Toy Soldiers

Sergeant First Class (Retired) Jose L. Romero marches back and forth at
the head of the room. "Who here can recite the cadet creed without
stumbling?" he barks. Student after student steps up. They all begin
the same way, speeding through the memorized words, but eventually trip
up and burst into laughter. Romero is disgusted. "I tell you what,
I’m going to pick on one boy, and if he can’t recite the creed, all the
boys are going to drop and give me fifty." When his chosen victim fails
to recite it perfectly, he reminds them of what they discussed the day before:
"You know what they say? They say black schools and inner city schools
are the most difficult…. On Monday I talked to you about respect and
discipline. Do I need to make you sit with your palms on the table again?
The first thing [that goes wrong], guess what, I’m going to lynch you right
out there," he says, pointing past the American flag by the window,
"and then I’m going to burn a taco so they know it was me." He
calls out to a girl who has already failed her first attempt to recite the
creed. "Williams, you said you were going to come up here." "I
can’t, sir. My heart is beating!" "You’re weak!" He screams,
pointing at her violently. "Everybody drop and give me ten!" The
entire class drops to the floor and begins to do the push-ups. When they
are done, he calls six students to the front. They recite the creed in unison:

I am an army jrotc cadet. I will always conduct myself to bring credit
to my family, country, school and corps of cadets. I am loyal and patriotic.
I am the future of the United States of America. I do not lie, cheat, or
steal and will always be accountable for my actions and deeds. I will always
practice good citizenship and patriotism. I will work hard to improve my
mind and strengthen my body. I will seek the mantle of leadership and stand
prepared to uphold the constitution and the American way of life. May God
grant me the strength to live by this creed.

The whole process takes half a class period. Suddenly, the bell rings,
and the students erupt out of their seats and dash to the door.

This is the jrotc’s second year in operation at Hillhouse High School,
a sprawling, newly renovated building on Sherman Parkway with mostly black
and Hispanic students. For four years, Principal Lonnie Garris, a former
rotc cadet himself, lobbied to bring the program to Hillhouse in spite of
bureaucratic red tape and community opposition. As Dana Charles, a senior
jrotc cadet, explains, "Parents and a lot of people were against it,
because they thought it promoted violence. They signed petitions. They thought
we would be using guns."

jrotc is not the military’s only means of gaining access to Hillhouse students.
Recruiters regularly come into the school cafeteria at lunch and stop students
in the hallways. According to cadet Shana Barton, recruiters will say anything
to get a student to enlist. "My recruiter wasn’t telling me [important
information] cause he wanted me to join right then…. They get paid
more money if they recruit more." While students are suspicious of
recruiters, they see retired Colonel Donald B. Leazott, the jrotc director,
as an ally. The military is anxious to distinguish jrotc from its direct
recruitment programs. On the school’s website, the jrotc at Hillhouse says
its mission is "To motivate young people to be better citizens."
Above all, Colonel Leazott wants to emphasize that his program is not a
recruitment tool. "We don’t work with recruiters," he insists.
"We are not a recruiting program."

Yet Shanavia Swepson, a freshman cadet, says that after joining jrotc "mostly
everybody I know, most of the boys and some of the girls" are planning
to join the military. Whatever the party line about the military’s intent,
it seems the effect of jrotc is to encourage enlistment. And Marilyn DeJesus,
a second year cadet, recalls Army Sergeant Dorsey coming into the classroom
several times. Her experience is typical. "[Before joining jrotc] when
I thought about the army, I thought about wars. But it’s not really like
that. I had a whole different perspective. Sergeant Dorsey cleared that
up for me." Now she says she is going into Basic Training this summer.
Many of the other students with whom I spoke experienced similar conversions
after joining jrotc. "Before, I was not serious about joining the military,"
said Charles, who was just accepted into West Point. "Then Sergeant
Romero taught us about West Point in class…[and the Colonel] drove
me up to visit."

Some parents and others worry that students are making uninformed decisions
with serious repercussions. Joanne Sheehan, the New England coordinator
of the War Resistors League, regularly goes into schools to give kids the
information the military leaves out. To a girl like Barton, whose recruiter
promised a job in "engineering," Sheehan would explain, "The
actual assignment you get is completely at the discretion of the military."
And beware, Sheehan warns, the promises of increased earning power. "Most
job training in the military is not transferable to the real world,"
she explains. "One of the most potent recruiting tools is the notion
that if you enlist it will pay for your education." Unfortunately,
she says, "Statistics show that few people are able to take advantage
of [this money]." And with increased reserve deployment after September
11, enlistment itself may be a question of life and death.

After the jrotc class ends, I ask DeJesus what she would do if she changed
her mind about going to war after enlisting. She looks puzzled. "I’d
probably get myself kicked out, or ask for permission to leave." Did
she know what might happen to her? "I think you get disciplined or
something." In fact, she could be jailed or dishonorably discharged.
Had the Colonel or the Sergeant ever talked about stuff like that? Marilyn
laughs. "They wouldn’t want us to get a bad opinion about the army.
They wouldn’t want to talk about the real things." I ask her if she
knows how long she will be committed to the army if she enlists. "I’m
not really sure-I think it’s two years minimum." The minimum commitment
is eight years, two of active duty and six in the reserves, during which
time you can always be called into active duty. I asked her if she has ever
done any research beyond asking her recruiter and Colonel Leazott about
how enlistment works or about her rights once there. She shakes her head.
"I pretty much know the things I need to know."

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