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Marines aim to counter teachers' opposition to recruiting students

Educators visit Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego to watch exercises, gain a more nuanced view of the military and maybe recommend it to students.

July 28, 2012|By Tony Perry and Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times
  • Staff Sgt. James McFalin gets some laughs as he tells educators from L.A. and Sacramento about Marine recruits’ training. The teachers were participating in a four-day workshop at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, designed to counterbalance opposition to recruitment of high school students.
Staff Sgt. James McFalin gets some laughs as he tells educators from L.A.… (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles…)

SAN DIEGO — The bellowing from the drill instructors began as soon as the newcomers arrived.

"GET OFF THE BUS!" barked one D.I.

It's a ritual reenacted countless times since 1923, when young men first began coming to boot camp to see if they were tough enough to be Marines.

But last week's group was not composed of frightened young recruits.

Instead they were high school teachers, guidance counselors and administrators from school districts in the Los Angeles and Sacramento areas. All had accepted the Marine Corps' invitation to spend four days at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, watching the training and talking to recruits, enlisted Marines and senior officers.

While some areas of the state embrace the military, the Los Angeles Unified School District, second largest in the country, has been more reticent. It gives recruiters no more access to students or their information than is granted to any other potential employer. Parents and older students also are allowed to restrict the release of personal information to military recruiters.

Some teachers in the district have launched "counter recruiting" efforts, warning students of physical danger, regimentation and loss of privacy and individuality that come with military service. Others put students on "don't call" lists.

"The U.S. continues to fight in wars that are opposed by the public, and yet the military can recruit with little opposition because working-class kids have few job options," said Joshua Pechthalt, president of the California Federation of Teachers and a critic of the Marine Corps program.

The Marine Corps hopes to counterbalance such hostility by inviting educators to what is called an "educator workshop."

A dozen times a year, the Marines welcome groups of about 80 educators to the San Diego boot camp. Most come from schools west of the Mississippi, the San Diego boot camp's recruiting region.

The Marine Corps picks up the tab for travel, lodging and incidentals, about $800,000 a year. The Marine Corps' other boot camp, in Parris Island, S.C., has a similar program.

"Please ask a lot of questions," Col. Michael Lee, commanding officer of the recruit training regiment in San Diego, told the group once the drill instructors stopped screaming. "The best thing you can do is gain knowledge and go back and share it with people who do not have it."

An early question from one teacher was whether recruits may someday go to war.

The answer from Col. Robert Gates, chief of staff for the boot camp and the western recruiting region, was direct: "The Marine Corps is primarily a combat-arms organization, that's what we do," he said. But he noted that U.S. involvement in Afghanistan is waning.

One teacher asked whether the Marine Corps is a refuge for young men who would otherwise be sent to jail. Maybe long ago, but not today, Gates said.

"Military service is not an alternative to incarceration or paying a debt to society," he said.

Is all the yelling, marching and physical strain really necessary? asked another. Yes, said Lee, because it pushes recruits to their limits and teaches them not to quit.

"There's a method to the madness," he said.

Can high school dropouts enlist in the Marines? Only under extraordinary circumstances: 99.7% of last year's recruits were high school graduates.

The educators watched recruits at the obstacle courses, rifle ranges, bayonet-training area and the swimming pool, where they learn to tread water while wearing combat gear. There were side trips to Miramar Marine Corps Air Station and Camp Pendleton.

In a series of Power Point briefings, officers and enlisted personnel stressed the discipline, sense of purpose and educational benefits of military service. A young Marine can get a college degree while on active duty or attend college or technical school at government expense once his or her service is completed.

As the week continued, it was clear that part of the pitch stuck with the educators.

"It's impressive," said William Lozoya, a music teacher and band director at San Fernando High School. "I had no idea that there are so many support programs, so many ways they can get an education or training."

Brian Metzger, an English teacher at Highland Park High, said that counselors at his school "actively discourage anyone from enlisting. Now I can at least provide a more balanced view for students to make up their own minds."

Miles Bonner, guidance counselor at Sun Valley High, said he planned to present military service "as a viable option that students should consider."

Melissa Cheng, Chinese-language teacher at South Pasadena High, said she believes she can now overcome resistance from her students' parents. "Chinese parents have a kind of bias against the military," she said. "But the Marine Corps believes in discipline and honor, which are very Chinese values."

Not everyone comes away from an educator workshop so enthusiastic.

Arlene Inouye, a speech therapist in L.A. Unified who has spearheaded the counter-recruiting effort, attended a workshop several years ago but was unmoved. Still, she was impressed with how respectfully she was treated by the Marines.

"They really want you to come because they're so convinced," said Inouye, the elected treasurer of the Los Angeles teachers union. "They feel they can turn anyone around."

tony.perry@latimes.com

howard.blume@latimes.com

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