By Mitch Weiss - The Associated Press
Posted : Friday Sep 5, 2008
WILKESBORO, N.C. Sally Ferrell bounded from the truck and grabbed a
posterboard sign that read: "War is not the Answer."
Over the years, she's organized dozens of peace vigils like this one
being set up in a parking lot. Find common ground, she has always
preached, and any conflict can be resolved.
But she's now engaged in a conflict of her own a dispute over
military recruiting in high schools that has polarized rural Wilkes County.
Ferrell is a Quaker, a faith known know for opposition to war. For
three years, she has asked permission to distribute pamphlets that
warn students to think twice before joining the military. But the
school superintendent has stopped her, calling her activities
unpatriotic. The American Civil Liberties Union, seeing this as an
issue of freedom of speech, has threatened to sue.
"The students need to know there are alternatives to the military,"
Ferrell said. "But they're not getting the other side."
Recruiters have turned to high schools to help fill the ranks of the
military. And they need volunteers more than ever. After five years
of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and longer deployments, the
military has been hard pressed to meet recruitment demands. They say
U.S. casualties more than 4,600 troops killed and 64,000 wounded in
both wars have dampened recruiting.
In recent years, thousands of people like Ferrell have joined dozens
of counter-recruiting groups. They say some recruiters give
misleading information about military service and often target high
schools in poor, rural areas where options for graduating students
are limited; the activists want students to know they have prospects
other than joining the services.
Most schools have allowed counter-recruiters inside. Wilkes County's
opposition could trigger a legal battle.
"Are we going to pursue litigation? I think it's pretty clear that
the school board isn't giving us any choice to do anything else,"
said Katherine Parker, legal director of the ACLU's North Carolina chapter.
On the slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Wilkes County is a rural
area where people worked in textile mills and furniture factories
until those manufacturers left. Now most jobs are in fast-food and
retail, and members of Ferrell's group say the faltering economy has
made the county a fertile recruiting ground for the military.
"Many students feel like they have no future," said Tom Morris, 56, a
retired engineer and small business owner.
Helen Clark, another activist, recalled the night Ferrell decided to
become a counter-recruiter. She and Ferrell were having dinner with
friends, including several high school teachers who complained about
recruiters coming into high schools and approaching students in the lunchrooms.
For Ferrell, 63, the conversation brought back memories of when her
son Jesse was in high school and a recruiter kept calling her home
even after she told the military to stop.
Growing up in a Quaker household, Ferrell remembered her mother
espousing nonviolence and heard stories of her grandfather's suicide
after he was gassed in World War I. Her parents counseled Vietnam-era
draftees about becoming conscientious objectors.
After that night, Ferrell began collecting materials from anti-war
groups, filling her home with boxes of pamphlets. She never expected
resistance from the school district, but Superintendent Stephen Laws
reviewed the materials and told her in the spring of 2005 that he
wasn't going to allow her in the schools.
He said the military was a good career choice for students who
weren't going to college. He also didn't think people should say
anything negative about the military.
Disappointed but determined, Ferrell called lobbied school board
members, but the board backed Laws' decision. Ferrell then turned to
the ACLU, and after two years the group reached an agreement with the
board allowing her in the high schools twice a semester.
Ferrell set up a "peace table" in the hallways, where she handed out
materials and talked to students about AmeriCorps and other
alternatives to the military.
"All we want to do is make students aware that there are other ways
to find college money and serve your country without joining the
military," she said. "We want to save lives."
But by December, Laws said he had complaints about Ferrell and told
her she was no longer welcome.
"We allow recruiters into the schools to recruit for post-high school
opportunities. But she wasn't offering that," he said.
Recruiters say the controversy has made their job more difficult.
Before Ferrell's campaign, they had unfettered access to schools.
Now, they can only visit twice a semester. And they have to stand at
a table outside the cafeterias; they can't sit down and talk with
students eating lunch.
"I may not like it, but you have to live by the rules," said Army
Sgt. R. Scott Gianfrancesco.
High schools are still the best place for leads, said Gianfrancesco,
38. Under federal law, schools are required to turn over students'
names, addresses and phone numbers to military recruiters. The Army
wants 80,000 enlistees a year, and Gianfrancesco says his office has
to sign up four people a month.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, enlistments shot up amid
a surge of patriotism. But Gianfrancesco said many parents now fear
their children will be sent to fight in Iraq or Afghanistan.
A recent recruit, 20-year-old Josh McGrady, said it was a recruiter's
pitch in school that eventually led him to the Army. He was working
at a retail store after spending parts of three years at a community
college. His bills including student loans were piling up. His
father worked at a window-and-door factory for 30 years, but McGrady
said he didn't want that life.
"You could be laid off at any moment," he said.
Tired of struggling, he walked into the town's Army recruiting
office. His parents support his decision, but his sister, a bank
supervisor, tried to talk him out of it. Three soldiers from the
county have been killed in Iraq.
"She's worried I'm going to get blown up," McGrady said. "I'm a
little nervous, too, but there's not much else here."