From High School to Boot Camp: An Overview of Students in the Military

Andover students go to college, not to combat. This statement might seem like a truism, but each year a number of students from PA’s senior class head off to military academies and go on to serve in the armed forces. So why do we expect students at Phillips Academy to choose a place in the Ivy League over a spot in the Air Force or Navy? And why do we see this decision as a “one or the other” kind of choice? It isn’t. And for many high school students across America, it isn’t much of a choice at all. Enveloped in the comfortable world of college counseling, SAT prep books and AP courses, it is easy to forget that there is anywhere to go after high school besides a private university. Students at PA are more likely to get recruited to be a soccer goalie at Stanford or a rower at Oxford than they are to be recruited for the Army. Yet recruitment officers are a common sight on the campuses of public high schools. In fact, recent U.S. legislation is “supposed to make it easier for recruiters to reach students more directly. No Child Left Behind, which was passed by Congress in 2001, requires schools to turn over students’ home phone numbers and addresses [to military recruiters] unless parents opt out,” said a New York Times article in June 2005. Many parents aren’t even aware that withholding this information is an option. Obviously, these ever-present recruitment officers are quick to point out the benefits of enlisting. In a PBS report, one recruiter told high school students, “You know, I joined because I was seeking some adventure, all right? And I’ve been to a lot of different countries, Athens, Greece, Ireland, Rome. Been to Egypt twice, to the pyramids. All sorts of fun stuff. And that’s what it’s about.” Helal Syed ’07, who is currently deciding whether to go to Harvard or the Air Force Academy, said, “Colleges recruit students, and companies recruit students as well. So why shouldn’t our military be able to recruit as well?” Besides granting soldiers the opportunity to see the world, the Army will pay up to $72,900 toward the college education of an enlistee. That is by no means a small sum and offers a huge incentive for those students who are unable to afford the rising cost of education in America. Syed commented, “[High school students] want to be lawyers, doctors, athletes, but not really soldiers. Being a soldier is a last choice profession for many people.” The pragmatic reasons for joining the Army outlined above are often not the same ones that Andover students have. From our generally privileged standpoint, it is hard to see how joining the military would provide a more assured future. When a PA student is asked if he or she would join the Army, a typical reaction is, “I don’t want to die.” For most of us, the risks far outweigh the benefits, but at schools where the “endowment” is just enough to buy textbooks, students are looking at their situations with practical eyes. As Andover students rarely choose to join the Army out of financial need, they are instead drawn to the military because of such reasons as a childhood dream of flying jet planes or a desire to serve their country. If family members served or if a friend died in combat, these events often can be an impetus. Alex Green ’07, who will be going to Annapolis next year, said in an interview, “My grandfather was probably a big factor, as he is a retired Naval Petty Officer, and his father and all his brothers served in the Navy.” Green added, “It is my opinion that there is no greater service to one’s country, and, more importantly, one’s family and friends who live in that country, than in the military…I also blame my stubbornness.” Such a genuine feeling of patriotic duty is not uncommon. Hanson Causbie ’08, who is thinking of becoming an Air Force pilot, said, “America has given me so many opportunities. It has allowed me to come to Andover… And the military is about helping people and fighting for what America represents, corny as that may sound.” It’s no surprise to find so much national pride at Andover, an institution that educated our current president, among other American leaders. Additionally, the Army has been in our heads since a young age. In our media-obsessed culture, the typical American child watches excessive hours of TV, spends time on the internet, plays video games and goes to the movies. The Army’s computer game “America’s Army” is a huge hit among teenagers. All of these facets of society reinforce the idea that it’s cool to carry a big gun, shoot things (or people), make explosions and jump out of airplanes. Video footage from the recent Virginia Tech shootings, which shows the student shooter in various “macho” poses, is more evidence to this effect. “Go Army” promotional advertising is ubiquitous. But while the media fuels the idea that joining the military is a glorious path for the very toughest people who boast extraordinary mental and physical stamina, there are usually other, far more valid reasons for high school seniors to decide to enlist. Andover students have their own set of justifications for a life of service, many of them stemming from the idea of Non Sibi, but it is important to be aware of the choices of those who don’t have all the opportunities we have at our fingertips. It is spring now, and commencement is coming quickly. Soon, Andover students will receive their diplomas. And then some will take off their suits or white dresses and put on a new kind of uniform; they will go out in the world and serve side-by-side with the other high school graduates who have chosen the path that so many others can’t imagine taking: a life in the military.