MAYAGUEZ, Puerto Rico – As he walks to his recruiting station, Army Staff Sgt. Allan Welchez Rivera averts his eyes when he passes graffiti spray-painted across the street: "The U.S. Army: An ignorant way to die."
As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drag on — and the body count of Puerto Rican soldiers grows — an anti-recruiting campaign has emerged in this U.S. territory of 4 million people. High-schools have now become a battleground for recruiters and pacifists, who have equal access to the campuses and seek to sway island youth into joining or shunning the military.
"I take it personal," said Welchez, a 35-year-old native of New York City. "We're protecting the Constitution, what we do everyday."
The anti-recruitment drive has energized Puerto Rico's pro-independence movement, though only a small minority have voted for independence in nonbinding referendums. A larger minority wants Puerto Rico to become a U.S. state and most prefer the island keep its loose affiliation with the U.S.
The Puerto Rican Independence Party five years ago began distributing leaflets encouraging high school students to prevent military recruiters from obtaining their personal information. Last year, 57 percent of this Caribbean island's high school sophomores, junior and seniors signed the forms to keep their information from recruiters.
"Military service has always been the blood tax of the colony," said Sen. Maria de Lourdes Santiago of the Puerto Rican Independence Party. said . "In schools that allows for a lot more fairness for groups that oppose the war."
Anti-war groups hold workshops at schools where recruiters hand out business cards and chat with students in hallways. School directors are required to reserve equal space for military and pacifist brochures.
Over the last four years, military enlistments from Puerto Rico have dropped 20 percent.
A loose network of pacifist and pro-independence groups claims the decline as a victory, but recruiters say the opt-out leaflets have had little impact because recruiters go after older, college-educated candidates. Still, Welchez and Pentagon officials suspect the anti-military campaign and an anti-war sentiment have dissuaded some potential recruits.
Active-duty enlistments across all service branches in Puerto Rico fell from 1,537 in 2002 to 1,229 last year, according to the Pentagon. The Army has taken the biggest hit, from 972 to 733, with recruitment rates over the last four years below the average per-capita contribution of mainland states.
Bill Carr, deputy undersecretary of defense for military personnel policy, said the "tone of discouragement" is likely hurting recruiting efforts in Puerto Rico. He said the military may spend more on advertising to counter the activists' efforts. Nationwide, the military currently spends about $12,000 on advertising and other recruitment efforts per enlistee, he said.
"Supporters of a volunteer military ought to accept its duty to describe itself to young people, and not throw obstacles in the path of recruiters working to present those facts," Carr said in a telephone interview from Washington.
Military recruiters here must also confront plummeting public opinion of the Iraq war. A recent poll by the newspaper El Nuevo Dia found that 75 percent of islanders oppose the Iraq war. On the U.S. mainland, 57 percent believe going to war in Iraq was a mistake, according to a recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll.
Every month, Mothers Against War, a Puerto Rican group, stages protests outside the Mayaguez recruiting station in western Puerto Rico. Sonia Santiago, leader of Mothers Against War, said she believes the U.S. invaded Iraq and Afghanistan to secure energy resources, not to spread democracy or protect the United States.
Despite anti-recruitment efforts, Welchez and other recruiters said they are generally well received, but avoid going to some areas in their military uniforms. University professors have "jumped in my face" and told him to leave campus, he said.
Recruiters are also careful not to provoke any incidents.
After a militant independence leader died in a shootout with FBI agents in the town of Hormigueros in 2005, recruiters were ordered by their commanders to stay away, Welchez said.