in which recruiters come in and pitch [sell the idea] for joining the military. Sometimes military recruiters go in and they make it look glorious, adventurous, things of that nature. We're concerned that when schools open themselves up to military recruiters, it's a kind of quasi-endorsement of the process and that young people are quite impressionable."

And a little-known provision of a 2001 education reform law known as No Child Left Behind allows Army recruiters to gain access to valuable information -- names, phone numbers, and addresses of 17 and 18 year old students.

But Bill Carr of the Defense Department says the Army's not getting special treatment at high schools. "The way the rules are set up in the federal government -- whether it's military recruiters or yearbook companies -- is that schools would announce their intent to release certain information and parents would make a choice if they wanted to opt out of that release of that information," Mr. Car says. "Schools provide parents those choices, and they decide whether or not the information would be available to military recruiters, yearbook companies, or to any other of the host of third parties that the school might be interested in disclosing the information to."

Mr. Carr adds that, in his view, the Army recruiter has been a welcome presence at school events. "You might find a recruiter, for example, attending a sports event or even a sports practice," he says, pointing out that athletes are physically fit and often leadership-oriented and may therefore be more interested in a military career. "So they [recruiters] make themselves available. Aside from that, they would perhaps contact students and see if the student is interested in talking with them and try to make an appointment. The student may or may not be interested."

"I would say that anything that informs American youth correctly about the military," he says, "is going to turn events in the military's favor. The military is an institution that has a lot to offer young people." Especially in the financial area. Annual salaries range from $20,000 to $50,000 for enlistees.

Mahdi Bray of the Muslim American Society says many young people find the money hard to resist. "There is a tremendous pressure when you look at the economic situation in America," he says, "when you look at job opportunities, when you look at the [dwindling] opportunities for middle class and working class kids to go to college today with the increase in college interest loans about to go up, to double almost in July, with the cutting of Pell grants [federal aid for tuition] and other things of that nature. And with the military coming along and saying, 'We can resolve all these for you,' certainly that's, within itself, a certain amount of economic pressure or economic incentives for people to consider the military."

Bill Carr of the Defense Department says that, except for isolated cases under investigation by the Army, there's no pressure of any kind put on the teenagers. "That patronizes the young person and assumes that they somehow can't make decisions for themselves or process information when it's presented to them," he says. "I don't see that trend among American youth. They know very well what the options are before them and what's right for them. The young person is going to have concerns about the sacrifices, what does it mean to me, what is the probability of being exposed to risk."

Mr. Carr says all of those issues are discussed objectively, adding, "It would be smug on anyone's part to assume that the volunteer is being cajoled or taking on the decision to enlist and to serve as something other than what's right for them based on the facts presented, the information available, and making a wise choice."

Army officials say recruiters contact approximately 1 million young people each year and about 200,000 of those young people sign up. Anti-war activists say their message to students is clear and simple -- no matter what the Army recruiter says, you can always say no.