Her fight against JROTC is an old struggle

September 24, 2005|By GREGORY KANE

At least two alumni of Forest Park High School - who were in the school's Junior ROTC program - died recently in Iraq.

That prompted a recent headline in The Sun: "War deaths of 2 alumni stir doubts about ROTC."

Doubt about having Junior ROTC programs in high schools is nothing new for Fran Donelan, who's been telling people her doubts for over 30 years.

Donelan grew up in a working-class family in Dundalk - "working-class" as in the Donelans didn't have a bunch of money. Three of her brothers joined the military. Donelan worked and went to college. It took her 13 years to get a bachelor's degree.

I first met Donelan in 1976. I was in the Air Force then, having a dispute with the brass about - I kid you not - pseudofolliculitis. That's the fancy scientific name for razor bumps. I got help from Donelan, who worked in the American Friends Service Committee Middle Atlantic Regional Office, which was then located in some not-very-swank digs on East 25th Street. Donelan had started as a volunteer in 1968. By 1971, she had been hired as a full-time employee and began working in counter-recruitment - a program to inform students of the negative side of military life.

"Junior ROTC was a big part of that" counter-recruitment effort, Donelan said recently from her home in Northeast Baltimore. During her early days at AFSC, Donelan discovered many of the young men she counseled had gone through Junior ROTC programs in high school.

Imploring school boards and school districts not to have Junior ROTC units has been a decades-long effort for Donelan. She appeared before the Baltimore school board in the late 1970s and urged its members not to allow Junior ROTC in city schools. It appears she'd have had better luck teaching a bullfrog how to sing soprano.

Now, nearly 30 years later, with the death toll rising in Iraq, people say they're "having doubts" about Junior ROTC. I asked Donelan if it bothered her that no one listened to her all those years ago.

"It bothers me," she answered, "but I'm basically an optimistic person."

Better for people to wise up later than not at all, Donelan probably figures.

Maybe now, folks will finally see what the military is for. We can all agree on this, no matter where we are on the political spectrum or how we feel about the war in Iraq. Armies, navies and air forces exist, primarily, to kill people. It's what they're good at, and it's what they do.

I learned, through my squadron commander, exactly why I was in the Air Force early in my basic training. He explained to a gathering of airman basics exactly why the military training instructors - the Air Force equivalent of drill instructors in the Marines and drill sergeants in the Army - were constantly in our faces and chewing out our butts for what were very minor infractions.

It was a deliberate attempt to induce a stressful environment, he said. The goal was to prepare us for combat. If we couldn't handle the relatively mild stressful environment of basic training, we sure as heck weren't going to handle the far greater stress of combat.

You do not join the military, as one starry-eyed girl enrolled in Junior ROTC said in a video Donelan and I watched together earlier this month, to get money for college. That's a fringe benefit. You join to engage in combat if the country goes to war.

And we're in a war. You can disagree all you want about whether or not it's the right war in the right time in the right place. But we should all agree that no matter why the war is being fought - to defend freedom or counter aggression or find weapons of mass destruction or fight terrorism - that some killing is going to be involved.

Making war is not the same as making nice. The AFSC, a Quaker group, is opposed to making war. They'd rather make nice. Dismiss them as a bunch of left-wing peaceniks if you're so inclined, but at least they've taken a stand.

We now have an administration whose policy in Iraq is to make war and make nice at the same time. That's difficult to do even under the best of circumstances. It's almost impossible when the war is against insurgents.

Would Donelan prefer that Junior ROTC teachers utter such truths to their students? Not really. She wants such units gone from schools completely. She'd prefer that money be used for - hey, here's an idea - educating students.

"What if students had computer science every day?" Donelan asked. It's a good question, but not one likely to be answered by policy wonks in these parts. What we will get from those wonks, no doubt, is some platitude about how Junior ROTC programs are good for Baltimore's high school kids, which they well might be.

"I don't want to come off, ever, as being against what the schools are trying to do or the kids are trying to do or the parents are trying to do," Donelan said. "But the lives of the kids is a trade-off I'm not willing to make."

greg.kane@baltsun.com

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