A high school senior, Tim Gibson has his sights set on an academic scholarship to New York University, where he hopes the school’s business program will turn him into a wealthy stockbroker.
Tony Mancuso, a junior fullback and nose tackle, dreams of someday winning a place in the tradition-rich football backfield at USC or UCLA.
Both Newport Harbor High School students, Gibson and Mancuso represent the hopes and dreams of most young people. But for military recruiters, these students and other products of schools in wealthy Orange County beach communities are virtually untouchable in the hunt to fill out the military’s volunteer forces.
Students in these areas come mostly from well-to-do backgrounds where the median household income is more than $60,000 per year and enlisted military service often is not even considered an option. In good years, recruiters say there is cause to celebrate if one or two students from the affluent communities make commitments to the enlisted services.
By contrast, at Estancia High School in neighboring Costa Mesa, where the median income is about $40,000, Army recruiters say they can expect seven or more students to enlist this year. Recruiters also have a much easier time approaching potential candidates in even less affluent cities, such as Santa Ana.
The dilemma that local recruiters face takes on added significance because of the growing controversy about the mix of U.S. troops being deployed to the Persian Gulf. The troops going there are predominantly minorities and less-affluent whites.
In upper-class communities, local recruiters say that they are resorting to unusual methods to overcome roadblocks thrown up by uncooperative school administrators and parents in Irvine, Corona del Mar and Newport Beach.
One Army officer who trains recruiters for service in the county says the reception by school administrators in wealthy coastal schools has been so unwelcome that he advises his recruiters to cultivate school janitors as sources of valuable information about potential recruits.
“In Irvine or Corona del Mar, if a kid joins the Army he’s considered a rebel,” said Sgt. Gary Watkins of the Army’s recruiting station in Santa Ana. “They are closed. They let you know that. They look at you like you are not wanted.”
With tensions rising in the Persian Gulf, Marine Staff Sgt. Hector Martinez said his recruiters are encountering more parents who have carried strong anti-war sentiments since Vietnam.
“The flower children,” Martinez said, describing those unreceptive parents, “they use it (Vietnam) as an excuse.”
Chief Petty Officer Ernie Howton, who heads the Navy’s recruiting station in Costa Mesa, said the affluence and abundance of educational opportunities makes Orange County one of the most difficult recruiting areas in the nation.
Nowhere within the county is it more difficult than in Newport Beach and Corona del Mar. In these communities, Army recruiters say they take into account student career opportunities that accompany wealth, and their recruiting goals are actually adjusted downward.
For example, in Newport Beach and Corona del Mar, where the median household income is an estimated $60,600, according to the National Planning Data Corp., recruiters at the Army’s Costa Mesa station said their goal from those cities’ two high schools combined is to sign up three students this year.
School administrators at Newport Harbor High and Corona del Mar High, however, say recruiters enjoy good access to their schools. It’s only that students from wealthier communities tend to have more options open to them after high school and enlisted military service is not at the top of their lists, they say.
“I think kids ought to do what they want to do,” said Tom Jacobson, principal at Corona del Mar High. “But I think it is fair to say that school communities in Corona del Mar or Newport Beach probably don’t view military service as their goal. Some 90% of our kids go on to post-secondary education.”
While interest in the enlisted ranks may be down among his students, Jacobson said some have sought places in the military service academies.
Aside from the actual number of enlistments, recruiters say another measure they use for student interest in the military each year is the number of young men and women who take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, or qualifying exam.
This year at Newport Harbor High (enrollment 1,250) and Corona del Mar High (enrollment 1,169), a total of 83 students took the exam. Across town, more than 200 students took the test at Costa Mesa High School, enrollment 980.
Some recruiters who make more than 70 telephone calls a day to the homes of prospective enlisted men and women are frustrated, especially by the responses they say come from parents in the county’s more affluent areas.
“If I wanted my son in the Army, I’d buy him one,” said Watkins, quoting the recent reaction of one parent to a recruiter’s call. “The people are very adamant. They say, ‘Don’t call back here.’
“They’ll give you a dissertation and tell you that it (Vietnam) was an unjust war. These are the people who tell you, ‘Not my son. My son is going to Berkeley.’ ”
The same message is communicated on the high school campuses.
“No, thanks,” Tim Gibson said when asked about his prospects for enlistment from Newport Harbor High. “I’m trying for a scholarship, academic or football. There’s no way I’d do it.”
Tony Mancuso, whose pursuit of college sports is pushing him on to college, said most of his classmates are on similar career paths.
“They would rather do other things,” he said, sitting outside school on a recent evening, waiting for a ride home.
Army Staff Sgt. Benjamin Guzman said that sometimes the negative responses to his inquiries come with a figurative kick in the pants.
Last year, he said, a display of brochures at Corona del Mar High promoting service in all branches of the military was sabotaged when flyers from an anti-war group based in Philadelphia were found stuffed inside the government information.
Guzman said the same high school turned down the Army’s invitation for its teachers to join recruiters for a catered lunch so that enlisted military service opportunities for students could be discussed.
Jacobson said the incident with the flyers was not reported to him, but he indicated that it could have happened, given the diverse interests of student groups, some of which are unknown to him.
As for the lunch, Jacobson said the school receives frequent invitations to similar events.
“We make a lot of choices,” Jacobson said. “Some things just don’t get done. We don’t appear at everything. Teachers teach all day long.”
Dennis Evans, Newport Harbor High principal, said his school has done all it can to cooperate with military recruiters. He said the root of the military’s dissatisfaction probably lies in Newport Mesa Unified School District’s refusal to turn over the names, addresses and phone numbers of its graduating seniors.
Although recruiters say other districts provide the valuable information in various forms, Evans said the district has discontinued the practice at the urging of parents, who began complaining about the influx of telephone calls and junk mail to their homes from several sources.
“We don’t treat the military any different than we do people from Princeton or Stanford,” Evans said. “The military is treated exactly the same. Military recruiters would love for us to provide them the data. It makes their work a little more difficult. We won’t give that list to anybody.”
On other local campuses, particularly in areas where the household incomes are not as high, recruiters say they are warmly received.
On a recent trip to neighboring Costa Mesa High, where students come from more middle-class backgrounds, Guzman’s visit began with a chat with a school guidance counselor who had nothing but praise for the opportunities enlisted military service offers.
“College is a status symbol,” said the counselor, who declined to be named. “Parents project them (children) into four-year colleges. They think their kids deserve much better than military service. Some could benefit from the discipline the military service has to offer.”