When your son gets a call from Army recruiter

November 15, 2005|By HALAINE S. STEINBERG

The young man on the telephone asked for my son in a voice that sounded friendly and familiar. But he wasn't calling to organize a late-night poker game, share a ride to the next Dave Matthews concert or score tickets to a Ravens game. On the contrary, he had an offer in hand - college tuition, a career opportunity, maybe even a $20,000 to $30,000 signing bonus - if my son wanted to join the Army.

The Army, it seems, is once again looking for what the Marines call a few good men - if by "a few" it means 30,000 soldiers over the next few years, and if by "men" it is referring to the teenagers it is recruiting from high schools across the country.

The Pentagon is working "with a private marketing firm to create a database of high school students ages 16 to 18 and all college students to help the military identify potential recruits in a time of dwindling enlistment in some branches," according to a recent Washington Post report.

The database is making some people nervous because there's worry about increasing government interference in the lives of private citizens. Even without a database, four different Army recruiters have called my son since January, when he was in his senior year in high school. They most likely received his telephone number from the school system as part of a program covered under the 2002 No Child Left Behind law.

In fact, many parents have become so anxious about these calls to our sons and daughters that at least one public school system - Baltimore County's - has offered parents an opt-out provision in which we can direct the school not to give our children's information to recruiters.

But as much as parents may find these recruitment efforts disconcerting, our sons and daughters can, at least for now, still say no. I was reminded of that a few days after my son's 18th birthday by the innocuous-looking Selective Service registration postcard that arrived in the mail. Nestled between the coupons and some birthday cards, it almost got tossed in the recycle bin until I took a closer look at the return address and the catch phrase underneath about registration: "It's the law!"

My generation was just beginning junior high school when the draft ended in 1973. At the height of the Vietnam War, we were dodging volleyballs on the playground while older baby boomers dodged the draft, found a deferment or went off to fight.

I remember my older sister's boyfriend - shoulder-length hair secured by a headband and tie-dyed shirt smelling of incense - use words such as pacifist and conscientious objector. Not yet a teenager, I didn't pay much attention then. But I'm paying attention to those memories now.

The truth is, I want the Army to fill its quota, because more than the government having my children's names in a database and more than a polite young recruiter calling my home, I worry about a draft board mandating my son's future.

As an American, I'm grateful to those young people who have made the choice to serve their country, whether motivated by patriotism, financial security or even just a sense of being part of something larger than themselves. But as a parent, I feel for their mothers. Because mixed with pride must be a gripping fear and an inevitable sense of dread when their boys and girls get called up for active duty.

Each time I read of a soldier who has become a casualty of our latest war, my first thought is, "How will the mother survive this?" I can't begin to fathom her pain, and that ignorance fills me with an uneasy guilt.

The newspaper profiles of these brave young adults are much like those of my son and his friends: respected by coaches, liked by teachers, admired by friends, loved by family. They, like their civilian peers, wanted to do something important and meaningful with their lives. Their mothers are like all mothers of teenagers; we want our children to grow into adults who have real choices about their future. At the very least, we want them to grow up, to have a future.

In the same week that my son received his draft card notice, President Bush announced to the country that the sacrifice of the war in Iraq was worth it. The friendly young recruiter who called my home might very well agree with that. But I can't help but wonder if his mother does.

Halaine S. Steinberg lives in Owings Mills. Her e-mail address is hsstnbrg@aol.com.

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