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Schools shouldn't be wary of military recruiters

By PHILIP GAILEY, Times Editor of Editorials

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 1, 2002

This holiday season finds thousands of young Americans in uniform risking their lives in Afghanistan, Bosnia and other trouble spots around the globe. Meanwhile, here at home, troops are beginning to ship out to the Persian Gulf to prepare for a war with Iraq, and, if war does comes, thousands of men and women who serve in the National Guard and military reserves will be leaving their civilian jobs and families to follow.

Too many of us have forgotten what it's like to be called to serve our country. We have an all-volunteer armed forces, and we have smart bombs, cruise missiles and deadly drones that have lulled us into the notion that war need not disrupt our daily routines or require sacrifice. Too often we fail to even show our gratitude for the soldiers, sailors and aviators in harm's way.

Maybe that's why I have trouble mustering much sympathy for parents and school administrators around the country who are objecting to a new law that requires public schools to provide military recruiters with the names, addresses and phone numbers of juniors and seniors. The information will be used to contact students by mail and by phone. The law also requires schools to allow military recruiters on their campuses. Schools that refuse to comply risk losing federal aid. Congress included these provisions in President Bush's education package, the No Child Left Behind Act. If parents object, the law gives them the right to request that school officials withhold the information.

Critics of the new law, which was added to the education bill with little debate, may be right when they argue that it is an invasion of student privacy and an affront to local control of schools. But in a country that abolished the military draft three decades ago, it doesn't strike me as a terrible imposition to require schools to give military recruiters greater access to their students, especially at a time when the armed forces are struggling to meet their recruiting goals. The military needs 210,000 recruits each year to maintain an all-volunteer force. The Pentagon figures that greater access to schools will substantially reduce recruitment costs. Who knows? Some students may even be attracted to a military career, as shocking as that might sound to the country's educated and economic elite.

According to the Defense Department, before the law went into effect, as many as 2,000 of the nation's more than 21,000 high schools were off-limits to military recruiters.

For too long many of our high schools and some of our most elite universities have barred military recruiters and banned ROTC on campus as the nation's elected leaders looked the other way. At Harvard and other Ivy League universities, it began as a way of protesting the Vietnam War and quickly morphed into outright hostility toward the military itself. In more recent years, as Vietnam has faded in our national memory, the reason has been the military's discrimination against gays. That principled position, however, never kept these universities from seeking research grants from the Defense Department. The message was: Send your money but keep your recruiters away.

Earlier this year, the Bush administration decided it was time to force the issue. It gave the universities a choice -- either allow military recruiters access to your students or face the loss of federal aid. Harvard, for example, risked losing almost $400-million. That got their attention, and now the gates have swung open to military recruiters at institutions where the best and brightest are educated. Who knows, maybe some Harvard man will enlist in the Army and volunteer to serve in a war zone. Al Gore did during Vietnam.

In a recent commentary in the Washington Post (and reprinted in this newspaper on Wednesday), Frank Schaeffer wrote with powerful emotion about his son's decision to join the U.S. Marines after graduation from a private high school in the Boston area. "What a waste," the parent of another graduate said to him. Another parent, a university professor, suggested that the school should "carefully evaluate what went wrong."

Schaeffer, who writes novels and lives "on the Volvo-driving, higher-education-worshipping North Shore of Boston," said he feels shame "because it took my son's joining the Marine Corps to make me take notice of who is defending me."

He asks some questions for our time: "Have we wealthy and educated Americans all become pacifists? . . . Or have we gotten used to having someone else defend us? What is the future of our democracy when the sons and daughters of the janitors at our elite universities are far more likely to be put in harm's way than are any of the students whose dorms their parents clean?"

Those are questions worth thinking about before slamming the door in the face of military recruiters.

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