by Christopher Paslay
So far in 2008, there have been more murders on the streets of Philadelphia then there have been American soldiers killed in Iraq. On December 1st, Samantha Houston, 19, became Philadelphia’s 304th homicide victim when she was shot in her North Philadelphia home before dawn.
On November 24th, Master Sergeant Anthony Davis, 43, died after being shot by an Iraqi Security Force soldier while he was conducting a humanitarian food drop. Davis was America’s 294th soldier killed in Iraq this year.
Why am I comparing Baghdad to the streets of Philadelphia? Because of the “opt-out” campaign the Philadelphia School District is running against United States military recruiters.
Despite the fact that America’s armed services provide young men and women with a variety of occupational skills and the opportunity to travel the world, the school district has been working diligently to remove students’ names from lists of recruiters. A quick visit to the Philadelphia School District’s website will reveal that a link to their “Military Opt-Out Form” is not only pasted on the front page, but also translated into eight different languages: Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Khmer, Vietnamese, Albanian, Arabic and French.
The campaign to keep the names of Philadelphia teens off military recruiter’s lists is also being promoted inside city schools as well. At Swenson Arts and Technology, the high school where I teach, military opt-out forms are made regularly available. Directions for completing these forms are often announced during advisory period.
It’s usually during this time that students in my homeroom ask if they can be excused to go to the office to pick up a form.
“Why do you want to get your name off the list so bad?” I recently asked a young man in my classroom who requested the form.
“Because I don’t want to get drafted,” he told me. Others in the room agreed with him.
I tried to explain that there was no draft in the United States, that the lists were strictly for recruiting purposes so military personnel could send you information in the mail or call you on the phone.
“And you can always say no when they call,” I told the boy. “But at least it gives you options when you graduate.”
“I don’t want to go to war,” he told me. “I don’t want to die.”
And that was the end of the conversation.
Although I understood his reasoning, part of me felt sorry that many students blindly close the door on such a golden opportunity. If they kept an open mind, students would realize the United States military has so much to offer. Instead of hanging around the neighborhood and dealing with high unemployment rates, they could serve in the Army and earn money for college. As they did so they could learn about computers and engineering—job skills that could pave the way for a bright future once their service is over.
Much of the same applies with the Navy, Air Force and Marines.
Not all students reject the military, of course. Surprisingly, a growing number of teens in Philadelphia are embracing the military through Jr. ROTC.
At Swenson, we are privileged enough to have an Air Force Jr. ROTC program. AFJROTC cadets are some of the best and brightest students in the building. They are highly motivated and disciplined, often serving as escorts to visitors during school community functions, and raising and lowering the flag in front of the school every morning. Not to mention they look incredibly sharp in their crisp, navy blue cadet uniforms.
Despite the best efforts of teachers and principals, too many students in Philadelphia are graduating with limited skills. The military is a perfect solution to this problem. School district officials should be encouraging young men and women to enlist in the service, not shielding them from such an opportunity.
Although I’ve had dozens of students come back to my classroom to visit me after graduating, the ones who impress me the most are always those young men and women who have enlisted in the military. Their presence is clearly distinguishable from the rest of their peers: They are proud and confident, in amazing physical shape, and have a look in their eye like they can conquer the world.