Recruiting For Iraq War Undercut in Puerto Rico

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By Paul Lewis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 18, 2007

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- The political activists, brown envelopes tucked under their arms, staked out the high school gates just after sunrise. When students emerged from the graffiti-scorched streets of the Rio Piedra neighborhood here and began streaming toward their school, the pro-independence advocates ripped open the envelopes and began handing the teens fliers emblazoned with the slogan: "Our youth should not go to war."

At the bottom of the leaflet was a tear sheet that students could sign and later hand to teachers, to request that students' personal contact information not be released to the U.S. Defense Department or to anyone involved in military recruiting.

The scene outside the Ramon Vila Mayo high school unfolded at schools throughout Puerto Rico this week as the academic year opened. On this island with a long tradition of military service, pro-independence advocates are tapping the territory's growing anti-Iraq war sentiment to revitalize their cause. As a result, 57 percent of Puerto Rico's 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders, or their parents, have signed forms over the past year withholding contact information from the Pentagon -- effectively barring U.S. recruiters from reaching out to an estimated 65,000 high school students.

"If the death of a Puerto Rican soldier is tragic, it's more tragic if that soldier has no say in that war," said Juan Dalmau, secretary general of the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP). His efforts are saving the island's children from becoming "colonial cannon meat," he said.

Under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, all schools receiving U.S. federal funding must provide their students' names, addresses and phone numbers to the military unless the child or parents sign an opt-out form. Puerto Rico received $1.88 billion in U.S. education funds this year. For five years, PIP has issued opt-out forms to about 120,000 students in Puerto Rico and encouraged them to sign -- and independista activists expect this year to mark their most successful effort yet.

Such actions come as other antiwar groups on the island are seeking to undercut military recruiting, as well. For example, the Coalition of Citizens Against Militarism, an association of pacifist groups, plans to visit about 70 schools on the island in the coming days, meaning that many students will receive two, or even three, opt-out forms by the end of August.

Antiwar advocates have even gained direct access to Puerto Rican classrooms under a controversial directive issued last September by Rafael Aragunde, the island's education secretary, granting "equal access" by pacifist groups and military recruiters.

Although he will not bar recruiters from schools, Aragunde said, he has a "lot of sympathy" for what pacifist groups are trying to accomplish. "I've always felt that one of the byproducts of a good educational system is that you have citizens who will defend pacifism," he said. "I think that just like we have to insist on ecological values, we have to insist on pacifist values." Aragunde described his relations with military recruiters as "cordial."

Bill Carr, deputy undersecretary of defense for military personnel policy, acknowledged that the counter-recruiting campaigns are having an impact. "We're drawing less than the national average" in Puerto Rico, he said.

In the 2003-06 period, 4,947 Puerto Rican men and women enlisted in the Army or Reserves, or approximately 123 people per 100,000 residents, according to Pentagon data. That is below the average contribution of U.S. states, and far below the numbers in states such as Alabama, Kansas, Montana and Oklahoma, each of which enlists more than 200 men and women per 100,000, according to Army data.

"We're not taking more than our share from Puerto Rico," Carr said. "We're taking less than our share, because that's what they'll give us." Carr said he suspects that opt-out rates for states in the continental United States rarely break beyond 10 percent -- a far cry from the nearly 60 percent on the island.

Reaction outside the gates of the Ramon Vila Mayo school this week seem to confirm that suspicion. A few students shrugged off the political activists' overtures, while others smiled and declared their interest in joining the "Yankee" military. But most of the teens politely accepted the forms, nodded and even fetched pens from their school bags.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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