Tuesday, August 26, 2008



The deadline is approaching, but you still have time...

Local organizers in Austin are planning a National Assembly to Honor Freedom of Conscience
to be held October 3 - 5, 2008 in downtown Austin. Planners have sponsored an essay contest as part of the event. Here are the details:

Please write on the theme of "why freedom of conscience is important to me."

All high school students (anywhere in the world) and those recently graduated are invited and encouraged to participate. Prizes will be awarded for the top three essays, selected by supervision of the assembly working group.

Essays must be a maximum of 800 words, typed and doubled spaced on white paper with black print. In order to be considered for awards, essays must be postmarked on or before September 21, 2008.

Prizes will be distributed when the essays are read during the assembly, or mailed to the authors if they are unable to attend the event.
All essays submitted become the possession of the assembly working group who will work for their publication in various media outlets along with the authors' credits.

Please send all entries to:
Essay Contest
National Assembly
Austin Mennonite Church
5801 Westminster Dr
Austin, TX 78723

Monday, August 18, 2008

Brothers in Farms

This piece is posted on the website of Farms Not Arms:

Swords into Plowshares: One Soldier's Story
by Matthew McCue

Matthew McCue is an Iraq War vet turned farmer and member of Farms Not Arms. When he wrote this piece, he was teaching agriculture for the PeaceCorps in Niger, Africa. He now runs his own small produce farming operation outside of Sebastopol, California. Here are some recent photos of Matt selling his veggies at the Farmers’ Market.

My hoe strikes the ground every time I take a step. A local woman follows behind, tossing seeds in the holes that I dig. The West African sun beats down without mercy but I keep working. The soil is a well weathered remnant of the jungle that used to dominate the arid land that is now known as the Sahel. I am planting millet, one of the most robust crops known to man. I can not create or even fully control what will spring up from this seemingly barren field. I can only guide it.

You can cover a soldier with night vision, Kevlar, GPS tracking systems, advanced infantry weapons, put him in a Bradley fighting vehicle, and send him in to battle but without his or her personal force and motivation the equipment reveals itself for what it is: lifeless machinery. If I tell you of my experience in combat surely you will be able to read a story with more bravado, more blood, more adrenaline, and more pain. I can tell you that to kill you have to shut off a piece of your heart, and to see another soldier die will shatter what is left of it. To function you have to become immersed in the machine that is killing you and keeping you alive at the same time. You have to bring life to the machine.

Rather than thinking of Iraq as the place where my heart was broken and my mind was controlled I prefer to think of Iraq as the place where I discovered the key to my freedom. I prefer to remember the trucks full of watermelons and pomegranates that would pass through our checkpoints. I felt strangely human as I waved cars by with pomegranate seeds stuck to my Kevlar vest.

I witnessed many unforgettable things in Iraq but the aspect that changed my life more than any other was the way the farmers kept working and selling their produce through the chaos of a regime change. Farmers have a quiet power that made me realize that I could not accomplish anything good for the world with my M16 in hand. It was in Iraq eating fruit that I realized that I needed to find a new way to think. It was also in Iraq that I learned to hide how I felt.

I returned to Fort Hood, Texas a newly promoted sergeant. I spent the next seven months training kids how to kill. At night I would find myself in my room listening to anti-war music as I prepared for the next day of training.

When my time was up and I left, I had no clue what to do. As an accomplished infantryman I could become a cop, private soldier or oil rig worker. I chose to collect unemployment and climb mountains in the Pacific Northwest. Unemployment ran out and through a series of events that included a summer stint in Alaska as a commercial fisherman, I found myself in Pahoa, Hawaii. I came to volunteer on a five acre permaculture farm owned by a friend of a friend. It was there that I stopped being a soldier.

I learned about the concept of sustainability and how to compost. I saw so many beautiful plants and learned so much I was almost overwhelmed. I was secretly still afraid of getting mortared or running over an IED as we would drive into Hilo. I took up bogie boarding and faced a very real and logical fear of drowning because I am a weak swimmer.

As I look back, my time in Hawaii was priceless. It was there that I applied for the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems. Because of my lack of experience and formal education I really had no idea if they would let me into their six-month apprentice program, but in April 2006 I found myself setting up my two-person tent on the edge of one of the fields.
It took about three seconds for me to realize that I had found a very special place. I spent the next six months with the smartest group I have ever worked with and ended up in a heated discussion about every day. My most frequent debate partners were the people I loved the most. Just about everyone knew more about horticulture than me. Everybody taught me something.

I would still go to sleep afraid of mortars but the joy of the present and anticipation of the next harvest made the past seem to loosen its grip on my life. I learned more from six months on a college farm in Santa Cruz than four years in the Military. I escaped the army without a scratch — but before learning to care for life I was caught in a slow death with nothing to watch but my own mortality and the horrifying news.

I feel like the luckiest person alive because as I work in my field in west Africa my body becomes stronger and I am no longer an observer of the quiet beauty, I am a caretaker. Having been very effectively conditioned to kill and accept death, taking care of plants has had a kind of opposite effect on my mind, heart, and soul.

Sometimes I feel that the torment that has plagued me during and after my time in Iraq was just the plowing of the field of my heart before the deep rooted seed of peace and sustainability could grow within my soul.
The quiet power of farming has overtaken me and I no longer live in fear.
Farms Not Arms is made up of farmers seeking a more peaceful world. Our Swords to Plowshares project makes our farms available to Iraq and Afghan War vets looking for employment, job training and places to heal.
In California we are forming a non-political Farmer-Veteran Coalition, bringing together the farming community with veterans, their advocates and their survivors so we can help care for the disproportionately large number of veterans that are returning to rural America, and bring new energy to our farms.
Farms Not Arms and the Farmer-Veteran Coalition will offer scholarship assistance to any returning veterans that wish to attend the Agroecology apprentice program that Matthew did at the University of California Santa Cruz.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Countering recruitment in Los Angeles

by Danny Brown
Published in the Easy Reader, South Bay's Hometown News on August 14, 2008

Paul Wicker of Manhattan Beach, with the support of local high school students and civic activists, is protesting the United States military’s recruitment of high school students.

Nearly a year ago, Wicker approached the Manhattan Beach Unified School District urging it to limit the armed forces recruitment efforts at Mira Costa High School. As part of his protest, Wicker urged the Manhattan Beach Unified School District to make it more difficult for the military to collect information on students. Previously the school had an opt-in program where students could choose to send their information to the military, but after the military complained, it changed to an opt-out form.

Wicker soon discovered there wasn’t a strong armed-forces recruitment presence in the Manhattan Beach school district. “Recruiters don’t come to the campus much on account of the economics of the area,” Wicker said. “They’re trying to coerce poorer kids into fighting a war that has so little popular support that they are having trouble finding people to sign-up for it.”

On a recent afternoon, he stood outside Manuel Arts High School in Los Angeles with a cardboard sign around his neck that read, “Resist don’t enlist,” and handed out pamphlets in both English and Spanish with a picture of a soldier dancing with a skeleton.

Wicker is a member of the Coalition Against Militarism in Our Schools (CAMS – not to be confused with the Cal State Dominguez Hills’ California Academy of Math and Science). His son came home from fighting in the 1991 Gulf War a changed person, he said.“It makes you different,” Wicker said. “You see carnage and sometimes have to make decisions like, do you listen to your commanding officer and not stop driving a vehicle even though a 5-year-old girl is in the road, or do you swerve and risk the life of all the soldiers you’re transporting? It stays with you.”

Wicker began looking for reasons to justify his son’s exploits overseas and learned about the complex history of America’s relationship with Saddam Hussein and Iraq, leading up to Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. When the second Iraq invasion by the United States took place in 2003, he protested against the war and joined CAMS. “Students should have the right to hear both sides of a recruiter’s proposition before making a decision to commit themselves to the armed forces and put their lives on the line,” Wicker said. “The schools we go to are letting recruiters in to convince kids that they should sign up to fight, but not letting us in to convince kids to stay in school and pursue an education.”

The passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002 gave military recruiters access to public high schools and student information. Since then Los Angeles teachers and school officials have seen an aggressive increase in the armed forces’ effort to recruit students. On July 8, CAMS representatives addressed the Los Angeles Unified Board of Education about this situation.“They are on our campus nearly every day,” said Jefferson High School Teacher’s Assistant Tanya Selig to the board. “The military recruiters outnumber the career fair recruiters 5 to 2.”

Ulis William, the former president of Compton College and the leader of last week’s information campaign outside of Manuel Arts High School, said the armed forces recruiters prey on children attending lower income schools. “They know these kids feel they have limited options,” he said. “You won’t find many [Junior Reserved Officer Training Camp] programs in the public schools west of Fairfax.”

The economic disparity of military enlistment also includes a racial gap. According to the National Priorities Project (a nonprofit research organization that analyzes federal data) 70 percent of Black recruits, 64 percent of Hispanic recruits and 57 percent of White recruits come from neighborhoods at or below the U.S. median household income.“ The military is at our school almost every day, but I thought it was like this everywhere,” said Marisol Melgar, 17, from Manual Arts High School, who was reading over one of CAMS’ brochures last week. “They stop us between classes and at lunch and tell us we can make something of ourselves if we join.”

To level the playing field CAMS asked the LAUSD to grant them equal access to schools. Armed with a proposal adopted by the United Teachers of Los Angeles, the group wants to place self-funded military counselors, veterans and community volunteers as Military Alternative Advocates at 10 to 15 high schools to present the realities of an enlistment contract and present students with alternatives.

“The teachers have been very receptive and some principals have even begun to give us access on an individual basis,” said William’s wife and fellow activist Sandra Williams. “However, many schools seem afraid that if they restrict recruiters or allow us to come in and debate them, they might jeopardize their federal funding.”

[Nonmilitary Options editor's note: Allowing representatives of groups like CAMS and Nonmilitary Options for Youth into schools does not jeopardize schools' federal funding. In fact, court cases have upheld "equal access" to those who present alternative views about military enlistment in schools. Our Austin (Texas) public school district policy, noted in the previous blog post, upholds equal access to Nonmilitary Options for Youth.]

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Reminder: Austin School District Policy re. Recruiting on Campus

The new 2008/09 school year will soon begin. Here is an important reminder:

On June 12, 2006, the board of trustees of the Austin Independent School District approved a new policy that places limits on access by military recruiters on school campuses.

1. All recruiters will check in at the school's administration office and get a visitor badge every time they go onto school property.

2. Specific areas will be designated by the principal on each campus for recruiting purposes.

3. No on-going contact shall occur when students make clear by their speech or other conduct that contact with a recruiter is unwelcome.

4. Evidence of a parent's/guardian's intent to provide directory information upon request shall be respected. [See Policy FL LEGAL] (This refers to the new opt-out provision on the SR-290 form. See below.)

5. The ASVAB test (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) shall be administered pursuant to the same terms and conditions as other aptitude tests administered within the District. (ASVAB testing is voluntary and should never be presented as compulsory. Students who have opted out of sharing directory information (Form SR-290) should be excluded from any such testing or other contact with the military in the absence of explicit written parental permission.)

6. Recruiting of any kind shall not occur in a manner, time and place that disrupts classroom instruction. Recruiting in a classroom or other designated space is acceptable only if upon the invitation of authorized school personnel and part of a school-approved program.

7. Schools will allow information regarding recruiting, including recruiting by the military, and those advocating alternatives to the military, to be made available to students in an equivalent manner and location.

NOTE: Point # 4 of the new policy refers to a clear opt-out provision for parents/guardians to withhold their directory information from military recruiters while allowing the information to be made available to college reps or other organizations that request it.
AISD officials have added a new section under "Directory Information" on the new SR-290 form that parents/guardians are asked to fill out in the fall. The wording on the new SR-290 form for 2006-07 is as follows:
There are two boxes in the Directory Information section. On the left is a box where parents can sign either "I GIVE" or "I DO NOT GIVE" "permission to release directory information."
On the right side is the same kind of box reading "I GIVE" or "I DO NOT GIVE" "permission to release student directory information to military recruiters."

New report lists schools using ASVAB test

ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) testing is in the news. The test, which is required for military enlistees, is also administered in many high schools around the country, especially in rural areas. Sold to schools as a vocational guide to students, the test is actually a recruiting tool used to ascertain student contact information that is often used to pressure students into enlistment.

Here in Austin, the Austin Independent School District adopted a policy regarding military recruitment in the high schools that specifically states that any ASVAB testing is only to be administered as a voluntary test, and not to be presented as mandatory. The district also adopted a clear "opt-out" measure that allows parents and guardians to sign a form early in the school year that either gives or withholds permission for their contact information to be given to military recruiters. Schools risk violating student privacy if they allow the ASVAB to be administered without being sure that all students who take the ASVAB have permission for their contact information to be released to the military.

A new report allows anyone to check which schools in the country are using the ASVAB, how many students took the test in the 2006-07 school year and whether the test was mandatory. The list of Texas schools is long and is especially weighted toward rural districts. The only school in AISD that is reported as using ASVAB in 06-07 was Anderson HS. Schools listed in nearby districts were McNeil HS in Round Rock and Lake Travis HS. The number of students listed as having taken the ASVAB at Lake Travis (187) suggests the test was given as mandatory, even though it wasn't listed as such.

Because of student privacy rights issues, school districts are coming under more scrutiny from parents and others who are tired of intensive recruiting methods used in high schools. Schools in Washington DC, for example, decided in the past year to ban ASVAB testing altogether.

Because of students' privacy rights and their already heavy load of tests in the public schools, banning ASVAB is a sensible option.

Here's a notice from Pat Elder, active with the National Network Opposing Militarization of Youth.

This morning [Wednesday, August 6], the Philadelphia Inquirer published an investigative piece on the ASVAB, culminating a year-long project. The article is accompanied by a database that reporter Dan Hardy received after filing a Freedom of Information Act Request with the U.S. Military EntranceProcessing Command. The searchable database http://www.philly.com/inquirer/multimedia/26249194.html
contains a listof EVERY high school in the nation that administered the ASVAB in 2006-07 with information on how many students took the test, whether the test is mandatory, and whether the results are given to the military.

The release of the database substantiates much of the research we've done on the ASVAB, particularly the pervasive practice of mandatory testing. Please take a moment to search for your local high school. If your school shows up on the database and military recruiters have access to test results, please take a moment to send an email to your principal, superintendent, and/or school board to demand they take steps to protect student privacy. You can use the sample ASVAB letter here: http://www.counter-recruitment.org/website/