Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from chapter two of “The Lonely Soldier: The Private War Of Women Serving In Iraq” by Helen Benedict. She is also the author of Sand Queen, which is based on the lives of women on both sides of the Iraq war. See more on her website. Since 9/11 and the start of the Afghanistan War, the military has been targeting schools like Mickiela’s—schools in communities where jobs are scarce and the students are poor or the citizenship of immigrants—and promising glamorous careers and citizenship to those who join. But by the time Mickiela was in eleventh grade, the government had given recruiters another advantage as well: the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.
The act stipulates that no public high school can qualify for federal money unless it gives the address and telephone number of every student to the military and allows recruiters access to the school. Any family that wants to keep its address private has to submit a form saying so, but most people don’t know this. Once recruiters have this information, they court students like baseball scouts, calling them at home taking them out for meals, and making any promises they want. Recruiters can do this because the enlistment contract that every recruit must sign states that none of these promises have to be kept—something else most people don’t know.
The main reason the government smooths the way for recruiters like this is because after 9/11, enrollment in the military dropped drastically, especially in the army. Between 2000 and 2005, recruitment declined 20 per cent among noncitizens, nearly 7 per cent among Hispanics, 10 per cent among whites, and 58 per cent among African Americans. This made recruiters so desperate to meet military quotas that they grew reckless; the army reported a 60 per cent rise in “inappropriate actions” by recruiters between 1999 and 2005. They were helping high school students forge diplomas and cheat on drug tests, threatening to arrest students if they didn’t sign up, and lying. In 2006, two news stations equipped students with hidden cameras and sent them to recruiting offices. “Nobody is going to Iraq anymore?” one student asked a recruiter. “No, we’re bringing people back,” he replied. Another was filmed saying, “We’re not at war. War ended a long time ago.”
Mickiela’s recruiter was a white man in his mid-thirties who was married with children. He would drive up to the school in a new car, blasting hip hop out of the window, and take her out for nice lunches. “He said that if I signed up with the National Guard I wouldn’t have to serve outside the country. National–that means in the country right?” He told her the army would give her $3,000 just for enlisting, pay for college, train her on the job of her choice, and enable her to travel abroad, all of which sounded dazzling to the sixteen-year-old. But what actually happened was $3,000 came in increments over the next four years and was taxed, she never got any money toward college, she was trained in the one job she asked not to do, and she didn’t get to travel anywhere abroad–except to the war in Iraq.
Mickiela said the recruiter was “really, really flirty,” too, and when she introduced him to a seventeen-year-old friend who was also interested in enlisting, he began dating her. “I don’t know if they ever had sex, but I know when they were supposed to go out on a date, he would just drive off to some place and make her give him head and that was it. She told me about it later.” Mickiela pulled a disgusted face.
In 2005 a press investigation found that over a hundred young women were sexually exploited like this by at least 80 recruiters from the army, marines, navy, and air force. Some were raped in recruiting offices, some assaulted in government cars as they were driven to military test sites, and other intimidated into sexual relationships, like Mickiela’s friend. Recruiters have a power that makes teenagers afraid to reject them or report their assaults, for they control whether the teen will get into the military at all, which for someone who can see no other way out of a dead-end life is power indeed.
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