The American Legion Magazine, 3.1.01
By Alan W. Dowd  

The reports from the frontlines are as ominous as they are numerous: The Air force is short 1,200 pilots; the Navy is protecting the seas despite 12,000 empty billets; the Army has just endured perhaps its worst recruiting stretch in a generation, falling short by 800 soldiers in 1998 and a staggering 6,500 in 1999; and after a decade of cutting and deploying and making do, the military’s ranks have shrunk by 700,000 people.[1]

Just as America’s defenses are suffering from a manpower shortage, America’s high-school graduates are suffering from a shortage of a different kind—one that’s just as critical to America’s security and future. Lacking the skills, the confidence, the discipline and the know-how to succeed in the New Economy, many high-school graduates are not prepared for the high-tech world they enter after commencement. It’s not difficult to recognize that the military needs them, and they need the military.

This give-and-take relationship is as old as America itself: America’s young make a commitment to their country, and their country makes a commitment to them. The bargain has paid great dividends for both sides over the decades.  But standing in the way of this critical covenant at this critical moment in history is a most unlikely obstruction—high-school administrators with an agenda.

The War at Home. Once confined to college campuses, the practice of denying military recruiters access to students has seeped down to high schools. Individual principals and school corporations alike are shutting their doors to the military. Some are motivated by a kind of flower-child pacifism; others seek to challenge the Pentagon’s policy on homosexuals in the military.

Regardless of their motives, the results are the same: After a nationwide review, the House Armed Services Committee uncovered 19,228 separate instances of denied access at high-school campuses in 1999 alone, the most recent year in which statistics were gathered.[2]

At least 600 schools ban military recruiting of all kinds. Fully one-quarter of America’s 21,000 secondary schools place some sort of restriction on recruiting activities. And more than 4,000 refuse to share directory information such as phone numbers and addresses with military recruiters. [3]

If you think this doesn’t have an impact on recruiting, think again. According to the House Armed Services Committee, military recruiters widely contend that their inability to gain access to contact information is the “single biggest obstacle to carrying out their recruiting mission.”[4]

Because of the anti-military climate on high-school campuses, some recruiters are forced to set up meetings with students through teachers who served in the military. Others are reduced to offering free tutoring just to gain access to students.[5]

It’s little wonder why Adm. Vern Clark, Chief of Naval Operations, declared during a Senate hearing last fall, “We are at war for people.”[6]  And the military is losing this home-front war. As a direct consequence, America’s military is becoming less able to deter and wage the wars it was made to fight. Indeed, the House Armed Services Committee contends that the practice of denying access to military recruiters is undermining the national defense “by making it more difficult for the Armed Forces to recruit young Americans in the quantity and of the quality necessary for maintaining the readiness of the Armed Forces.”[7]

Echoing these and other findings, Legion Resolution 114 urges Congress to pass legislation “which would encourage high schools to allow access to military recruiters.” The resolution was ratified at the 2000 National Convention in Milwaukee.

Flawed Solutions. The nation’s lawmakers are finally taking notice. The FY2000 Defense Authorization Act called on high schools to grant military recruiters “the same access to secondary-school students, and to directory information concerning such students, as is provided generally to post-secondary educational institutions or to prospective employers.”[8]

Although Congress stopped short of imposing any financial penalties for noncompliance, Sen. Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark., led an effort to put teeth into the law in FY2001.  Hutchinson’s Military Recruiter Access Enhancement Act sought to deny federal education assistance to high schools that bar military recruiters from campus or refuse to share student-contact information with recruiting officers. There are already federal laws on the books that make the same requirements of colleges. (Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Col., introduced a companion bill in the House.)

“It’s extremely important that members of our armed services be allowed to talk to students about a career in the military,” according to Hutchinson, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee. “An all-volunteer force doesn’t just happen. The combined effect of the strongest economy in 40 years and the lowest unemployment rate since the establishment of an all-volunteer armed forces makes recruitment especially challenging. We owe it to these recruiters to do all we can to help them succeed in their efforts.”[9]

Despite its apparent necessity, Hutchinson’s bill wasn’t included in the FY2001 Defense Authorization Act. Instead, Congress worked out a compromise aimed at achieving the same objectives without threatening to cut federal dollars. The new law exempts two categories of high schools from federal review—private schools with religious objections to military service and institutions governed by school boards that have decided by majority vote to deny access to recruiters.[10]

However, this compromise solution lacks any real enforcement mechanism and creates a bureaucratic maze that will confound Pentagon officials and perpetuate the current problems.

Under this measure, when a high school denies access to a recruiting officer the secretary of defense will dispatch a colonel (or captain in the case of the Navy) to meet with representatives of the school and encourage them to allow military recruiters on campus. If the school continues to deny access, the secretary of defense will then ask the state’s governor for assistance in breaking the impasse. If that doesn’t work, the secretary of defense must notify the state’s U.S. senators, the congressman who represents the defiant school, the U.S. secretary of education and a slew of Congressional committees.[11]

From the initial denial of access to the last round of official notifications, this process could last more than a year. And even then, the defiant school could feasibly continue to bar military recruiters from campus without fear of sanction. That doesn’t sound like much of a solution.

Statehouse vs. Schoolhouse. However, since this is an issue that cuts across all levels of government—from Capitol Hill to the statehouse to the local school board—the states are trying to solve the problem on their own.

According to Rear Adm. Barbara McGann, chief of the Navy’s recruiting efforts, 25 state legislatures have pried open their public high schools to military recruiters.[12] Although they are by no means uniform, most of these state measures follow the model set forth by Congress in the FY2000 Defense bill—with one significant difference: Whereas the 2000 Defense bill “requested” schools to open their doors to military recruiters, the states are requiring it.

One of the states just added to that list of 25 is Indiana, which passed its “equal-access” law last year.

In 1999, the state’s Commission on Military and Veterans Affairs found that 5% of Indiana high schools barred military recruiters from campus and 48% refused to share class listings or other contact information.[13] As a result, military recruiters in Indiana were being forced to cross-reference information in high-school yearbooks with listings from local phone books.

“I was shocked,” says Jim Atterholt, one of the state lawmakers who co-authored the Indiana law. “All I could think about was a highly decorated serviceman reduced to hunting for names in the phone book and then making cold calls.” From Atterholt’s perspective, “This is similar to the way our Vietnam veterans were treated upon returning home. While it’s more subtle, it’s just as shameful.”

Atterholt’s measure won bipartisan approval from the state’s Republican Senate, Democratic House and Democratic governor.  

Even so, fully half the states have yet to hammer out a legislative remedy to this problem. That’s why Atterholt believes Hutchinson’s bill is necessary. “It’s only natural for the federal government to get involved, because its primary role is national defense,” he argues.

Pluses and Minuses. Just as Congress and the states are trying to solve the recruiting problem, the services themselves are tackling it from a different angle.

Last year, for example, the Army unveiled an eyebrow-raising program called GED Plus, which promises to sign up an additional 6,000 new troops annually. But it raises eyebrows for all the wrong reasons: None of the program’s new enlistees will be high-school graduates.

Under GED Plus, selected recruits earn their General Equivalency Degree at the Army’s expense before they begin basic training. The Army believes there are at least 500,000 high-school dropouts who meet the GED Plus standards.[14]

But consider the perverse nature of what the military is being forced to do: Rather than connecting with high-school seniors and juniors while they are in school, the military is ordered to wait in the wings until they drop out. And thousands of high-school students do exactly that every year, sentencing themselves to grim futures. Because their principals have put personal agendas and biases ahead of their education and development, these young men and women just give up, not knowing that a career in the military could change their lives.

Through luck or desperation, some small percentage of them will be enticed by the GED Plus program. Of course, by that time many of them will literally be out of reach—some because their lives have taken a turn for the better, but many because their lives have taken a turn for the worse. Life isn’t easy for high-school dropouts in 21st-century America. 

Military service may not be a perfect fit for everybody, but it is for some. And it can be the difference between a life of opportunity and a life of dead ends. As Hutchinson argues, “High schools that deny access to military recruiters prevent students from receiving information about educational and training incentives offered by the armed forces, impairing their career decision-making process.”[15]

Even so, with the 107th Congress sharply divided, the prospects of Hutchinson’s bill resurfacing anytime soon seem bleak.

Making a Connection. The military spends $2 billion every year on recruiting and $268 million on advertising.[16] But as the recruiting woes of the last decade illustrate, it’s not glitzy ad campaigns or cash bonuses that awaken the spirit of a would-be recruit. In most cases, young people need to see the uniform, shake the hand and hear the story of someone who has been to Korea or Kuwait or Kosovo defending freedom’s frontiers. Nothing can replace that personal connection.

It’s obvious that thousands of school administrators are all-too willing to prevent the military from making that connection with a new generation of Americans. Nothing short of an ultimatum from state or federal lawmakers will change that. And until that happens, the nation’s defenses and high-school graduates will continue to suffer.

[1] See September 27, 2000 statement of Air Force Chief of Staff Michael Ryan; Sgt. Alicia Borlik, “Services grapple with recruiting challenges,” AFIS News, March 1999; Center for Security Policy.

[2] See House Armed Services Committee, Findings for HR4660.

[3] Air Force figures quoted in Rowan Scarborough’s “Bans on military recruiters stymie enlistment efforts,” The Washington Times, May 29, 2000.

[4] House Armed Services Committee, Findings for HR4660.

[5] Rudi Williams, “Recruiters discuss problems with top DoD officials,” AFIS News, July 12, 2000.

[6] See September 27, 2000 statement of Adm. Vern Clark.

[7] House Armed Services Committee, Findings for HR4660.




[8] FY2000 National Defense Authorization Act.

[9] See Sen. Tim Hutchinson press release, April 5, 2000.

[10] FY2001 National Defense Authorization Act.

[11] FY2001 National Defense Authorization Act.

[12] See Rick Maze, “Recruiters want better access to high schools,” Army Times, March 13, 2000.

[13] Col. Joseph Ryan, testimony before the Indiana House Committee on Public Policy, Ethics and Veterans Affairs, February 15, 2000.

[14] Army Secretary Louis Caldera, DoD News Briefing, February 3, 2000.

[15]Hutchinson press release.

[16] See Borlik; Greg Jaffe, “The Military Wages Uphill Battle,” The Wall Street Journal, September 23, 1999.