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Published: Monday, 10/31/2005

Iraq war vet comes back home to recruit

BY IGNAZIO MESSINA
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Lance Cpl. Ian Mikolajczak proudly displays a Marine Corps flag in the front window of his family's home on Schneider Road. 
The Iraq war veteran is a graduate of Bowsher High School. Lance Cpl. Ian Mikolajczak proudly displays a Marine Corps flag in the front window of his family's home on Schneider Road. The Iraq war veteran is a graduate of Bowsher High School.
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The first year after high school for many kids is dominated by getting used to college life. For Ian Mikolajczak it was getting used to a uniform and war.

The Bowsher High School graduate, now 21 years old, knew his calling four years ago.

"I was going to be a Marine, it was that simple," Lance Cpl. Mikolajczak said. "In high school, I was really into sports and challenges, and I knew the Marine Corps was the hardest one and the most challenging. I was going to go big or go home."

The Mikolajczak home on Schneider Road in South Toledo is unmistakable. A United States Marine Corps flag hangs in the front window - casting a red hue in the family's living room when the sun hits the house.

The Marine returned to Toledo on Oct. 14 from a seven-month deployment in Iraq, where he participated in some of the war's heaviest fighting - including a three-hour fire-fight with insurgents.

In a situation like that, he said "training takes over. Everything just takes over. You don't re-ally realize what happened until you get back and sit down."

Now, Corporal Mikolajczak - who is called Toledo's hometown boy by his mother - is home for several weeks working as a recruiter's assistant, talking to young people interested in following the same path he took.

"I just give the kids my experience," he said of his new temporary assignment. "We don't recruit. If you want the Marine Corps, the Marine Corps wants you."

Other branches of the U.S. military, especially the Army, are under pressure to produce recruits. The Army reported earlier this month that it will miss its 2005 goal of 80,000 recruits by about 6,800 or about 8.5 percent. The Army National Guard and the Army Reserve, which are smaller than the regular Army, had even worse results.

Military recruiting has become increasingly difficult, especially with the mounting number of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq, which last week passed the grim 2,000 milestone.

Corporal Mikolajczak admitted the war and news of soldiers being killed makes recruitment difficult.

"It is sad that people have lost their lives, [but] they all know what they are going into and made the same choice that I did," he said. "They gave their lives and that's more than any of us have done for our country."

Added to that, Toledo has not been immune to a raging national debate over military recruiting in high schools and the tactics of recruiters.

Peggy Daly-Masternak, a West Toledo resident and co-chair of a citizens privacy committee, is leading a local initiative to make it more difficult for recruiters in Toledo-area high schools to meet one-on-one with students.

"It is not clear to me they have made protective measures for young people to be in school to receive an education rather than being recruited into the military," Ms. Daly-Masternak said Friday.

Craig Cotner, chief academic officer for Toledo Public Schools, said the district is drafting a policy to govern the recruiters in its buildings.

Mike Ferner, an anti-war activist, Veterans for Peace member, and former Toledo councilman, is among the dozen or so people on the committee who are looking to work with Toledo Public Schools on restricting recruiters' access.

"We want to have the presence of the recruiters minimized as much as possible and to have access to the students no more than college and job recruiters [do]," he said.

The issue has parents and educators divided.

David Volk, a substitute junior high school teacher for Toledo Public Schools, thinks the military should have a stronger role in the schools.

In an e-mail to The Blade he said: "recruiters should not be allowed to walk the halls and pressure people to join, however, they should not be banned from schools or restricted. When we had a recruiter for the Marines come to Byrnedale [Junior High School] last year, the kids were just in awe. The kids thought it was great how disciplined and in shape these guys were."

He wrote the e-mail after Larry Sykes, Toledo Board of Education president, said he would work to limit recruiters' access to schools.

Now caught in the middle of the debate, Corporal Mikolajczak said sharing his experiences helps young adults make up their own minds whether or not to enlist.

Since the federal No Child Left Behind Act was signed, recruiters have new tools in their efforts. The law requires high schools to give military recruiters student phone numbers and addresses unless a parent files a written request to "opt out."

Some districts, including Toledo Public, Maumee, and Sylvania, highlighted the opt-out option in brochures or letters sent to families. In a review by The Blade of local school districts, it found that Bowling Green High School has one of the highest number of parents choosing to opt out. Because of the provision, the military will not get information on 221 TPS high school students, but it has gotten information on the remaining 8,847 students who did not choose to opt out.

Nationally, a coalition of parents groups, privacy advocates, and community organizations launched a campaign earlier this month to dismantle a database of high school and college students created by the Pentagon to help target potential military recruits.

More than 100 groups said the database violates federal privacy laws and collects demographic and personal information on young adults.

One of the groups has launched a Web site, www.leavemychildalone.org, on which a spokesman said 34,000 copies of an opt-out form have been downloaded. The Web site features Cindy Sheehan, the anti-war and anti-Bush mother of a fallen soldier.

Corporal Mikolajczak said people underestimate America's young people and he knows only those who really want to enlist will do so. When talking to students just three years younger than himself, Corporal Mikolajczak is honest.

"I tell them the truth. It's war, but it's not as bad as you see on TV," he said. "The news doesn't show how much good this is actually doing."

Contact Ignazio Messina at: imessina@theblade.com or 419-724-6171.



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