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George Monk, a retired Army sergeant major, taught a junior ROTC class at McDonough High in Pomfret, Md.
George Monk, a retired Army sergeant major, taught a junior ROTC class at McDonough High in Pomfret, Md. (Globe Photo / Chris Maddaloni)

Military recruiters target schools strategically

Page 2 of 4 -- Varying targets
The Defense Department spends $2.6 billion each year on recruiting, including signing bonuses, college funds, advertising, recruiter pay, and administering the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery. The military pitches the test to schools as a free career exploration program, but which its manual notes is also "specifically designed" to "provide the recruiter with concrete and personal information about the student."

Nearly all efforts are aimed at impending or recent high school graduates. But the marketing message is not targeted equally, acknowledged Kurt Gilroy, who directs recruiting policy for the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Although the military strives to maintain a presence everywhere "to give everyone an opportunity to enlist if they so choose," he said, it concentrates on places most likely to "maximize return on the recruiting dollar [because] the advertising and marketing research people tell us to go where the low-hanging fruit is. In other words, we fish where the fish are."

But targeting some schools more than others raises questions about fairness. While some students at targeted schools are eager to join, others may be unduly manipulated into signing up.

David Walsh, a psychologist who has written a book about the impact of media on the adolescent brain, says teenage brains are not yet fully developed. Studies have shown that teens' brain structures make them less independent of group opinion and less likely to consider long-term consequences than adults a few years older.

For the masses of teenagers who are not peer group leaders, Walsh said, an aggressive sales pitch can sway their decisions -- especially if the recruiter knows how to get coaches, counselors, and popular students to endorse enlisting.

Indeed, the Army trains its recruiters to do exactly that.

"Some influential students such as the student president or the captain of the football team may not enlist; however, they can and will provide you with referrals who will enlist," the Army's school recruiting handbook says. "More important is the fact that an informed student leader will respect the choice of enlistment."

Walsh says an approach like this is certain to persuade some teens at targeted schools to join up, while essentially identical teens at other schools will make other choices.

"What we end up doing is maintaining the gap between the haves and the have-nots, because they are the ones who are targeted to put their lives on the line and make sacrifices for the rest of us," Walsh said. "The kids with more options, we don't bother with them."

Different paths
Principals and teachers play a role in determining whether military recruitment succeeds. In schools where educators are skeptical of the military, recruiters are shut out beyond the minimum required by President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act: two visits a year per service, as well as a list with every student's name, address, and phone number.   Continued...

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At McLean High in Virginia, Isobel Rahn says she tells students that the military offers benefits, but warns ‘‘you can get killed.’’
At McLean High in Virginia, Isobel Rahn says she tells students that the military offers benefits, but warns ‘‘you can get killed.’’ (Globe Photo / Chris Maddaloni)
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