Counterattacking Army recruiting

By Mitch Weiss | 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.

For three years, Ferrell, 63, 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 U.S. 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.

Recruiters say the controversy has made it more difficult for them to do their job.

Before Ferrell’s campaign, they had unfettered access to schools and students. Now, they can only visit twice a semester. And when they do, they have to stand at a table outside the cafeterias.