by Eddie Falcón, USAF veteran & Before Enlisting activist, for Courage to Resist

Before Enlisting (beforeenlisting.org) and Courage to Resist started our working relationship when I, Eddie Falcón, an Air Force Veteran, met with Jeff Paterson at a Global Climate Strike march in San Francisco in the winter of 2022. The event was organized by a group of Bay Area high school students called Youth Vs Apocalypse. Both Jeff and I spoke in front of a military recruitment center about our anti-war perspectives as veterans. From there, we had conversations on how we could continue engaging with students and fighting militarism. We decided on joining forces on a campaign of Truth In Recruiting in Oakland, California, high schools.

Since March, Courage to Resist has become one of Before Enlisting’s biggest sponsors in support of our in-class presentations that give students the full picture of military recruitment, the traumas that can occur from deployments to war, our journeys of healing as veterans. and discussing alternatives to military service. We have partnered to perform our Truth In Recruitment program across the city of Oakland at high schools such Skyline High, Fremont High, Met West, Madison Park Academy, Oakland Tech, and Oakland High.

Before Enlisting is a small Bay Area organization consisting of veterans from About Face: Veterans Against War and members of Grandmothers Against the War. We have been developing our program of Truth In Recruitment for several years. Our program consists of veteran speakers who share our experiences and perspectives as soldiers that students will not hear from military recruiters. Our presentation also has civilian allies who will talk to students about direct resources for funding higher education, finding careers such as a job in the trades, and peaceful opportunities to serve their country instead of enlisting in the armed forces.

On a typical day in the classroom, we start with an introduction and explain why we are there, have a small discussion about the US budget’s billions of dollars in military spending and ask students what their experiences are with recruiters on their campus. We will then watch the online video entitled “Before You Enlist!” which entails interviews with Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and their struggles of racism, sexism and homophobia in the ranks. The video also shows what struggles they may have had to deal with after coming home from the traumas of war from their time in service. After, we go over a short quiz highlighting the most important information about PTSD and some common misconceptions about military service such as enlistment length that are as well presented in the video.

From there, myself or another veteran will tell our individual stories about why we enlisted, promises recruiters can’t keep, what war is really like, the traumas we’ve endured, moral injuries we’ve sustained, and the difficulties we’ve had transitioning into civilian life. We then answer any of the students’ questions and our civilian ally will go over handouts about military alternatives and brochures detailing critical thinking questions for if they run into recruiters and even the dangers of women’s experiences in the military.

When I present as a veteran speaker, I try to relate to the students with the reasons I joined the military. I am from California, am first generation American of an immigrant family, grew up poor/working class, spent time in foster care, had seen the hardships of my own family members being jailed, deported back to Mexico or trapped in substance use, and really saw the military as an escape from these cycles of violence and a way to get a leg up on society. I was once like them, wondering what to do after high school. I didn’t see college as an option for myself. I didn’t have mentors or role models around me who graduated from college, nor did I have the grades or money to go so the GI Bill and other veterans benefits were things that very much enticed me into enlisting. I say to the students that I may not have been drafted but was actually lured in by what’s called “the economic draft.”

The next thing I try to let students know is that you have no control over your life once you sign it away. I wanted to be as far away from war as possible, yet I did four deployments, two to Iraq and two to Afghanistan as an Air Force aircrew member. Recruiters aren’t going to tell these kids that even though you may not be on the frontlines fighting, you could still end up in rocket or mortar attacks like I was. I didn’t even think that I would see war. I joined before 9/11 in July of 2001. So, even though today, it may not seem like America is at war on scale with the Global War on Terrorism that I had seen between 2001-2005, at any moment, war can break out and you can be caught in the middle of it like I was.

I do let the students know that those experiences, those close-calls of being shot at and fearing for my life traumatized me. I also let the students know that beyond the trauma of war, there is something called Moral Injury. The vast majority of students know what PTSD is, so I like to ask them to see if they can define Moral Injury. I tell them that it is when your beliefs or values are brought into conflict. Things like don’t hurt people, don’t kill, don’t steal, or don’t be bigoted, you do things that go against those beliefs in the military. 

I recount missions that I did, transporting detainees in Iraq to the prison in Basra. Some of the students are familiar with practices of torture in these prisons like in Guantanamo Bay and Abu-Graib. I feel like I was a part of that system of detainment, interrogation and torture even just transporting prisoners. That is something that I will have to live with for the rest of my life. When soldiers feel things like guilt and shame for their actions in war, that’s Moral Injury I tell them.

I want students to know that those dark feelings of self-loathing and existential dread are why it can be so hard for veterans to transition into civilian life. It’s why we see the rates of homelessness, unemployment, and suicide so high amongst veterans. Students often ask me if I still have symptoms of PTSD and this is when in my presentation I talk about my own struggles after service and my own personal journey in healing from war. I let them know that I felt lost. I was self medicating to deal with the nightmares and anxiety. It went on for years until I finally reached out to the VA for help. I let them know that I have since been sober for over a decade and still attend therapy for maintaining my mental health.

In telling them my experience, I hope they will see why it is so important to seek treatment or start your healing process immediately after service. One of the things we ask students when we start our presentation is if any of them have friends or family who have served in the military and many of them raise their hands. Even if they do not decide to enlist I hope that my story and this information could someday help someone they love who is also struggling in their transition to civilian life from the military.

Other common questions that students have asked me is if I lost any friends during my service. I tell them that yes, we had a couple of people die from my base but that I have lost more friends who are veterans to suicide than I have to the war while I was in.

Some students will ask me what if they don’t have to go to war. I answer by letting them know that any and all service in the military can cause PTSD, even if they do not get deployed. Training programs can even be traumatizing. Boot camp is the first time that many young people are away from their families, are being yelled at every day by a drill sergeant, operating on a large lack of sleep, and have most of their freedoms taken away. I have seen recruits wash out of boot camp from stress. 

Another question that I am sometimes asked by the students is if I regret my service. I tell them that I mostly do not because I am who I am today because of it. I wouldn’t be there talking to them and answering their questions if not for my service. I do say that I regret not standing up for myself or people I saw being hurt while I was in. One of the biggest points that I try to make in my presentation is that I have seen and even experienced a lot of racism in the military. It is not always a band of brothers like they portray in the movies. I was the only person of color in my squadron and was called racial slurs throughout much of my time in service by the other members of my unit. I also tell them about the evacuations that I did in Hurricane Katrina. How we waited for six long days before even going in to try help and when we did finally go in to do something, every single person that boarded my plane to be evacuated to another state was Black. I saw who we left behind, who we literally displaced. These were our own citizens. The racism towards me, the citizens of New Orleans, and also the mistreatment I had seen of prisoners, I regret not speaking up about it until now. 

The response from teachers and students is resoundingly positive. Many students will come up to me after our talks and thank me for my service then and now to them that day. Some students will even tell me aside that they were thinking of joining but are now very much reconsidering. I always display my contact information for students when presenting. I know there may be some students who are thinking of joining and may want to ask me more questions later on. I have had a few students follow-up with me or have scheduled an extra talk with me and their teacher. I am very proud to be doing this work and we are always open to building new relationships with more schools around the Bay Area.

We have also done tabling and career days at Madison Park Academy and Oakland Tech where we will engage with students by acting as a counter narrative and offering a more critical perspective on military service in the presence of military recruiters on campus. Thanks to Courage To Resist for sponsoring our efforts we are able to offer more resources like literature when we do these tabling events outside of the classroom.

Please visit beforeenlisting.org for more information about our program for teachers and students, to watch the “Before You Enlist!” mini-documentary, and to hear some more of our veteran testimonials posted there on topics such as Racism in The Military, Conscientious Objection, Military Sexual Trauma, and GI Rights.