all that you can be: (l-r) Collett, Lehnert and Pownall
celebrate the newly passed policy.
Options Aren’t Limited
High School students bring about policy change limiting the
campus presence of military recruiters By Kathryn Geurin
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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
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?”
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.
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.”
you have your own kids enlist?” asks another student.
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.”
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
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.
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
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.
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.”
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
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.”
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.
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
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
the discipline,” he says, as one boy tosses a wadded paper
at another. “That’s the discipline.”