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To Join the Military, or Not

At Centennial High, veterans speak out on realities of war while a counselor criticizes school policy on the presence of military recruiters
by: John Klicker, Harvey Thorstad, president of the Portland chapter of Veterans for Peace, speaks to a group of Centennial High School students Wednesday, Feb. 27, on his war experiences. On the right, seated, is fellow veteran Dave Edgar, and in the left foreground is Stephen Siegel, a counselor who invited them.

To most Americans, the words 'Black Hawk Down' signify a Hollywood movie based on a dreadful day for U.S. soldiers in the Somali Civil War.

To Dave Edgar, a former U.S. Army Ranger, 'Black Hawk Down' reminds him that he lost two friends during the Battle of Mogadishu in October 1993.

Those friends were fellow Rangers Randy Shugart and Matt Rierson, who received the Medal of Honor and Silver Star, respectively, and posthumously after dying along with 17 other U.S. soldiers in battles with Somali militia allied with warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid.

Shugart's body was infamously dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, and his loss was felt deeply by Edgar, who served with him in Somalia during the 1980s.

'It hit me pretty hard,' Edgar said. 'It knocked me down pretty good. He was just a solid dude. He was really reserved, but he had a lot of skill and force that he'd put out there when it was required.'

Edgar was one of two veterans Counselor Stephen Siegel invited to Centennial High School in late February to talk to students about their experiences. Vietnam veteran Harvey Thorstad, president of the Portland chapter of Veterans for Peace, also spoke.

Military recruiters are regular visitors to the high school, and Siegel has criticized the Centennial School District for not allowing him to provide information contradicting their viewpoints. He said school officials ordered him to leave the school cafeteria in late April 2007 after he spent two days manning a table with pamphlets outlining the risks involved with joining the military.

Edgar, who was in the Army from 1983-86, also served on the Honduran-Nicaraguan border during Nicaragua's civil war between leftist Sandinistas and U.S. backed rightist contras. His service in Africa and Central America left him disillusioned with the objectives of U.S. foreign policy and with war in general, he said, something no one warned him would happen before he joined the Army.

'Once you commit to this life or this path, you will never be the same person. You're going to lose a part of you in the process.'

It might be your life you lose, or a limb, or a friend, or belief in your country's cause, he added.

'When you're young, you don't think that way, and I didn't think that way.'

Centennial visit

'Per se, I'm not anti-military,' Thorstad told the students. 'What I am against is the misuse of the military these days.'

He and Edgar are both critical of the Iraq War, but like Thorstad, Edgar says he's not necessarily a 'foamer when it comes to keeping people out of the military.' However, both men urged the young people present to think seriously about the consequences of joining the service.

Devin Mounts, a senior who attended the after-school presentation, said he enjoyed learning about the veterans' lives. He added that he wasn't interested in joining the military.

'My goal has been more education,' Devin said.

Siegel would argue that his goal is education as well. He wrote an opinion piece The Outlook published Feb. 26 outlining his position, criticizing the district for labeling his work political, whereas he claimed he was only trying to responsibly warn students about the possible dire consequences they face when they enlist.

'If it is defined by the district as a political or controversial issue, the district owes it to our students to either present both sides equally or to prevent both sides from having access,' he wrote.

Wendy Reif, Centennial district spokesman, noted that federal law requires the district to allow military recruiters access to students.

'We allow them the same access as college recruiters,' she said. 'Although they are here to recruit - not present political points of view - we cannot control the perception that their presence makes some kind of a political statement.'

Explaining why the district stopped Siegel's efforts, she said that school employees could engage in discussions with students about controversial issues - within the following parameters.

• Opinions should be shared after students have discussed the material and issue.

• Teachers must follow legislative, state board of education and district-prescribed curriculum using approved materials and resources.

• The issue must be related to the curriculum being taught.

• Teachers must promote the fair representation of differing points of view in all issues studied.

• Teachers must exemplify objectivity in the search for the truth.

'Based on a review of (Siegel's) request and the materials he intended to use, and after seeking a legal opinion, (Superintendent Robert McKean) concluded that the counselor's request did not adhere to these parameters,' she said.

Recruiter's role

Gary Stauffer, spokesman for the Army's Portland Recruiting Battalion, said the military is not opposed to sharing space with anti-recruiting activists. In fact, he said, at least one high school career fair in Oregon in the past year featured booths manned by both military recruiters as well as peace activists.

'The army is dedicated to defending the nation and the liberties that are guaranteed to all citizens by the Constitution,' Stauffer said. 'The freedom to assemble and freedom of speech are two of those rights under the First Amendment. While we may not agree with counter-recruiters' point of view, we respect their right to peacefully demonstrate.'

Army recruiters man a table at Centennial twice a month and also help out in the school's career center, he said. Generally, about 25 students visit the table, he added.

Recruiters are expected to recruit at least two people per month, and receive a $100 bonus for each recruit after that. However, there's a catch - at least one of the first two recruits must be a senior or high school graduate and rank in the 50th percentile or higher when they take the Army's vocational aptitude test.

Stauffer said he agreed with Siegel that joining the military is a serious decision, and added that if students ask, recruiters - many of them combat veterans themselves - are willing to talk about the risks associated with joining.

'(Students) should have their parents involved,' Stauffer said. 'They're making a huge decision, and Mom and Dad should be in there with them.'

And deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan is always a possibility, he adds.

'We cannot guarantee anyone that if they enlist they will not be harmed.'

Interestingly, after reading the opinion piece he wrote for The Outlook, the Army has invited Siegel to visit Fort Lewis, Wash., in April - and Siegel has accepted the invitation.

'I want to have an open mind and see what is there,' Siegel said. 'If nothing else, I'll be better informed.'