Counter-Recruiting: Montana

Set beside the picturesque Clark Fork River in downtown Missoula, MT, is the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center, a veritable hub for local activists, fair traders, organizers, and peacemakers. For 25 years, the members of the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center have been leaders in the Missoula and greater Montana peace community. One of the latest additions to the Peace Center’s portfolio of projects is its counter-recruitment work.

According to recent data compiled by the National Priorities Project, Montana has the highest recruitment rates in the nation. At 8.1 recruits per thousand youth, Montana is well above the national average reported at 5.2. The data also supported the long-suspected correlation between higher recruitment rates and poverty. In Montana, our high recruitment rates are matched by a poverty rate of 13.9 percent and a child poverty rate of 21.4 percent (national averages are 12.1 percent and 18.9 percent respectively).

The National Priorities Project’s report also highlighted that the highest recruitment rates come from rural areas. Recruitment rates per thousand youth for urban, non-metropolitan, and rural areas were reported at 2.74, 2.93, and 3.08 respectively. Peace groups throughout the country have understood this data as evidence of a blatant targeting of America’s rural poor by military recruiters.

Peace recruitment

In October 2005, a diverse group of educators, artists, veterans, writers, and students came together at the Peace Center and founded the Committee for Peace Recruitment (CPR) in order to provide Missoula youth with a more accurate picture of military enlistment and war.

“We have spent most of our energy on building relationships with our local high schools and campuses, and have worked to provide a battery of valuable resources for use in educational outreach throughout the community,” says Teresa Jacobs, a local artist and activist. “We are working toward becoming a permanent educational presence in our schools.”

CPR has worked to convey its message directly to its demographic, which is predominately white, rural, and of low-to-middle socioeconomic status. We have created presentations and compiled materials for use in classrooms and at tabling events at local high schools. In the Missoula County Public School District, we have presented to various clubs and groups, and fortunately, for the most part, have been welcomed into our local schools.

We have also worked to include ourselves in a local district-wide guest speaker program from which Missoula teachers often draw in order to provide their students with community voices. Making our initial contacts with teachers who we identified as open to our peace-focused message was crucial to our success. We also put together an extensive mentor list comprised of local veterans who are able to speak with potential recruits on the realities of military life and war.

Due to the policy around conscientious objector status, it is often most effective for a conscientious objector to file her/his claim as a member of an accepted peace-centered religious group. Therefore the Jeanette Rankin Peace Center has compiled a set of resources to assist conscientious objectors in our community navigate this process.  

Throughout this work, we have made an effort to stay away from telling young people what they should or shouldn’t do in regards to their life choices. Instead, focusing on empowerment and education has enabled us to support young people by providing the necessary information and resources they need to make the right decision for themselves. To pressure youth with a certain perspective is a major part of what is wrong with military recruitment. It’s crucial for them to take the reigns of their decision-making processes, do their own research on the military, discover for themselves what’s out there, and make military-related and other big decisions in their life with confidence.

Finding alternatives

As in many communities throughout the country, the young people we have engaged cite money for college as a primary reason for considering military enlistment. A close second the hope that the military will provide them with valuable job skills training, earning potential, or career placement. We have tailored our message to speak directly to these individuals; we show them that what they are looking for can be found in peaceful places.

Rural areas such as Western Montana get labeled often as “low opportunity zones,” and are therefore hotbeds of military recruitment. However, the problem is not necessarily in the lack of opportunity, but rather in getting the word out about what’s available. Often referred to as America’s “last best place,” throngs of Americans have flocked to Montana in the last 10 years to take advantage of the state’s untarnished wide open spaces, outdoor recreation, and land.

This has meant unbridled growth for Montana—bringing opportunities for thousands of Montanans involved in areas including community development, home construction, and service industries. To keep pace with this growth, the state of Montana has many rewarding programs, internships, and apprenticeships available for young people looking to develop the skills and knowledge base in high demand. Counter-recruitment is often about connecting a young person with these resources and possibilities she or he might not have considered.

Currently the Peace Center is creating a peace toolkit, a key component in reaching and remaining accessible to Montana’s rural working-class population. The kit—a work in progress—is modeled on similar projects from other parts of the country, and will be a comprehensive guide to these non-military post-high school opportunities in Montana.

Outside Missoula

Despite the vast geographical distances in the treasure state, we have been fortunate to make valuable and mutually supporting contacts with other peacemakers. Community peace groups throughout the state of Montana have been working tirelessly around counter-recruitment. Just Don’t Go, a Helena-based counter-recruitment organization, has had some definite success. The group has presented to the local school board and superintendent to ensure that the “opt out” process was better understood by parents and students, and that the needed forms were readily available for all.

“We’ve definitely had a difficult time getting a venue in the local schools,” says Jo Anne Thun, an activist with Just Don’t Go. “We’ve had to jump through some seemingly impossible hoops, but we’ve also had our successes. We got a peace club set up at Carol College, and are working to get others set up in the area high schools. We ran a ‘Bake Sale for Body Armor’ and generated widespread support to go along with the $1300 we raised.”

Thun explained that utilizing the body armor issue within their general counter-recruitment message has given the group’s message wider appeal. Just Don’t Go and Code Pink have plans to protest outside a local recruitment office this spring under the slogan, “Take me, not my kids”.

Working within a politically conservative climate is a reality for the counter-recruiter in Montana. For CPR, it has been imperative to publicize a message of unity and cohesion, not separatism, in order to remain effective. To ensure we are not mislabeled as being against the troops, we have worked to engage and learn from veterans, soldiers, and other community members from all sides of the issue.

On February 1, a Montana chapter of Veterans for Peace was issued its charter. Due to the tireless efforts of founder Sam Sperry, Montana’s veterans now have a vehicle for much needed support in a country that has frequently failed to provide its veterans their due.

“I have learned that not only does our society wash their hands of our veterans, so does our government,” says Sperry. “There is lots of lip service, lots of parades, lots of flowers and flags on graves, but that’s about it.”

Counter-recruitment has often been seen by many peace activists as a place to center the voices and experiences of veterans. Sperry suggests that the best counter-recruitment message is to just truthfully relate the experiences of our nation’s veterans to young people considering enlistment. Talking to a group of veterans, he says, “we have no money, no agenda, but maybe we can peck away at one small piece of the causes of war so that our great grandchildren can have a tiny glimpse of peace in their distant future.”

Montanan activists will continue to use counter-recruitment as a means to peck away at not only the causes of war, but the misrepresentation and fraud that allow so many to become swept up in it.

“The Jeannette Rankin Peace Center is committed to creating a just, sustainable, and peaceful world”, says Betsy Mulligan-Dague, the Center’s Executive Director. “And you can’t be committed to that goal without working to halt the preparation for war. We believe that war is not the way to resolve conflicts and we know it is not the way to make peace.”

In step with this philosophy, the concerned and active members of the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center will continue expand their counter-recruitment work in order to achieve a just and peaceful tomorrow for Missoula, MT, and the world.


Eric Diamond

Eric Diamond is a MSW student at the University of Montana, a member of the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center, and an active peace recruiter.