The U.S. military utilizes a number of different recruitment methods to garner new enlistments, but their target audience has consistently remained the same: high schoolers, particularly young men from low-income and rural areas. Eighteen is the youngest age one can join the military without parental permission, but the armed forces still regularly market military propaganda in schools. Although the military does enjoy support within the public system, a grassroots movement of students, teachers, parents, and organizations has led efforts to reduce military recruitment presence and activities on high school campuses.
“We face an uphill battle not only because of the prominence of militarism in our society but [also] because there has been a lack of foresight by progressive people who aren’t thinking about what can happen 10 years down the line,” said Rick Jahnkow, former program coordinator for the nonprofit Project on Youth & Non-Military Opportunities (Project YANO) and a current member of the organization’s board of trustees.
The U.S. military has been an all-volunteer service since the end of the draft and the Vietnam War in 1973, making aggressive recruitment efforts essential to maintaining its 1.3 million-member active-duty global military force. Military recruitment in public schools isn’t new, but the level of access the military has to students and their information has increased alarmingly over the past several decades. Notably, recruiters got a significant boost when then-President George W. Bush signed the “No Child Left Behind” Act into law in 2002—under Section 9528 of the act, schools can lose their federal funding if they fail to allow military recruiters the same level of access to students and their private information as they do to other recruiters from community colleges and universities.
Students and their families can decline to share their private information with the military. But while some schools have chosen an “opt-in” approach where affirmative permission from parents is needed before recruiters can initiate contact, most use an “opt-out” method where student information is given to recruiters unless parents explicitly say no. Schools can also be opaque about parents’ options to limit access to their children’s information, which disproportionately affects time- and resource-poor households, such as single parents, parents who work multiple jobs, those who are English language learners, and families who are simply unaware of these policies to begin with, by making them easier targets for recruiters.
To help even the odds for students and their families, organizations such as the National Network Opposing the Militarization of Youth (NNOMY), which includes Project YANO and Truth In Recruitment, a Santa Barbara, California-based group that works to ensure students understand the consequences of a military career and their alternative options, provide advocacy and support to communities hoping to reduce recruitment activities and military presence on high school campuses. For example, Project YANO offers young people an alternative point of view to the often romanticized pitch given by recruiters, and much of that student outreach comes from members who are themselves armed forces veterans. However, advocates are under no illusions about the immense challenges they face by going up against the full might of the U.S. military’s financial and political resources, and its grip on American culture.
Baiting the hook for students in need
Unlike most other developed nations, the U.S. allows military recruiters to actively work within its educational system. Recruiters visit thousands of high schools across the country annually, recruiting students who are still minors, setting up tables in cafeterias and hallways, during career fairs, and even at school sporting events. In many instances, they’re allowed to freely roam school grounds in search of students, or often sit with students eating alone in the cafeteria. Military recruiters will often spin elaborate yarns promising excitement, adventure, and being “all you can be” to entice young people.
In reality, military recruiters will often peddle false hope for honor and acclaim and make exaggerated promises of financial reward. This has been underscored by fluctuating enthusiasm for the military among youth. According to a 2020 poll conducted by the Department of Defense, 11% of respondents ages 16-24 said they were likely to serve in the military in the next few years. As a result, the U.S. military has ramped up its recruitment efforts, often resorting to deceptive tactics to prey on the naïveté and oftentimes desperation of many young people. Recruiters regularly sell the notion that in order to pay for college, learn valuable skills, or even serve their communities, joining the military is the right path.
However, the potential drawbacks of joining the military for recruits of color often manifest themselves in a variety of unsettling and troubling ways. In fact, according to a study organized by Blue Star Families’ called “Social Impact Research 2021: The Diverse Experiences of Military & Veteran Families of Color,” 42% of service members of color surveyed turned down an assignment or permanent change of station order because of concerns about racism and discrimination. Another 34% of veterans surveyed said that concerns about racial and ethnic discrimination were a factor in whether or not to remain in the military.
“We try to educate people on the limitation of those so-called ‘benefits’ that are being promised, when in fact they’re rarely anything that can truly be promised,” Jahnkow said.
U.S. Army Public Affairs was contacted for comment without response.
While the military has a number of different approaches to entice potential recruits, the prospect of funding for college has been among one of the key “benefits” recruiters have used to entice students leery of becoming trapped under a mountain of student debt. Jahnkow explained that recruiters will often use distorted financial incentives to sway students into enlistment because they know money to pay for college is a key motivator, especially in low-wage communities, where youth are underrepresented in higher education. In fact, college benefits for military personnel aren’t guaranteed and depend on the circumstances around one’s discharge from the military.
“You have to get a full, honorable discharge in order to access those benefits,” said Kate Connell, former executive director and one of the co-founders of Truth In Recruitment. “If you get a gentle discharge or even a medical discharge you’ll lose those benefits.”
The promise of potential citizenship is another tactic that military recruiters often dangle before potential recruits who are undocumented. The military doesn’t and can’t grant U.S. citizenship directly to undocumented people, which is handled by an entirely different government agency.
“Only people who have legal residency can join the military,” Jahnkow said. “Anybody who is undocumented technically is violating the law if they succeed in enlisting because they have to conceal that fact.”
Currently, the only advantage that a legal resident could have by enlisting is having their application for citizenship sped up, although that isn’t guaranteed. Jahnkow also noted that although Latinx people are still slightly underrepresented in the armed forces, recruiters have quickly shifted their strategies to court Latinx communities as the fastest-growing population in the country after Asian Americans. Such tactics have included running ads targeting Spanish-speaking parents rather than students.
Project YANO has been a primary source for Spanish language literature and information on curbing military recruitment nationwide for many years. Three-quarters of Project YANO’s board of trustees is fluent in Spanish, and the organization regularly collaborates with the Chicano student advocacy group Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (M.E.Ch.A.). They’ve even created brochures specifically made for Spanish-speaking parents to inform them about the inherent risks their children face if they pursue military careers.
“Most high school-aged students have English speaking skills,” Jahnkow said. “It’s the parents who can be easily misled by recruiters if they have very limited English skills.”
Normalizing military presence in school communities
In many ways, some of the biggest roadblocks to curbing military recruitment in public schools come not from the recruiters, but from school administrators. Historically, efforts to regulate the presence of military recruiters in schools, even in settings beyond public schools like higher education, have produced strong opposition. Many military and veterans groups claim that such steps are “anti-military” and undermine their ability to recruit members. In some cases, military recruiters have such close relationships with school administrations that they are a regular presence in high schools, so much so that students and staff perceive those recruiters as school employees. Advocates noted how the normalization of military recruiters as an everyday part of a school’s community doesn’t just increase their access to students; it creates a false sense of familiarity between students and recruiters that can make students more receptive to being recruited.
In 2018, Truth In Recruitment helped spearhead a movement to remove a noncommissioned California National Guard recruiter who actually had an office on Santa Maria High School’s campus. Although the recruiter was officially listed as a “volunteer” who was supposed to facilitate an anti-bullying and holistic “rehabilitation” program, the office essentially served as a de facto recruitment center. Literature, pamphlets, and banners for the California National Guard were plastered both inside and outside of the recruiter’s office. A California Public Records Act request revealed that school policy dictated that volunteers could not use campus space to promote another business, and the recruiter was eventually removed. The school’s principal, however, was not happy and subsequently banned Truth in Recruitment from participating in career day events or giving presentations to students on campus.
Military efforts to recruit high schoolers were slowed down by the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent closure of campuses between 2020 and 2021. However, those same obstacles have also hindered anti-military recruitment groups from reaching students, even as children have returned to campus and schools have resumed more regular operations. As campuses have slowly reopened, some educators have noticed the disproportionate favoritism military recruiters receive in public schools, particularly those that serve low-income and communities of color.
“Since we’ve returned to in-person instruction, military recruitment on our campus has been a near-daily occurrence,” said Marco Amaral, a special education teacher and board president of the South Bay Union School District in Chula Vista. “I see somebody from the military on our campus nearly four out of five days a week, while I’ll see a CSU [California State University] or UC [University of California] recruiter maybe once a month on campus.”
Additionally, student activism around military recruitment in schools has lagged compared to other contemporary student movements, despite an overall drop in enthusiasm for the military among youth. Amaral speculates that student activists’ attention is currently more focused on other contemporary social issues that seem to more directly and immediately affect young people. While military recruitment and the broader anti-war movement are interwoven with many of those issues—such as low wages, immigration policies, xenophobia, and racism—the connections can be murky, especially within a culture that still valorizes military service and normalizes military recruitment targeting young people.
“I think a lot of people don’t understand how ingrained military culture is in the public school system,” Amaral said. “And given the dynamics of campuses that serve under-resourced, historically marginalized students, it seems that unfortunately organizing against military recruitment is far down on the list of priorities.”
Jessica Ortega, a Spanish and English language development (ELD) teacher at Oceanside High school, says that students can also be deterred from organizing on campus when a school administration has a cozy relationship with the military. Oceanside High lies a mere three miles from Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton and since many administrators hold the military in high regard, student activists would likely run into significant pushback.
“Although our student population is mostly kids of color, our administration and teachers are not,” Ortega said. “White teachers and principals believe the military will help the kids advance as adults.”
Planting seeds in hostile land
Some notable gains have been made in limiting military recruitment and presence on campuses. In the past, Project YANO has held presentations in schools, participated in career fairs, handed out flyers outside of campuses, and supplied material support to students who’ve led their own campaigns to limit military recruitment in schools. In 2009, it joined the student-led “Education, not Arms” coalition in demanding that the San Diego Unified School District prohibit programs for weapons training on shooting ranges that operated in 11 high schools through the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC). They also confronted the school district with the fact that students were involuntarily being placed in JROTC classes, noting that many low-income students and students of color were being diverted away from higher education and into the military. The effort was successful, with the San Diego Unified School District ultimately banning on-campus rifle training by the JROTC.
Other groups, such as Truth In Recruitment, have also made strides to curb military recruitment in the Santa Barbara public school system. In 2014, after a two-year campaign, the Santa Barbara School Board passed a district policy regulating recruiter access to students. The policy limits recruiters to two visits a year and bans soliciting student contact information directly from students and simulated weapons displays. It also requires distributing an opt-out form barring the release of student directory information and disallows any disruptions of normal school activities, such as recruiting during class time.
Unfortunately, the “normal” that officials and policymakers are so eager to have Americans return to includes a general lack of awareness and apathy toward how deeply military worship is embedded in American culture and what a military recruitment presence in public civilian institutions like schools can mean for vulnerable students from marginalized communities. Faced with the loss of both funding and momentum due to the pandemic, many anti-military recruitment groups are still trying to regain their foothold inside public schools.
“The kind of issues that we are addressing are not the most popular ones, even among what we would call ‘progressive’ activists,” Jahnkow said. “Trying to confront and counter the effects of militarism and its effects on people and communities is just not something that draws a lot of support.”
Despite a lull in activism, organizers, parents, and teachers remain dedicated to ensuring that schools don’t become de facto recruiting stations and that all students are fully informed about their options, understand the risks of enlisting, and have equal access to educational opportunities. Jahnkow noted that given the number of potential military conflicts looming on the horizon, counter-narrative efforts to military recruitment pitches in schools are even more critical.
“What Project YANO and other orgs really do is seed planting, but the military has been seed planting on a daily basis in schools everywhere for decades,” Jahnkow said. “And until people who oppose these wars get involved in the education system where the seeds are being planted, they will forever be marginalized in their efforts to mobilize opposition against those wars.”