Peace activist in N.C. fights for the right to counter recruiting
WILKESBORO, N.C. - Sally Ferrell bounded from the truck and grabbed a poster board sign that read: "War is not the Answer."
Over the years, she has 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 is now engaged in a conflict of her own - a dispute over military recruiting in high schools that has polarized rural Wilkes County.
For three years, Ferrell has asked permission to distribute pamphlets and other materials 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, calling it a First Amendment issue, has threatened to sue.
"The students need to know there are alternatives to the military," said Ferrell, a Quaker. "But they're not getting the other side."
Recruiters have turned to high schools to help fill the ranks of the all-volunteer military. And they need them 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 US casualties - more than 4,600 soldiers 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 recruiters have given young people misleading information about military service and often target high schools in poor and rural areas where options for graduating students are limited; the activists want students to know they have prospects besides the military.
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.
Tucked in the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Wilkes County has a military tradition going back to Colonel Benjamin Cleveland, a Revolutionary War commander who helped defeat the British in the Battle of Kings Mountain.
It's a rural county where people worked in textile mills and furniture factories until those manufacturing jobs left. They've been replaced by fast-food and retail jobs. The faltering economy has made Wilkes County a fertile recruiting ground for the military, members of Ferrell's group said.
"Many students feel like they have no future," said Tom Morris, 56, a retired engineer and small business owner.
Pointing to an abandoned furniture factory across the street, he said, "At one time, hundreds of people worked there. There was hope. Now, it's empty. There are just no jobs."
Helen Clark, another activist, recalled the night Ferrell decided to become a counter recruiter. They were having dinner with friends, including several high school teachers. She said the teachers were upset that recruiters were at the county's five high schools weekly and approaching students in the lunchrooms.
"They felt they were putting too much pressure on teenagers to join the military," said Clark, a 53-year-old social worker.