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Students opposed to Iraq War get equal standing with military recruiters at Grimsley High School in Greensboro

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Students opposed to the war in Iraq and to military recruiting found a welcome reception on a recent school day at Grimsley High School, an academic powerhouse surrounded by the liberal, predominantly white neighborhoods straddling Lake Daniel Park in Greensboro.

‘“Some students came to me and said, ‘We have a concern that the other side of the story is not being told ‘— what can we do?”” Principal Rob Gasparello recalled. ‘“This is what we did.’”

He gestured to a blue picnic table surrounded by a huddle of students on lunch break in the Grove, a plaza in the center of campus. There were many enthusiastic takers for the purple stickers declaring, ‘“Bush lies; people die.’” Students picked up brochures from different left-wing groups, including one from the Campus Antiwar Network demanding, ‘“Get the military out of our schools.’” Most of the high school audience derided President Bush and expressed a low opinion of the war; a handful defended the president and his decisions.

Allowing the anti-war students to express their view with the help of three visitors from the UNCG chapter of Campus Antiwar Network was an easy decision, Gasparello said.

‘“If a kid is passionate about something, they should be able to express themselves,’” he said. ‘“This is healthy.’”

No permits were required. In fact, just before the lunch bell rang the principal interviewed student Aaron Woerner on the school broadcast news program about the counter-recruitment effort. The three guests from UNCG watched the brief program as they signed in at the main office. A secretary, Carol Vance, thanked them for coming.

‘“I’m glad y’all are doing this,’” she said. ‘“This is great. My nephew at Appalachian State organized a protest to get Bush out of office.’”

Gasparello said the same free speech principle also applies to military recruiters and the enlisted officers who run the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program at Grimsley.

‘“We have an open campus,’” Gasparello said. ‘“ROTC is a strong, vibrant program that offers students the opportunity for service. Do we let the different branches of the military recruit on campus? Yes, we do.’”

Woerner, a senior, had some choice words about an Army recruiter who he says visited campus about a dozen times in the fall semester. He also disapproves of the presence of the Junior ROTC program.

‘“The military recruiter we have is very racist and classist,’” he said. ‘“He often goes after the lowerclass students, and, frankly, the black and Hispanic students.’”

He further charged: ‘“They focus on the positive aspects. They don’t talk about war or dying. They talk about the parties, the college benefits.’”

Bob Harrison, spokesman for the Army’s Raleigh Recruiting Battalion, which oversees recruitment efforts for about three quarters of the state, contested both claims.

‘“I’m not a sociologist, but the Army is not targeting anyone,’” he said. ‘“We talk about the Army’s opportunity. Anyone who’s interested in hearing that message, we will gladly provide more information. If the Army tells me we need fifty people this month then we will look for fifty people this month. That number has no subcategory, whether it be race or class or anything else.’”

Harrison said he doesn’t think recruiters, who often talk to students about their own experiences in the military, traffic in false advertising.

‘“There are some realities about it,’” he said. ‘“There is a war ongoing, and members of the military rotate and serve in Iraq. There are folks that serve in the military and they don’t spend their entire lives serving in war. Are there opportunities for college while you’re in the military? There are. Is there a possibility you’ll have to go to Iraq and serve in the war? There is.’”

Lt. Col. Larry Burnett, who heads the Junior ROTC program at Grimsley, countered a view common among critics that the organization’s presence encourages students to enlist in the military.

‘“We’re in high school teaching students on how to be good leaders and good citizens,’” he said. ‘“It’s character development. It stops there though.’”

He said he knows of three students out of about 700 students in Grimsley’s senior class who have expressed interest in enlisting in the military; two of those are members of the school’s Junior ROTC program, which boasts about 100 members.

‘“I’ll be on lunch duty and they come up and ask me about the military,’” Burnett said of the students. ‘“I just tell them my experiences. Some will ask about education. That’s what they’re interested in. It’s hitting home: what am I gonna do?’”

‘“A guy the other day talked to me about trying to be a mechanic,’” he added. ‘“I said, ‘Why don’t you go to GTCC?’ I didn’t even mention the military. He wouldn’t make a good military person.’”

Georgia Frierson, a senior who is also involved in the counter-recruitment effort, said she wasn’t looking for a confrontation with her fellow students who have their hearts set on a career in the military.

‘“I’m not here to convince people who are gung ho about the military,’” she said. ‘“I’m here to inform the people who haven’t made up their mind and don’t have the same options.’”

For the most part the students who stopped by the table seemed to be in agreement already.

‘“I respect people that want to go out and protect their country, but they should know the reasons behind it,’” said freshman Alaa Badawi. ‘“What’s the reason behind the war in Iraq? Oil. I want to know why they’re still there. They captured Saddam. Did they find any weapons of mass destruction? I don’t think so.’”

Some of the literature on the table conveyed a ‘“buyer-beware’” message, such as a brochure produced by the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization. The brochure asks questions such as, ‘“Will enlistment help me achieve my goals? Am I trying to escape my own problems?’” and, ‘“Am I willing to give up control?’” Another section queries, ‘“Are you willing to kill another person if ordered to do so? Would you destroy people’s homes or food? Would you help others who are fighting, even if you’re not in combat yourself?’”

The Campus Antiwar Network, in contrast, offers military recruiters no quarter, at least in rhetoric.

The group’s brochure states, ‘“We believe that it is not enough to convince people on an individual level that the military is a bad idea. For every individual the movement can convince not to join the military, there are hundreds more that will fall prey to lies and deception. We need to build a movement that will force the military out of our schools and our classrooms for good so that no student is recruited because he or she doesn’t know if they will have enough money for school or because they are concerned about job opportunities.’”

Harrison, the Raleigh Recruiting Battalion spokesman, said only a small percentage of enlistees are recruited from high schools, but indicated the Army has no immediate plans to withdraw.

‘“Would the Army want to be banned from anyplace? No,’” he said.

But he deferred to the primacy of civilian rule.

‘“The Army isn’t trying to do anything the nation doesn’t want it to do,’” Harrison said. ‘“If they get an imposition of a ban, okay. If that’s the rules, the Army will follow them gladly.’”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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