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Rethinking Military Message : Peace Group Tells Students Things Recruiters Don’t Mention

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Margaret Difani joined the Navy in 1975 and spent the next four years as a secretary. Today, she tells high school students that her stint in the military wasn’t an adventure. It was just a desk job.

Tim Johnston spent eight months, 10 days, 16 hours and 20 minutes in Vietnam as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division. He saw several friends die there. Today, he volunteers his time to let young people know that he is still trying to figure out why.

Michael Hall spent from 1968 to 1972 in the Army mortuary service, processing the bodies of servicemen killed in Vietnam. When he came home, he became an Army recruiter, enlisting so many people that he earned a gold badge. Today, he travels around the county telling teen-agers they don’t have to buy what military recruiters are selling.

These veterans don’t wear uniforms. They boast no catchy slogans and have no contracts for students to sign. But make no mistake--like their nemeses, the military recruiters, these men and women have their own hard sell.

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They are peace recruiters--members of a tiny Encinitas-based network called the Project on Youth and Non-Military Opportunities, or Project YANO. Since 1984, they have spoken to thousands of students in dozens of schools around San Diego County, pitching an unconventional brand of patriotism that says you can serve your country without ever firing a gun.

Especially in recent months, as the military build-up in the Persian Gulf raises the possibility of U.S. troops going to war, Project YANO’s message has taken on a new urgency. But its mission, members say, remains the same: to tell kids what the military won’t.

“We are not here to tell you what you should or shouldn’t do or what you should or shouldn’t think,” Rick Jahnkow, Project YANO’s program coordinator, told about 300 juniors and seniors at Torrey Pines High School this week. “What we’re going to give you today is not a balanced presentation--you’re already getting the other side. We’re here to . . . fill in the blanks.”

Military recruiters who speak only of adventure, travel, education and job training leave out a few things, Jahnkow says. Among them, he says: the racism and sexism many enlistees experience; the low-tech jobs that often lie behind the high-tech terms in recruiting literature; and the possibility, implicit but in his eyes often under-stressed, that joining the military means risking your life.

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“We’re not talking about Hawaii, Guam, places like that,” says one veteran in a 15-minute slide show that is part of Project YANO’s presentation. “We’re talking about Lebanon, Grenada, Iran, Iraq--places with violence.”

Another veteran adds: “Videogames don’t prepare you for that 10-year-old body all torn to pieces. And for the knowledge that you were part of the military machine that caused it.”

Jahnkow, a long-time anti-war activist who never served in the military, says Project YANO espouses no particular political viewpoint. The eight veterans that make up his speaking pool say that even they don’t agree about the role of the military or the justness of war. What they share, however, is a belief that teen-agers need help figuring it out.

The military has them completely outflanked. This year, the armed services combined will spend $2.86 billion on recruiting nationwide, including $203 million for advertising, Pentagon officials say. Project YANO’s annual budget, which stays balanced only because the veterans donate their time, hovers around $20,000.

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So, like any clever underdog, Jahnkow has tried to turn weakness to advantage. The military’s recruiting campaign is so pervasive, he tells teen-agers, that he need not repeat it to them. We’ve all heard the ads, he says: slogans like, “Be all that you can be” and “We don’t ask experience, we give it.” All he asks is that kids think more critically, ask more questions and make up their own minds.

“We’re really selling them a method rather than an idea,” said George Grider, a former Navy officer who is a Project YANO speaker. “Reason and patience and caring--if they can learn those things, we like to think they will choose non-military opportunities. But if they don’t, at least they will be choosing for their own reasons.”

Project YANO suggests several alternative ways for young people to express their love of country. Among them, joining the Job Corps and the Conservation Corps, entering youth training programs or vocational schools. But Jahnkow acknowledges that, where his group offers suggestions, the military can offer a paycheck.

In part for that reason, military recruiters in the area appear largely unthreatened by Project YANO’s efforts.

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“They haven’t affected us at all,” said Sgt. Joe Steele, a public affairs officer for Marine Corps Recruiting Station San Diego. He said recruiters in his office view Project YANO’s speakers as “disgruntled vets. They got some bum scoop, or their experience when they went into the service was negative, so they’re taking that into the classroom.”

Teachers counter that the veterans have proved to be valuable catalysts for debate. They say that, by challenging students’ perceptions of what a career in the armed services can offer, Project YANO forces them to confront what’s important to them--sometimes for the first time.

“None of these kids have any idea that they’d be called on to kill. They have very little experience with death, with having to give up anything,” said Darlene Palmer, an English teacher at Torrey Pines High School, said after a recent Project YANO visit. “This is what education is all about.”

“For me, the bottom line of Project Yano is: get informed,” said Michael Mangin, a history teacher at San Dieguito High School. “There’s conflict, there’s difference of opinion, and the class has to work through that. It’s a terrific learning experience.”

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One year, Mangin says, Project YANO prompted students to form a small political discussion group. Another year, Jahnkow and his crew came to class after one of Mangin’s students already had decided to join the Navy. After hearing their presentation and asking several questions, the student didn’t change his mind. But he told Mangin he was glad he’d been forced to articulate his convictions.

“He felt more confident about it, having been challenged,” Mangin said.

Often the kids challenge the speakers right back, critiquing their political biases and their patriotism. At Torrey Pines High School this week, for example, the 16- and 17-year-olds were full of questions. How do you go about proving you’re a conscientious objector? Can you be drafted if you’re not an American citizen? Without military recruiters to enlist new soldiers, who would defend the United States?

“You’re not really against the military,” one student chided. “You’re just against what it does. If the military fit into your personal political beliefs, you’d be all for it.”

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Another student approached Jahnkow later to say he felt he could serve in the military in some capacities, but not in combat. When Jahnkow informed him that he would not necessarily be allowed to choose his job, he grimaced with surprise.

“I don’t have a choice?” he asked.

Critical or not, each question represents a victory, Jahnkow says. If the students apply the same skepticism to everything they hear, Project YANO will have accomplished its aim.

“When students say, ‘Aren’t you being unpatriotic,’ I say, ‘Veterans don’t fight wars so that people can just wave the flag. We fight for those basic principles of being able to speak your mind,’ ” said Hall, the former military recruiter.

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“When they come up and say we’re a bunch of hippie-commie-freaks, were thrilled,” Grider said. “It shows they’re listening.”


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