What Do They Have To Lose?

[Note: This article was written more than two years ago, but I'm still getting calls from the military for him.]

My oldest son is 17. He'll be 18 this fall— he'll have to register for the draft. But if the US Air Force has anything to say about it, he'll enlist before he's drafted (which seems a certainty if Bush gets re-elected, although one military official I spoke with recently said it was the Democrats who are fighting to reinstate the draft.) At a recent career day at my son's high school, the military had their standard presence there. My son filled out a post card for every single one of the branches of the military because he wants free stuff: one promised a shirt, another a video of a day in the life of a Navy seaman (or something along those lines). Many had freebies on their tables: magnets of stealth fighters, key rings with rubber stealth bombers on them, insulated travel mugs with the Army emblem emblazoned on them, Marine Corp coffee mugs. And of course, while the kids are looking at, picking up, inspecting and pocketing these freebies, the recruiters are there saying, "Here! Sign one of these cards if you want more information on how the military can help you get through college, how it can help you see the world, how it can help you to be a 'one-man army', how it can teach you to fly planes" or any other number of glamorous (to a 17 year old, anyway) possibilities. Or they're instigating "macho competitions" among the males: "You can get two free movie passes if you can give me 100 military pushups right now." I think my son even said that the Marine Corps said they'd give anyone who could do 1000 pushups a real marine sword.

These are high school juniors and seniors. They've got about a year and a half— maybe less— to figure out what they want to do with the rest of their life. Many in the area where I live can't afford college. Many will end up working in the factories in the area or eke out a living working in the family business or on the family farm. Few will leave the area— one friend of my son's lives on the same street with all of his cousins since his grandfather parceled out his farm to his children. And they all still live there. Fewer still will travel overseas. About half are from broken homes or single parent homes and virtually all are from homes where both parents must work. At this age, in today's chaotic world, with the uncertainty of the future ahead of them and the economy the way it is, the military presents itself in such a manner that it seems very appealing: there's guaranteed lodging, guaranteed food, guaranteed pay and they can't be fired! On top of that, they're told how much money they'll make if they get sent into hazardous areas, how the military will pay for their college education, etc. And the kids are thinking. "Hey, I won't have any bills and all my money will be mine to spend." (They usually aren't made aware that they have to purchase some of their own uniforms and pay to have them dry cleaned unless they know to ask these questions.)

On Tuesday, an Air Force recruiter contacted my son by phone. I answered the phone and, since it was an obviously adult male asking for my son, I asked who it was and who he was with. I then handed my son the phone and heard his side of the conversation with the recruiter. (He was sitting 15 feet away from me— I wasn't eavesdropping.) This sergeant asked my son some questions that I could guess about based on my son's answers: he mentioned the speeding ticket he just got (his first), he discussed the surgery on his knee to clean out a deep gash, he discussed his weight. And then, the sergeant made an appointment to meet with my son— but he did so without first getting my consent or even informing me that he was doing so. And, according to him and every one of the officers I've spoken with over the last couple days (including a lieutenant colonel at the recruiting headquarters in San Antonio), a recruiter is not required to get parental consent to meet with any minor child. He can go into the school and meet with him without my knowledge, he can arrange to meet him after school off school property without my knowledge. When I asked him what gave him the right to make such an appointment without my knowledge or consent, he said it was not illegal. My comment that perhaps it wasn't, but it certainly seemed immoral to me since he was essentially interfering in my right to raise my son as I see fit was brushed aside. I discussed this issue with the man for a good while, but ended up going up the line to his superior officer. In one day, I spoke with the staff sergeant, a master sergeant, a first sergeant and two lieutenant colonels. And from each of them, I asked the same question, "Why will the military not adopt a policy of informing the parent of a minor child that said child is meeting with a recruiter?"

Here are just a few of the responses I got:

  • It's no different than a job interview. You don't have to give your permission for your child to go on a job interview.
    • My rebuttal: My minor child cannot get a job in this state without working papers, which he cannot get without my permission. By signing such papers, I am made aware that he is looking for a job and job interviews are part of that process.
  • It's no different than him interviewing for any other job.
    • My rebuttal: Very few other jobs that my son might take will require him to lay his life on the line. No other job requires a commitment of a specific number of years out of his life. If he quits any other job, he's not going to wind up in jail for desertion or have "dishonorable discharge" stamped on his permanent work record that will make it very difficult for him to ever get another job again. The very commercials for the military make it clear it's MORE than just a job— that it's a new way of life.
  • We can't sign him up without your permission, so what's the big deal?
    • My rebuttal: I'm lucky to have the kind of relationship I have with my son. As scared as he was when he got that speeding ticket (his hands were still shaking an hour later), he walked in the door, put his things away and came out and told me about it. No hiding, no deception. I am also lucky that I can work from home and be involved in my sons' lives on a daily basis. I can adjust my own schedule in order to attend meetings with teachers, etc. That's not true for the majority of kids in this area. The way the policy stands right now, if the kids go to the mall to hang out, and on a dare or as a joke, they go in to talk to a recruiter and the recruiter is made aware that they are minors, he can speak to them and encourage them to join up when they're eighteen without ever being required to contact their parents. If the child knows that his parents dislike the military, he doesn't have to tell them he's speaking to a recruiter and the recruiter doesn't have to notify the parents that s/he's speaking to their child. The kid can go back and speak with that recruiter as many times as s/he wants, getting more information, etc. and the recruiter never needs to notify the parent unless they start to do any sort of paperwork.
  • The logistics of trying to get parents to attend the initial meetings is too much.
    • My rebuttal: Attending the meeting and getting parental consent are two different things. Informing the parent doesn't require anything more than a call to the parent— and you've already called the home, so simply ask to speak to the parent and inform them that their minor child wants to set up a meeting with them. At least the parent has the opportunity to say "no". Or have the child bring a permission slip or a note from a parent stating they're aware that the child is meeting with the recruiter. Current policy gives no such guarantee. A child who feels misunderstood or unfairly treated (and what seventeen year old child doesn't) or whose home life is not all that rosy can be unduly influenced by a military recruiter. The child can meet with the recruiter, hear only one side of the story (which the military, like any prospective employer, will paint in the most becoming colors) and then join up on their eighteenth birthday.

My question to military recruiters is simply this: "What do you stand to lose by adopting a policy whereby the parents of minor children give permission for their child to meet with a recruiter?" Imagine, if you will, the uproar over a teacher arranging to meet a student, alone and after school hours, off school property, in an attempt to influence that child to take a career path that would contractually obligate the child to a certain number of years, where the child could be sent anywhere the company chose and where the possibility was ever present that the child would be sent to a foreign country where they could be shot at and killed all the while not seeking the parent's permission to meet with the child. How long do you think such a teacher would last? Or consider this possibility, completely feasible under the present system, although I'm sure the military will deny this ever happens. A kid gets mad at his parents for grounding him for coming home drunk from a football game. He's 17 and he shouldn't be grounded. Everyone drinks at the games! So he sneaks out of his house with an "I'll show them!" attitude. He goes to the local recruiter who tells him he can't sign up until he's 18 without his parent's permission. Well, this 17-year-old knows it all (as do all 17 year olds it seems) and he asks if there's any way they can waive that rule just for him. He's sure he's going to want to sign up and his birthday is only a month away. So the recruiter says, "Well, we could date the papers the day after your birthday. Then if you change your mind before hand, you just come back and we'll tear them up." The kid agrees, forgets why he was mad by the end of the week and forgets to go back and get the papers to tear up. A month later gets a call to report for training and says, "But I don't want to go now! I just forgot to come back and tell you! I signed those papers while I was still a minor! They're not legally binding!" The recruiter points to the date and says, "That's not what the paperwork says, son!" That couldn't happen if recruiters were required to notify a parent that a child was speaking to them. While I was told countless times that they encourage parental involvement, and each time I asked, "Why not require it?" no one would answer that directly.

I can, off the top of my head, think of at least three things they can gain. First, they'd not have to deal with irate parents like myself who find the fact that the military can arrange these meetings without parental consent to be absolutely ludicrous and an infringement on my parental rights. Second, they wouldn't be getting negative publicity like they're getting with this article and with the letter to the editor that I'm going to write when I'm done here. And third, they'd be taking the moral high road and showing respect for the rights of every parent to raise their child as they see fit. They'd be following the spirit of the law instead of the letter of the law. But I digress.

So what, if anything would the military lose by instituting such a policy?

They would, quite frankly, lose their largest recruiting pool: the children of the poor. Lower income families are often either single parent families or ones in which both parents must work. At the risk of sounding like I'm spouting stereotypes, they are also the ones that seem to have the most restless or perhaps rudderless children. Maybe frustrated or discontented is a more appropriate way to describe them. Children who often are looking to escape poverty or crime-ridden neighborhoods. Children whose parent(s) can't be there to monitor the child(ren)'s activities after school. Children who often have to face adult situations without adult guidance. Children whose only hope of going to college may be through the GI bill. Children who are frustrated day in and day out by the unattainability of the American dream in their lives. Children who are searching for guidance, for security, and many of whom are looking for a strong father figure. Children who see their parent(s) so tired from working two jobs or dealing with the daily and constant stress of survival and who vow to do whatever it takes not to have that kind of life themselves. In other words, children who are the most vulnerable when they are at their most vulnerable. Children who will believe what some recruiter is telling them because they need to believe they can have a better life than they do now. Children who, when they're finally old enough to enter the military, are the grunts sent to die in battles.

The current policy by the military and their refusal to change it and their attempts to justify it lead me to one conclusion: that they have something to hide. They know that the policy is unethical, unjustifiable, unscrupulous and, in my humble opinion, unconstitutional. It's time that we, as parents, as citizens, act to protect our kids from the military that's supposed to protect them and their rights, not take advantage of them and violate those rights. Contact your elected representatives and tell them to demand that the military simply notify a parent when they set up a meeting in person with a minor child. Our children deserve it.

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