Recruiting for Peace

Teresa Penepinto of the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors explains military life from a pacifist perspective to Johnston High School students.
Teresa Penepinto of the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors explains military life from a pacifist perspective to Johnston High School students. (Photo By John Anderson)

Even if the "war against terrorism" weren't going on, the kids at Johnston High School would still be pretty familiar with military recruiters. High schools are populated with the strong, young men (and to a much lesser extent, women) the military wants. For students who attend inner-city, lower-income schools like Johnston, where pathways out of poverty aren't always palpable, the armed forces might seem like a rosier alternative.

While armed forces reps frequently visit schools in search of new cadets, students are less likely to hear anyone recruiting for peace on their campuses. Yet an Austin group called Nonmilitary Options for Youth is taking a shot. Founded in 1997 by Pamela Mosley (who now lives in Colorado) and Vera Shirley (who still supports the group but is no longer active), and currently led by Susan Van Haitsma and Kate Connell, NMOFY educates teenagers about the realities of military life. As the group's mission statement asserts, their purpose is "to balance the military recruiting information given in the high schools and explore with students the many alternate choices available to them," including "life-affirming opportunities for young adults."

For obvious reasons, NMOFY's mission has gained urgency in recent months, but trying to spread the message can be difficult. On Nov. 8, for example, Van Haitsma and Connell organized a lunchtime presentation at Johnston at the invitation of world history teacher Neal Lowenstern. Joined by guests Mario Hardy Ramirez from Philadelphia, Teresa Penepinto of Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors in Oakland, and local Vietnam vet Thomas Heikkala, Van Haitsma and Connell described the meaning of military service as they see it. Heikkala, who spent nine months in Vietnam in 1967-68, attacked the notion that the military can provide one with self-discipline: "Military discipline boils down to, 'Do what you're told. Do what you're told. Do what you're told. Do what you're told.' If you don't, you'll get in trouble.

"If you have the presence of mind to say no to something horrible," he continued, "you'll do yourself a small favor and get discharged. Real discipline is an ethical, spiritual thing where you say you won't be angry any more, and you'll work at something until you accomplish it."

Connell proposed other ways to serve one's country, such as working for charities like Habitat for Humanity, where "you actually help people, instead of taking over their land." Ramirez and Penepinto covered a broad range of topics, from the Delayed Enlistment Program to the risk of sexual harassment faced by female ranks. And they reminded the students of something recruiters probably don't enjoy mentioning -- that soldiers might someday be called to fight in a war.

But NMOFY's presentation drew only a dozen students. Rather than speaking to a truly representative sampling of Johnston's diverse student body, the activists ended up speaking to a mostly female, mostly white group of kids. When Ramirez asked them if they had ever thought about signing up for the military, most chuckled.

NMOFY's presentation was originally scheduled a week earlier during Lowenstern's class. After being contacted about the event by the Chronicle, however, Johnston principal Sal Cavazos decided that the lecture would best be delivered outside of class time. (Johnston applies the same policy to military recruiters.) Lowenstern, who was an activist while at UT (he graduated in 1992), accepted the decision: "If this group speaks to classes, then we have to allow the military in as well."

"We're glad for any opening we can get," Van Haitsma said, adding that she hopes the students will spread the word to others. "The seeds have been planted." Yet she realizes this could be a tough time to sow a crop. "It's interesting, because we've made calls to teachers, maybe seven, that we've worked with in the past, and got a response from only one. We're wondering if because of the heightened tensions if teachers might be hesitant. It makes us sad, because we think this is a time when it is even more important for high school students to see another view and discuss alternatives to war."

See www.progressiveaustin.org/nmofy for more info, or call 467-2946.

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