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JROTC: Leadership course or recruiting tool?

San Francisco will vote in November on a ballot to save the military program in schools.

By Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor, Gordon LuboldStaff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / October 16, 2008

Phasing out: Members of the JROTC Drum Corps at Abraham Lincoln High School in San Francisco practiced Tuesday.

Tony Avelar/the Christian Science Monitor

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San Francisco and Washington

Some San Francisco students are taking to the streets over military involvement in schools – to support it.

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On a recent afternoon, they are on 24th Avenue. Adeline Wong and Michelle Ha knock on every door down the block touting a ballot proposition that would save a military-tied program in their school. The city's board of education narrowly voted in 2006 to phase out military education courses, known as junior ROTC, arguing it was a form of recruitment.

Adeline, a senior at Lincoln High and the school's senior battalion commander, is trying to tell voters that her favorite extracurricular activity isn't grooming her to be GI Jane. "It's funny hearing other people's understanding of the program. It's so limited, so stereotypical – if you're in a uniform, you are going to go into the military," says Adeline, who is gunning for a master's degree in biotech.

Students in the program shake their heads over the adult battle that's erupted. The issue has sharpened skirmishes for local government seats, drawn verbal volleys from national pundits and activist groups, and grabbed the Pentagon's attention.

No other major urban school district has followed San Francisco's phaseout, but with emotions high over an unpopular war in Iraq, efforts to curb military engagement with students have gained traction across the country.

Antirecruitment efforts have taken place in schools in Seattle; Madison, Wisconsin; Vermont; and Chicago.

Supporters of junior ROTC like Adeline say the program pushes college, not the military, and fosters leadership skills and trusted friendships. Opponents, however, counter that the Pentagon would hardly spend money without it paying recruitment dividends.

"The reason it exists is to encourage people to be positively disposed to military careers. And because it is targeted to children who are 13, 14, 15, it's very inappropriate," says Dan Kelly, a retired school board member and leading junior ROTC opponent.

He and others point to statements by military leadership over the years that cast the program in terms of recruitment, including former Defense Secretary William Cohen who told Congress in 2000 that "it's one of our best recruiting tools."

By large majorities, San Franciscan voters have backed measures to insulate students from military recruiters.

Some 90 percent of students in the district opt to not allow their information to be passed on to recruiters, says Alan Lessik, regional director of the American Friends Service Committee. The issue isn't just about local opinion but about international law – ratified by the US Senate – that sets 15 as a minimum age for recruitment.

"The military knows the reality that if you wait until [age] 18 it's too late," says Mr. Lessik. "The Pentagon can get you if they start talking with you at 13."

Opponents in the city also oppose the military's "Don't ask, Don't tell" policy for gays and lesbians. The San Francisco junior ROTC program allows openly gay students to join and rise through the ranks, even if the military itself does not.

Effect on recruitment

There are about half a million students participating in more than 3,600 junior ROTC programs across the country, with budget authorizations to expand the program by another 100 units by 2010. Pentagon officials say that there's a "waiting list" of another 700 schools nationwide looking to get junior ROTC.