By Terry Baynes
This August, nineteen-year-old Ciarra Boyd learned that her friend, Donald, was about to join the Army, and she set out to stop him.
Donald, who asked to go by a pseudonym, was twenty-two and had walked into a recruiting station in the Bronx earlier that summer. “He wasn’t working and wasn’t in school,” said Boyd. “He wanted to do something with his life, and his father was a veteran.” Boyd describes Donald as tall, extremely outgoing, and intelligent. Like Boyd, he’s black and lives in the South Bronx. Boyd was surprised at how close Donald became with his recruiter. “They went jogging together all the time,” Boyd said. “They would text each other and go out on a daily basis.”
Boyd has strong feelings about military recruiting. While she isn’t against the war, she is against the tactics recruiters use to get young people to enlist. She applied to join the Youth Activists–Youth Allies (Ya-Ya) Network when she learned about its counter military recruitment efforts in New York City. Teen activists, primarily of color, run the nonprofit under the guidance of Executive Director, Amy Wagner. They lead counter-recruitment workshops for schools and community groups and work with other organizations to try to restrict recruiter access to public schools. They also offer to help anyone who’s been harassed by a recruiter and wants to do something about it. As a Ya-Ya, Boyd could not stand by and watch her friend enlist so easily. Donald was already well into the recruiting process, on the verge of signing the Army contract. Boyd knew that time was running out.
She sat Donald down in front of a computer one day. For three hours, they went through the Ya-Ya website, reviewing the section, “What Recruiters Don’t Tell You.” Boyd gave him a rundown of the counter-recruitment workshop that she and the Ya-Ya’s present at schools.
There are conditions on the Army’s promise of money for college, she told him. You can’t leave early or receive anything less than a full honorable discharge to obtain the benefit. And the military is not a “jobs training” program, Boyd said. It prepares you for military jobs, not civilian jobs. “You learn how to clean weapons and throw grenades.” She pointed to the high unemployment rate among veterans. Finally, Boyd reminded him, “It’s eight years of your life. That’s a really long time.”
One point in the contract troubled Donald the most, Boyd says: it was the clause stating that all of the terms of the contract were subject to change without notice. Donald went back to his recruiter to ask what it meant. His recruiter told him not to worry about it and pressed him on why he was starting to have second thoughts. Donald mentioned his Ya-Ya friend and their recent conversation. The recruiter asked for Boyd’s phone number, which Donald gave him.
Boyd answered her phone one day to hear a stern, deep voice on the other end. He didn’t yell, but “he was very angry,” Boyd said. He told her: “‘Leave him alone. He’s his own man, so mind your own business. You’re lucky I don’t know where you live.’” The recruiter hung up before Boyd could get his name She says she was shaken and called Donald to tell him about the aggressive phone call. She begged for the recruiter’s name, hoping to report him to the recruiting station. But Donald refused, not wanting to get the recruiter in trouble. Donald declined to reveal the identity of the recruiter.
In the end, Donald decided not to enlist. Boyd credits her own persistence. “I was on him just as much as the recruiter was on him.” Boyd even accompanied him to apply for jobs. Donald eventually landed a retail job in a department store. “He now has a stable income and he’s about to start part-time college classes,” said Boyd. “He tells me all the time, ‘I’m happy we talked.’ He’s content now. It just took patience.” Donald declined to be interviewed for this article.
A fellow Ya-Ya, Tracey Hobbs of Flatbush, also wants her peers to think twice before enlisting. While attending Bedford-Stuyvesant Preparatory High School last year, she began to realize just how many young people were considering the military as an option. Two of her close female friends decided to join. Her best friend had a cousin who had enlisted. “‘It’s working for her,’” the friend insisted. Hobbs replied that the girl had only just joined. “She still has seven years ahead of her, and who knows what veteran’s benefits she’ll actually receive on the other end.”
Even after the Ya-Ya briefing, Hobbs’ best friend was still intent on signing up, and Hobbs accepts that. “After I told her all of the information that I know, she still wanted to do it. That’s the decision she has to make on her own,” said Hobbs. “A lot of people get into it without knowing what they’re getting into. She knows what she’s getting into.”
Since Hobbs transferred to a new high school in Brownsville for her senior year, she has noticed more military recruiting ads there than in other parts of Brooklyn, as well as the recruiters themselves. “They’re everywhere,” said Boyd. “They’re out on the street when we’re going home from school.” Hobbs often sees them around the Atlantic Avenue and Flatbush Junction train stations in Brooklyn. She recognizes them by their fatigues.
“The Navy, for some reason, really wants me to join,” said Hobbs. It started after she took the PSAT’s during her sophomore year. “I get emails from them every week.”
Lieutenant Colonel Omuso D. George, a commander with the U.S. Army Recruiting Battalion in New York City, defends the military’s right to target recruiting efforts at schools. Under public law, including the No Child Left Behind Act, the Solomon Act, and the Hutchison Amendment, recruiters are guaranteed the same access to high school students that colleges and employers are given, according to George. Although he declined to comment on the Ya-Ya Network’s efforts, he acknowledged the existence of groups opposed to recruiters’ contact with schools. “We obviously support every citizen’s right to voice their own opinion,” he wrote in an email. “That is the right that we defend as service members.” He also emphasized the Army’s commitment to making sure that high school students have “all of the information” to assist them in choosing between the “multitude of opportunities available to them after high school.”
Last summer, the Ya-Ya’s went to a military recruiting station in each of their neighborhoods to experience a recruiting pitch firsthand. A recruiter told Hobbs that her full college tuition would be covered if she enlisted. She could get any job she wanted in the military, even without taking the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB). If she liked music, she could play in the band. As a woman, she would rise up the ranks quickly. What disturbed Hobbs most, she says, is that by the end of the session, she was considering it.