The Arcata and Eureka Youth Protection Acts -- measures F and J, respectively -- aim to keep military recruiters from targeting minors: "Stop Recruiting Kids!" demands the website for the citizen initiatives (stoprecruitingkids.org). In order to defend the defenseless from the nation's defenders, the acts must first face the voters. If they win that battle, the Youth Protection Acts could face challenges on legal grounds.
The identical measures were born through the efforts of former Arcata City Councilmember Dave Meserve, along with 83-year-old Eureka resident and infantry veteran Winfield Sample and a host of volunteers, all of whom say these ordinances are necessary to guard against unscrupulous recruiters who, in their quota-fueled zeal, bamboozle impressionable youths -- filling their sponge-like minds with glorified notions of honor, patriotism and adventure while downplaying the potential for death, dismemberment and traumatic stress.
"They're coming here, and they want to take our kids to war," Meserve said. While it's already illegal to enlist minors unless they're 17 and have parental consent, Meserve explained that there's more to recruiting than enlistment. "Recruiting is the act of encouraging or enticing someone to join," he said, "and recruiting starts way earlier ... The Army handbook encourages recruiters to gain the trust of even seventh and eighth graders."
Said handbook is an 11-chapter guide to successful conscription techniques that couches the recruiters' mission in marketing terms: An initial meeting with a student, for example, is called a "sales presentation." Like most marketing experts, the guide suggests gettin' ’em while they're young.
"If you wait until they're seniors, it's probably too late," the handbook reasons. Recruiters aim to make "first contact" during the summer after junior year. "This plants awareness of the Army in their minds," the guidebook continues. "Remember, first to contact, first to contract."
Measure J volunteer Jane Stock said there's hard science behind this approach. "Brain research shows that youths age 16 and 17 find the military more attractive," she said. "They're more aggressive, they're prone to making impulsive decisions and they're vulnerable to outside pressures." Eureka activist and former school principal Jack Nounnan agrees, saying recruiters feed into the gun-happy, consequence-free violence of popular culture. By the end of the pitch, Nounnan said, young students are "so pumped up, it's almost like a video game experience."
Ridiculous, says Marine Corps Sgt. Matt DeBoard, the marketing and public affairs representative for the recruiting station in San Francisco. "We're trying to be a positive influence in the schools," he said via phone interview last week. "We're not abducting people in the middle of night. They want to be Marines."
The local military recruiting offices sit in a trash-strewn corner of the Victoria Place strip mall. The walls inside the Marines office are adorned with framed ads ("The few. The proud."), photos of recent recruits and a mural depicting the flag-raising at Iwo Jima. Atop a science-fair-style diorama sits an AT4 rocket launcher and a small stuffed bulldog in fatigues, its plush head wrapped in a keffiyeh -- a souvenir brought home by a soldier who served in Iraq.
Sitting behind his desk last week, Gunnery Sgt. Dan Sage said he enjoys being a recruiter. He likes seeing the difference in the men and women he sends off to training. When they come back into his office, he can see that they're on a good path. The simple fact, he says, is that many teens want to go into the military -- no arm-twisting required. "They seek us out," he said. And invariably, he added, they're happy to have done so. "I have yet to have an individual that I've put in the Marines come back and say they regret going in," Sage said.
They're out there, Meserve insists. The Humboldt Committee for Conscientious Objectors fields hundreds of phone calls from disgruntled soldiers through its G.I. Rights Hotline, Meserve said -- soldiers who say recruiters misled them, promising jobs or benefits that never came through. While gathering signatures for Measures F and J, volunteers heard stories from angry parents and students who said they struggled to fend off pushy recruiters.
The Youth Protection Acts wouldn't prevent minors from approaching recruiters; it would just prevent recruiters from approaching minors. Enforcement would be complaint-driven. But legal experts say the ordinances could potentially violate federal law. The No Child Left Behind Act stipulates that schools receiving funding under the Act must provide the same access to recruiters as colleges provide or lose said funding. Beyond that, the measures could be deemed unconstitutional. As reported in the Journal earlier this year ("First to Contact, First to Contract," April 17), legal experts say the acts may violate recruiters' freedom of speech and the federal government's authority to raise a military.
Meserve is confident, however, that the measures will stand. The purse strings attached to No Child Left Behind aren't at risk, he said, because it's the voters -- not the schools -- making restrictions. As for the First Amendment, he says it was designed to protect the people from the government, not vice versa.
"People think we're anti-American or anti-military," he said. "We are not trying to stop recruiting; we're not expecting to end the war or change the whole structure of the military. We're just saying, bottom line, it's wrong to recruit kids. That's it."
Sgt. DeBoard said the military has its own absolute: "Bottom line: We've got a mission, and we're going to make it happen no matter what."
Something has to give.