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Bombing in New York: latest recruitment protest?

Despite Times Square incident, the military says enlistment centers are key to recruiting.

By Ron SchererStaff writers of The Christian Science Monitor, Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / March 7, 2008

Explosion site: The Homeland Security Department is investigating the incident.

Chip East/Reuters

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New York; and Oakland, Calif.

The stern, determined portrait of Uncle Sam, announcing "I want you," glares out at potential recruits from the military recruiting station in Times Square. Only this time, there is a blackened and distorted doorway next to it – the result of an early-morning bomb on Thursday.

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Officials say that such efforts are not going to deter them: Military recruiting stations remain one of the main ways to meet enlistment quotas. Military officials also maintain that the centers are part of the fabric of America – a way for civilians to interact with members of the armed services.

"Sometimes it's the only military presence in a community," says Lt. Col. Anne Edgecomb, a spokeswoman for the US Army, which has 1,650 recruiting centers in the United States. "It may be the only way to see someone in uniform and is crucial for the volunteer Army."

However, there have been some isolated incidents at recruiting stations, aside from the bombing. Last month, 2,000 protesters descended on Berkeley, Calif., many in support of the military, after the City Council voted 6 to 3 to draft a letter to local Marine recruiters calling them unwelcome intruders. The council had also pledged to facilitate protests by the antiwar group Code Pink outside the downtown Marine recruiting office.

The council's action garnered attention nationally, prompting a deluge of e-mails and phone calls to city hall. Six Republican US senators threatened to cut federal funding for some Berkeley programs.

Police in riot gear broke up street confrontations and arrested four protesters. The city council eventually rescinded the letter. Still, antiwar protests continue, while local businesses complain of a boycott by some residents upset that the City Council has not apologized for the original letter vote.

In December, students in Jericho, Vt., organized a protest against military recruitment in their schools, particularly the handover of their contact information by school officials. About 40 protesters entered an Army National Guard recruiting office and some refused to leave, resulting in 13 arrests.

Activists in Madison, Wis., meanwhile, have led an effort to help high school students and parents withhold contact information from military recruiters. A local organization called Truth and Alternatives to Militarism in Education – TAME – has been telling parents and students that they are able to remove their names from lists that schools must provide to the military under the No Child Left Behind Act. Last year, more than 2,000 Madison high school students removed themselves from the lists amid allegations from some students that the recruiters had grown pushy.

Yet overall, many public officials maintain that recruiting stations are welcome in their communities. On Thursday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York, at a press conference near the bombing site, said he was "thrilled" to have the recruiting station in the city. "It's in Times Square, the crossroads of the world, and that sends a message," he stated.

According to Army officials, the bombed station, which had been rebuilt in 1998, signs up about 30 recruits a year. Two Army recruiters, as well as members of the other services, work out of the station, visiting colleges and high schools.

The station also has a certain amount of historical interest since it was the nation's first one-stop joint recruiting facility when it opened in May 1946. According to the Army, it is one of the busiest walk-in offices in the nation.

It's not unusual for recruiting centers to get vandalized, officials say. "We get government cars keyed and tires slashed," says Colonel Edgecomb. "We're not sure if it's war protesters or kids."

The vandalism adds to recruitment challenges. In testimony this January, Maj. Gen. Thomas Bostick told a Senate hearing it would be a slog to meet the Army's goals of 80,000 new volunteers for the regular Army and 26,500 for the Army Reserve.

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