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Some resisting recruitment at high schools

October 31, 2005|by KAREN HANNA

karenh@herald-mail.com

Military recruiters better not call Donna Brightman's children at home. She wants different futures for her teenage sons.

"I'm not anti-military ... but I am anti-Iraq war," Brightman said during a phone interview Sunday.

At a time when military recruiters are struggling nationally to meet their new-soldier goals, parents like Brightman are indicating a reluctance to hear about the benefits the service branches have to offer. According to Washington County Public Schools, parents of 1,865 high school students have returned forms telling the system not to release information about their children to recruiters.

That's a "hiccup," according to Lt. Col. Kevin Preston, who is in charge of recruiting for the Maryland Army National Guard.

But for Brightman, it's a start.

"The military was a good choice - and is a good choice - for some children, and if they want, I think they can go out and they can find (out about) it," said Brightman, who has tried to steer her sons, ages 16 and 18, from being soldiers.

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The No Child Left Behind Act, which sets federal standards for academic achievement, stipulates that schools must provide contact information, including students' phone numbers and addresses, to military recruiters unless parents specifically request that access be denied.

About 6,400 students attend Washington County's eight public high schools. In all, the military could be denied information for about one-third of Washington County's high school students.

That's a shame, Preston said.

"It's an opportunity the kid may not get, and it's such a good opportunity for young people," Preston said by phone Friday.

Last year, before the school system began providing the forms in student handbooks, only a handful of parents asked that the information be kept confidential, school spokeswoman Carol Mowen said.

This year, parents of 523 students at Boonsboro High School alone have said they do not want recruiters to reach them at home. The Citizens Advisory Council at the school last year lobbied for the system to supply parents with the forms, Brightman said.

At Williamsport High School, 306 forms were returned.

According to Preston, military recruiters rely on schools to provide contact information, but they use many means, including personal meetings, to court prospective soldiers.

"A lot of what we do is you start with the child, and you educate the parents along the way," Preston said.

About 40 soldiers joined the ranks of recruiters this year, and while they showed improvement each quarter in the number of military prospects they signed up, they still fell short of enlistment goals, Preston said.

The state's goal was 1,179 new soldiers; recruiters found 947, Preston said.

Parents' influence - not their decisions to grant or deny recruiters contact information - has the most potential to affect enlistment goals, military sociologist David R. Segal said. As the director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland at College Park, Segal has traveled outside the country to places he said he is not allowed to identify following military trends.

While people have demonstrated a willingness to separate their perceptions of soldiers from their views on war, Segal said surveys show young people's propensity to sign up continues to slide.

Like several students who approached a recruiter Thursday, 13-year-old Ryan Smith of Williamsport High School has a personal connection to the military - his father, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Dan Smith, is serving in Iraq. Ryan's mother, Shelly Smith, said she hopes he and her husband will talk seriously about the military, if it remains an interest.

"I don't want to ever dissuade him from anything, especially serving his country. I would support his decision. I would just want him to think about it first," Shelly Smith said.

Brightman said she worries many students are too young to make a mature decision about the military while still in high school. Parents are responsible for protecting them from choices they could later regret, while making them aware of all of the options they have, she said.

"Historically, I have a problem with sending young children to fight old men's disagreements," she said.

Preston acknowledged like novices in any field, new recruits do not necessarily join with their eyes totally open. The military is a good choice, though, and he said he is confident the Maryland National Guard can make its quotas.

Last year, 163 prospective soldiers signed on in the district that includes Washington County. Recruiters here made their target, Preston said, and the forms should not be enough to prevent a repeat.

"Will it have a little bit of effect? Yeah, a little bit, but I don't see it stopping the wheel from turning," Preston said.

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