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Be all that you can be: (l-r) Collett, Lehnert and Pownall celebrate the newly passed policy.

Photo: Kathryn Geurin

Your Options Aren’t Limited

Watervliet High School students bring about policy change limiting the campus presence of military recruiters By Kathryn Geurin

By Kathryn Geurin

‘How many 18-year-olds do we have in the crowd today?” asks Robert Reiter, his Marines baseball cap pulled low over his eyes. Waves of hands shoot up from the art-deco chairs in the Watervliet High School auditorium. “When I was 18, I landed in Vietnam.”

For years, Watervliet Social Studies teacher Scott Burke has invited a panel of veterans to speak with his 10th grade Global Studies class, but this year, largely in response to student and faculty concerns about heightened military recruitment on the campus, the panel has been moved from classroom to auditorium, the invitation extended to the entire school.

“The recruiters, of course, are presenting the absolute ideal of military experience,” says Burke. “We decided to open the discussion to the whole school, to present a more personal and balanced account of what military service entails.”

The trio of veterans live up to expectations, offering the murmuring auditorium a rare, intimate window into their military pasts. They share their stories with humor and brutal honesty, doing their best to reach across the chasm that clearly separates them from their teenage audience—a generation who, now eligible for enlistment, have been largely spared personal exposure to the cost of war.

“Girls would semaphore us from the beach, ‘Meet us at the skating rink at eight o’clock,’ ” chuckles Robert Gusberti, as a teacher points a menacing finger at a student’s cell phone. “Yup. I suppose we were texting all the time, too.”

The impish WWII veteran matter-of-factly recounts a Kamikaze attack on his ship in New Guinea. “I hit the deck,” Gusberti says. “I’d heard that’s what you were supposed to do, hit the deck. When I got up, everything was in flames. I got first-, second- and third-degree burns. I had to spend nine months in the hospital.”

He recalls his stay in the New Guinea hospital, the ship back to “Frisco,” the long train ride to Virginia, where he finally received skin grafts. “The funny thing is, you don’t remember the bad times. You remember all the good times. Down in Honolulu . . .” he smiles, fading into memory. “There were good times and there were bad. I think the good outnumbered the bad.”

Ninety-three-year-old Sheldon Jones recalls his decision to enlist in 1941.

“I had just gotten out of school, and I had a buddy, a college buddy. He told me President Roosevelt was saying, ‘Why don’t you just join up for a year, to get a little training?’ We bet on it.” He bursts into a cackling laugh. “We thought we’d stay together. But that does not happen in the Army,” he shakes his head wildly. “Don’t bet on that, either.”

“Nichols Field, now that was my worst experience,” Jones says. “We came in underhanded. We had been through skirmish after skirmish, and we were told we had to go in there and get that field. We were ordered to take it in one day. Three days later, we had killed or wounded almost everybody and secured the field. Our platoon, we went in with about 40 men, and we had 18 left at the end of it.” A few students scan the auditorium with furrowed brows, perhaps envisioning more than half of their classmates fallen in the field. “Yes, that was my worst experience.”

“But,” he adds quickly, “let me tell you about my happiest experience. . . . At Los Baños, we released some two thousdand internees, many of them civilians, who had been interned by the Japanese. We lost some of our own men, but we got every internee out safely. It’s billed as one of the most successful airborne operations of World War II.”

The audience hoots and hollers, reveling briefly in the historic victory.

When the question-and-answer period is opened, a boy in low-slung jeans slides up to the microphone and challenges: “How many people did you kill?”

“I don’t know,” replies Reiter. The auditorium explodes into cheers and laugher. Reiter tenses against the applause, his fists tightening, his shoulders and his eyes falling downward, “Son, it’s not a joke,” he pleads. “I have no idea how many people I’ve killed.”

Perhaps the complexity of the moment settles on the students, perhaps not. But after a few questions about guns and combat, someone asks: “Given the chance to go back and change your life, would you do it again?” The panel sits in perplexed silence. The student is equally puzzled by their confusion. Finally, all three answer yes. “It changes your life more than you know,” says Jones. Asking them to remake that choice would be asking them to remake every choice since.

“In the service, you’re told what to do from the time you get out of bed at reveille till they blow the bugle at night. You do whatever you’re commanded, whatever is needed, and it is hard,” he stresses. “But it is a wonderful experience. Don’t think that going into the service doesn’t give you exposure to discipline—the best kind of discipline, discipline over your self. The service teaches you discipline. It teaches you to respect yourself, to protect yourself, and to protect those around you.”

“Would you have your own kids enlist?” asks another student.

“I came home once and found a military recruiter in my living room,” says Reither, whose experience as a gunner on a medivac chopper exposed him to the very worst of war. Four months into his tour his helicopter was shot down. The only survivor, Reiter spent three months in a coma before waking up in a hospital in Guam. “I physically threw him from my home. My son didn’t speak to me for six months. But I’d served enough for my family. I served enough.”

A month later, student council co-president Grace Collett sits at the far end of a long table in the same auditorium, her fellow officers in the small audience of the School Board meeting. Collett, the board’s sitting student representative, is responsible for communicating the concerns of the student body to the board, and at this meeting—her last before graduation—marks a significant moment for the student council. Their ardent activism is resulting in an official district policy change regarding military recruitment on campus.

A discreet component of the No Child Left Behind Act requires that, in order to receive federal funds, schools provide military recruiters the same access to their student body that they provide to colleges and prospective employers. Because few schools put any restrictions on college recruiters, the regulation often equates to unfettered military recruitment efforts on campus.

“Back in January, February, the recruiters were here as often as three times a week,” says council treasurer Jesse Lehnert. “They’re targeting the seniors, and that’s when people start looking at colleges, making decisions for their future. That’s when the recruiters really want to get their voice out there.” And unlike college recruiters, who set up informational tables in the guidance library, the military recruiters established themselves outside the cafeteria.

“They come into the lunchroom,” says Lehnert. “They offer students free stuff if they sign the interest forms. I eavesdrop a lot, and they’re telling students, ‘You can get money for signing on, money for college. Chances are you’ll never see combat.’ ”

Marissa Pownall, student council public-relations officer, flips through a Marines-issued booklet about planning for the future, How to Become Successful, which she received from the guidance office.

“I come from a military family, and I live on the arsenal wall,” she says. “I respect the military, but I also know that it is a choice that comes with great risk, and students are hearing about the benefits the military offers over and over, but they’re not hearing about the risks. And they’re not hearing about other options.”

As a teacher, Burke, who also serves as the student council advisor, also noticed an increase in recruitment efforts. “It seemed like whenever I went down to the lunchroom, particularly in the middle of the year, there was a recruiter there,” says Burke, “and for the first time, I had recruiters showing up at parent-teacher conferences, or approaching me directly about needing a student to pass my class. I’d tell them, ‘Sure, as soon as they’ve learned the material,’ but there was pressure. In 20 years, I’ve never experienced that before.”

“For some people, military experience plays a huge part in their success,” asserts Collett. “There is value in being in the military, and we’re not trying to say, ‘Get out of our school.’ Not at all. We just wanted to know why. Why the military was being represented to the students more than other choices? We wanted to find a happy medium, to make sure that students were being exposed to all opportunities equally.”

The student council members brought their concerns to the school administration. According to Principal Lori Caplan, “I notice a military presence in the school, but it’s been that way since I’ve been an administrator here. We have a population that the military gravitates towards.”

The presence of the Watervliet Arsenal and the economic status of the community both contribute, she believes, to heightened military attention. “I thought their request was fair,” says Caplan, who began paying closer attention to recruitment efforts after her discussion with the students. “I appreciate and respect the fact that they are comfortable enough to bring me issues. I assure them that it may not always go in their favor, but I will always look into issues that they bring me. This one, we followed through, and I think that everyone will benefit from it.”

According to district Superintendent Paul Padalino, the issue first came to his attention in January, when Collett brought it up at a board meeting. “The board immediately asked me to work on it. I discussed the situation with the policy committee, with parents, teachers, and administrators, and with our lawyer.” Padalino insists that he had not seen a significant increase in military presence this year. In fact, the official numbers provided by the guidance office indicate that recruiters set up at the cafeteria a total of only 21 times during the school year.

Watervliet is headquarters to the Albany Eagles Army Recruiting battalion, geographically the largest recruiting battalion in the country. Battalion Public Affairs Officer Andy Entwistle says he has no official record of the recruiting schedule at Watervliet, but he does stress that their goal is to “have recruiters there as often as they can possibly go productively.” In fact, according to the Army’s School Recruiting Program Handbook, the goal is “school ownership,” and recruiters are encouraged to attend as many school activities as possible. “Like the farmer who fails to guard the hen house,” reads the instructional handbook, “we can easily lose our schools and relinquish ownership to the other services.”

“We haven’t had any complaints,” says Entwistle. “There had been no inkling of any restrictions, and we hadn’t been asked to curtail our efforts. Until we hear directly from the administration, I can’t comment beyond that.” Due to the No Child Left Behind regulations, simply requesting that the military limit their presence on campus could cost the district federal funding.

“This is, to some degree, a military community,” says Padalino. “The arsenal is right there in the heart of Watervliet. But the number of students enlisting in the military is minimal. For all their recruiting efforts,” he says, “the military is not seeing a big payoff.” Only one student from Watervliet high enlisted in the military in 2007. In 2008, no one enlisted. This year, a list of students’ postgraduate plans indicates that four of them plan on joining the military, but, says Padalino, “so far, only one of them has signed on the dotted line.”

“We have a significant population for whom paying for college is a challenge, kids who need to find access to financial aid, or other tuition assistance,” says Padalino. “The military offers that, but despite recruiting efforts, it is not a path that many of our students choose. Lots of kids attend community college, stay at home, work part-time, save some money and move on to four-year schools later. They have other options.”

“What I took from the student council’s request,” he says, “was not that they wanted the military out of the school, but that they wanted to know why there was such a strong military presence.” He says the school makes an effort to take students out to job fairs, and to encourage colleges to send representatives to the campus. “We don’t get a lot of colleges from out of state,” he says. “Most of the secondary education institutions are local, and their ability to get out to the schools is restricted by budgetary constraints. They don’t have a recruiting battalion. They don’t have the same resources as the military.” Providing equal, unlimited access to the student body puts the military at an advantage.

So, Padalino approached the district lawyer about crafting a policy that would both address student concerns and comply with the No Child Left Behind regulations. The final policy was read by the board, and passed unanimously at their May 19 meeting. Going forward, each individual college, employer and military branch will be allowed to meet with students on campus no more than once a month, and efforts will be made to focus the visits into job fairs, college fairs and recruiting days. The school hopes that the new policy will create a more balanced playing field between recruiters from the military, colleges and the workforce.

“Because of the NCLB legislation, we have to make the access to our students equitable and open, but I believe we have crafted a policy that is in line with the NCLB,” says Padalino. “It’s a fine line to walk, because we want to address student concerns, but we also don’t want to limit their exposure to the choices that are available to them for their futures.”

“This was truly a student driven effort, which is great” he adds. “We encourage them to be activists.”

Burke gushes with pride over the efforts of his students, adding that this was never intended to be an anti- military policy. “I certainly respect military service. I have two cousins, one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan right now, my father and my grandfather both served, and I have great respect for them, and the kids know that. The students just wanted to see competing interests, and we want to ensure that they are exposed to all the possible opportunities ahead of them.”

“I am deliriously happy about this,” says Pownall. “I think, for younger students, this will offer them exposure to more opportunities. In the future, I’d love to see other schools in the area adopt similar policies.”

“It shows the upcoming classes that they can accomplish this,” adds Lehnert. “We were able to get a major policy passed. And if we could get a policy passed, they can work with the administration just as well as we did. They influence their school community for the better.”

It is a proud accomplishment for Collett’s final board meeting before moving on to Russell Sage College. “I don’t think we were ever expecting there would be a policy change,” she says. “Maybe we didn’t realize how big the issue was at first, because usually when we bring things up it’s a quick fix. ‘We’ll call the janitor,’ or, ‘We’ll talk to the lunch lady,’ easy things like that. We’ve never actually accomplished a lasting policy change. I definitely think this is a stepping stone. It kind of shows the administration and the students alike that we are a presence, that we are looking out for each other, and we are listening to the students. I think it’s really positive from the students’ point of view, and from the administration’s point of view. I think this was a really good opportunity for us to work together.”

Today, the military faces some of its most significant recruiting challenges in history. During the Vietnam draft, more than 13 percent of the eligible population was serving in the military. This year, less than 1 percent of the eligible population was serving. Their adamant recruiting efforts, many argue, are out of necessity.

And yet, says Burke, “the military is a given in our world, it isn’t going anywhere.”

The veterans agree. “War is going to go on,” says Reiter, looking over the auditorium full of high schoolers. “And some of you, you’ll be in the middle of it, no doubt.”

Sheldon Jones shares his chilling first experience in combat with the assembly. “The Aussies had stopped the Japanese in New Guinea, they had retreated to the caves. We had to go in and clean up, what the Army called ‘mucking up.’ We were to make them surrender, or . . . well, we couldn’t get them out of the caves, so we turned the flame thrower on them. About 10 of them came out burning to death in front of me. This is war. War is cruel. It is the cruelest game man plays. And there is no way we can escape it. ”

He quotes Alfred Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade: “Theirs not to reason why/Theirs but to do, and die.”

“That’s the discipline,” he says, as one boy tosses a wadded paper at another. “That’s the discipline.”

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