Tuesday, December 27, 2005

A Veteran's Iraq Message Upsets Army Recruiters

The New York Times
A Veteran's Iraq Message Upsets Army Recruiters

DULUTH, Minn., Dec. 21 - As those thinking of becoming soldiers arrive on the slushy doorstep of the Army recruiting station here, they cannot miss the message posted in bold black letters on the storefront right next door.

"Remember the Fallen Heroes," the sign reads, and then it ticks off numbers - the number of American troops killed in Iraq, the number wounded, the number of days gone by since this war began.

The sign, put up by a former soldier, has stirred intense, though always polite, debate in this city along the edge of Lake Superior in northeastern Minnesota. In a way, many of the nation's vast and complicated arguments about war are playing out on a single block here, around a simple piece of wood.

The seven military recruiters here, six of whom have themselves served in Iraq, want the sign taken away. "It's disheartening," Staff Sgt. Gary J. Capan, the station's commander, said. "Everyone knows that people are dying in Iraq, but to walk past this on the way to work every day is too much."

But Scott Cameron, a local man who was wounded in the Vietnam War, says his sign should remain. Mr. Cameron volunteers for a candidate for governor of Minnesota whose campaign opened a storefront office next door to the recruiting station, and he has permission to post the message he describes as "not antiwar, but pro-veteran."

"We're still taking casualties from Vietnam, years later," Mr. Cameron said recently. "Is the same thing going to happen again?" Despite the location, he insists that his purpose is not to prevent new recruits from signing up for the Army, but to honor those who made sacrifices. Still, Mr. Cameron also says, "Before they join the military, people better know what they're getting into."

Clashes like this are emerging elsewhere, too, even as the Army wrestles with the challenge of recruiting during a war, a struggle that left it 8 percent shy of its goal to bring in 80,000 new active-duty soldiers in the most recent recruiting year.

Some of the conflicts are part of a growing number of planned "counterrecruiting" efforts by antiwar groups, parents and individuals. They have fought to prevent recruiters from getting access to students' contact information from schools or have set up their own booths near recruiters' at job fairs to tell potential recruits why they should not sign up.

At George Mason University in Virginia, an Air Force veteran was arrested this fall while standing near a recruitment table on campus, wearing a sign that said "recruiters lie." At Kent State University in Ohio, a former marine climbed a recruiter's rock-climbing display in October and unfurled a peace banner.

But some of the debates, like the one here, have played out far more quietly, seeming less staged, more ambiguous and more like the natural edges of the country's debate over war seeping out on their own.

Early this month, State Senator Steve Kelley, a candidate for governor of Minnesota from the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (the Democratic party in Minnesota, whose name is a vestige of its liberal heritage), held a grand opening for his new campaign office along Superior Street, a main thoroughfare in downtown Duluth. When Mr. Cameron, a Kelley volunteer, asked whether he could put his sign up in the window of the office, alongside the collage of campaign posters, Mr. Kelley agreed.

Mr. Cameron, who was shot in Vietnam in 1969 and says he has since undergone 46 operations to repair the damage, said he felt compelled to post his message to remind people of the soldiers now lost. Decades ago, he said, he did not speak his mind about Vietnam because he feared he might harm support for the troops. He is not, he said, "going to be silent again."

Although Mr. Cameron, 55, acknowledged that he opposed the war in Iraq, he insisted that his sign was not about that at all. Its intent, he said, is simple and apolitical: to remember the troops, to care for veterans, to recognize what is being lost each day. "This is for the veterans," he said. "And the way I understand it, this is what we're over there fighting for in the first place - for my right to put a sign right there."

A few days after the opening, the office drew a visit from next door. Sergeant Capan, 31, said his recruiters were upset and wanted the sign removed. One woman who had just returned from duty in Iraq, he said, found the sign especially disconcerting and impersonal. "It was upsetting to veterans who don't look at their friends and colleagues killed as numbers on a list," he said.

In truth, neither side agrees on what precisely the sign is saying. Each sees its message through its own prism.

Sergeant Capan said he wondered why, if Mr. Cameron was truly trying to send a "pro-veterans" message, he had not instead posted a sign listing how many soldiers had returned home from Iraq safely and placed it somewhere else - an Interstate highway, say, or the Capitol. And Mr. Cameron said he suspected that Sergeant Capan's true fear was not so much the well-being of his recruiters as how the sign might deter potential recruits.

Sergeant Capan dismissed that notion. "Overall recruiting is going well, and this sign has not detracted," he said, adding, "Everybody who's joining the Army knows that there are deaths at war."

Elsewhere, it is nearly impossible to gauge how more concerted counterrecruiting efforts have affected military recruiting, if at all, said S. Douglas Smith, a spokesman for Army Recruiting Command at Fort Knox, Ky.

"There's been a good bit of activity this year," Mr. Smith said of the counterrecruiting efforts. "But in terms of impact, it's very hard to say." In this fiscal year, the Army hopes to recruit more than 105,000 active-duty and reserve soldiers by next fall. As of the end of November, Mr. Smith said, the Army was slightly ahead of its year-to-date goals.

Back in Duluth, Mr. Kelley ultimately decided to leave Mr. Cameron's sign alone, despite the Army's request that it be removed.

Mr. Kelley, who describes the centerpiece of his campaign for governor as education, found himself in the awkward position of being thrust into the debate over war, an issue most candidates for state and local offices rarely have to confront.

"In the past, I have taken positions in support of free speech," he said the other day, explaining his decision to let the sign remain. "And I thought if I'm going to try to be consistent about free speech, how could I tell Scott to take the sign down?"

Since news of the sign was reported in local newspapers, response has been mixed. A woman from Missouri had two pizzas delivered to reward Sergeant Capan's recruiters, while a veteran wrote to say that the sergeant needed "psychological screening" for even suggesting the removal of a disabled veteran's tribute to "his fallen brothers and sisters."

Mr. Cameron, meanwhile, says he has been asked to make copies of his sign (which he had made for $100 at a local sign company) and is thinking of marketing them.

For now, the neighbors on Superior Street have agreed to disagree. An offering of cookies by Mr. Cameron was not accepted, Sergeant Capan said, but Sergeant Capan insisted that relations on the street remained polite nonetheless.

"We're going to move on," he said. "We're soldiers."