RETHINKING THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE MILITARY AND OUR SCHOOLS
The story of an Air Force veteran, the impact of military recruitment in public schools, and imagining alternate paths for class mobility.
As a Mexican American growing up in a white, working-class community in northern California, Air Force veteran, Christina experienced a familiar, painful brand of everyday racism. From her peers checking to see if she had beans with every meal, to the comments about how her parents crossed the river to get here.
Looking back at high school, Christina notes the deep impact that the ingrained structural racism of the K-12 system had on her. She was thrilled to make the cutoff grade for an Honors English class until she found out the following fall that she’d been removed from the class, while at least one peer shared with her how his parents demanded he be included in the course, even though he had not made the grade cutoff. She was left behind, demoralized and losing her motivation to work hard in school.
“I ended up failing the first semester and having to do night school in order to graduate on time. It was a reality check for me about my actual place in the world.”
While Christina had always seen education as her pathway out of poverty, intending to go to a four-year college, instead she found herself enrolled in community college feeling that she had no way to pick herself up and move forward.
“Those couple of years post-high school I was stalled, not making the progress I wanted to make because I was ambitious and just didn’t have a way to get myself anywhere, which is ultimately how I ended up enlisted in the military.”
Christina’s story is a common one among veterans. For many, the military has served as a pathway towards education and financial stability that would not have been otherwise possible in the communities they come from. Joining the military can provide young people from unstable backgrounds a catalyst toward a solid upward path of increasing financial sustainability.
Over the last 20 years, Americans across the country have seen their wages stagnate, as prices for necessities like food, housing, and utilities continue to rise. The one group of Americans (outside of the top 1%) who have been exempt from this stagnation are military families. This makes the military seem particularly appealing to young people from resource deprived neighborhoods growing up in uncertain times.
Since the era of all-volunteer forces began at the end of the Vietnam war, recruitment has become increasingly important to maintaining the 1.4 million person active duty force. Beginning in 2001, any school that receives federal funding is required under the No Child Left Behind Act to provide the Pentagon data on all students in 11th and 12th grades, as well as grant recruiters access to their campus. That data includes their names, phone numbers, email addresses, ethnicities, and other identifying information.
Parents do have a right to opt out of the data-sharing, but busy parents in working class communities often don’t know it’s happening, let alone how to opt out. That disproportionately effects rural students, low-income students, and students of color. While the benefits of military service helped Christina achieve her higher education dreams and a solid middle-class lifestyle, there is no denying that military service is a risky gamble.
“In the more affluent communities, they know that their kids aren’t going to need that [class mobility] and they don’t want to put their kids’ lives in danger. There’s an understanding of what the military is and what it does.
Whereas in poorer communities, it’s seen as a leg up. It’s free education. It’s a career opportunity. It’s job training, it’s serving your country, it’s honorable. It’s a completely different perception of what the military is and what it can do for you. And it’s a worthwhile tradeoff for somebody coming from a poor community.”
What is most troubling about this is that if moving our society towards an equitable and peaceful future is the goal, that goal necessitates other ways of moving people out of poverty besides military enlistment or student debt.
We know from looking at the relatively recent past that this is possible. Other US departments, outside of the Department of Defense have had a similar class-mobility effect. One notable example is the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) created as a part of the New Deal in response to the Great Depression.
Under the Department of the Interior and Agriculture, more than three million men were employed to fight forest fires, plant trees, clear and maintain access roads, re-seed grazing lands and implement soil-erosion controls. Despite only being one such jobs programs in the New Deal, it employed more people than the entire US active-duty military, pulling them out of devastating levels of poverty.
We know it is possible to lift marginalized communities out of poverty without sending 17-year-olds to war. If we want to build a world where every student, no matter their background, can make decisions without fearing for their financial security, we have to start to dream bigger.
“The military was a gamble that paid off for me and I’m grateful for where I am. But people need to recognize systemically why this gamble even exists.”
Christina believes all students should have safe, healthy pathways to higher education and out of poverty, and her work at Stand is helping develop those pathways. “I hope that today’s graduates feel like they have a choice.”