ANDOVER — In a surge of patriotism last September, Kristina Bourque raised her right hand and took the first of two oaths to serve in the Marine Corps. But last week, three months before she is set to ship off to Parris Island, she was biting her lower lip and talking about improvised explosive devices and sniper fire.
"Now I’m not so sure," Bourque said. "I don’t think I want to join."
So last Thursday afternoon, when the senior at Greater Lawrence Technical School spotted a table in the school cafeteria with the sign "Merrimack Valley People for Peace," she slowly walked over and asked the silver-haired woman standing nearby what was going on.
"We’re trying to educate students about their choices," said Mary Todd, a peace activist and retired college guidance counselor. “The military doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about going to war."
Bourque stood perfectly still, her head tilted to one side and her voice rising. "Like what?"
Across the country this school year, hundreds of "counter-recruiters" like Todd have been quietly setting up information tables in high schools trying to elicit exactly that kind of question. Their message: Military recruiters lie. War is hell. Think long and hard before you enlist.
Todd, a soft-spoken woman of 69 with a gold peace crane necklace, pressed a handful of pamphlets into Bourque’s hand. The diminutive 18-year-old with rainbow tattoos on her stomach told Todd she did not think she wanted to serve, but said her recruiter told her "he wouldn’t let me go without a fight."
"He’s not the one you should be talking to. Call this number," Todd said, pointing to a GI hot line on one of the pamphlets. “Your recruiter is not going to tell you your full range of options."
As casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan mount, active-duty soldiers retire, and the wounded list climbs, recruiters are having a more difficult time meeting their quotas. Further frustrating their efforts: the steady emergence of a decentralized but increasingly organized effort to dissuade young people from enlisting.
"The movement really started on college campuses," said John Sellers of the Ruckus Society, a California-based social justice organization. "But now it’s reaching down to high schools and gaining momentum."
Though counter-recruiting has been around since the Vietnam War, the movement has grown exponentially in the last two years, said Sam Diener, a co-editor of Peace Work magazine, which is affiliated with the American Friends Service Committee.
Counter-recruiters have visited schools in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Portland, Ore., and San Francisco, said Hannah Strange, a training director with the Not Your Soldier project, which has created a short Web video urging young people not to enlist. In Seattle, activists are agitating to ban military recruiters from public schools.
In the Boston area, the first counter-recruiters showed up last year at Somerville High School.
The movement, said Diener, was an extension of the “opt out" campaign, when about 5,000 high school students asked that their names be removed from lists that public schools are required by law to pass on to military recruiters.
To date, about a dozen schools statewide have hosted counter-recruiters and another dozen schools are being targeted for next fall, said Chad Montrie, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and coordinator with United for Justice With Peace.
At stake is the manpower needed to fuel an unjust war, activists say. Educate the nation’s young people about the military and the "war machine" can be starved to death — or at least undermined.
To date, area military recruiters say the effect is negligible. Major Mark A. Spear, who oversees recruiting for the Army for northeastern Massachusetts, said that meeting his quota of about 60 soldiers a month is more difficult than it was two years ago, but that he does not think the counter-recruiters have had any discernible impact.
"What’s made it harder is the television," Spear said. "People think you go to Iraq and you die, but the Army is more than that."
At Lawrence Tech last week, reaction was mixed. Antiwar pins in a box on the counter-recruiters’ table disappeared quickly.
"The military? No thanks," said Anthony Oviedo, a 15-year-old sophomore. "It’s all a giant lie."
A few students shook their heads at the scene. Among them was Joshua Grullon, a senior headed for the Navy this summer.
"For me, I think it’s the best thing to do, " Grullon said. "If you’re not going to college, it makes the most sense."
The counter-recruiters’ message is earnest, but their style lacks the pop and sizzle that the military brings. Todd’s husband, a retired pastor, circulated around the cafeteria wearing a black T-shirt with the word "pacifist" on it in white letters. It drew some raised eyebrows, but he was largely ignored.
In contrast, military recruiters come to schools equipped with flashy videos, rock-climbing walls, military bands, and "Army Adventure Vans," which are equipped with M-16 and Cobra helicopter simulators.
This year, the Department of Defense budgeted $2.8 billion to get the military’s message out, said Brian Maka, a spokesman with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense. Of that, about $720 million will go toward advertising. The rest is allotted for signing bonuses, college funds, recruiter pay, and administering the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, the written test that recruits take before enlisting.
Counter-recruiters say their goal is to paint a more sober picture. On Todd’s table last Thursday, along with pins that said "Recruiters Lie" were pamphlets citing data on sexual assault on women in the military as well as the percentage of enlistees who actually get money for college. Among the questions the literature poses: "Am I willing to kill or be killed? Am I willing to give up control?"
At his desk in Woburn, Spear, the Army recruiter, reviewed the counter-recruiters’ information sheet and shook his head.
"The Army is a giant organization," he said. "Everybody’s experience is different. For a lot of people, it’s a great opportunity."
When asked if he would recommend that his daughters, ages 6 and 8, join the Army, Spear said he would, though he would advise them to train for technical jobs or become officers.
Whether joining the military is or isn’t a good decision for high school graduates, activists complain they are frequently not given a chance to make their arguments. Many Massachusetts public schools have been slow to implement a 1984 federal court ruling that gives opponents of the military equal access to students, said ACLU attorney Sarah Wunsch.
At Gloucester High School, where activists hope to go next year, principal Joseph Sullivan said he will not let them in.
"Not here," Sullivan said flatly. “I’m not going to turn [the war] into a political football."
At Greater Lawrence Technical School, the superintendent kicked the decision up to the School Committee, which voted to let counter-recruiters in but only after committee member Kenneth Henrick voiced his objection.
"Their pamphlets sounded subversive," Henrick said. "I’m as open-minded as anyone, but it sounded too much on the left, almost as if they were prevaricating against the president."
According to a federal appeals court decision, if a principal allows military recruiters into the school, they must also allow peace activists, under the legal doctrine of viewpoint discrimination, said Wunsch. "It’s a First Amendment issue," she said.
Bourque, who is studying to be an automotive mech
anic, was drawn to the Marines because of the aircraft engine training for which she would be eligible. But a few weeks ago she spoke to her older brother, who has served three tours in Iraq, and "he told me he’d seen some pretty nasty things he didn’t want me to see," she said.
Four days after Bourque spoke to Todd, she went to her recruiting officer and told him she no longer wanted to go.
"He told me too bad, there’s nothing I could do about it," Bourque said. "And he changed my ship-out date from August to July."
But on Thursday, Marine Staff Sergeant Kenneth Tinnin, a public relations officer, said otherwise. "Bottom line, if someone does not want to be a Marine we’re not going to send them to recruit training," Tinnin said. "It doesn’t do anybody any good."
"Then I’m not going," Bourque said after learning of Tinnin’s assessment. "My heart’s not in it."
Douglas Belkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.