It's no secret -- Sunday's New York Times documents it at the top of its front page -- that Army recruiters have had their problems, although with the economy tanking recruiting has recently picked up. It always does, in a recession. In fact, in the fiscal year that ended last October the Army exceeded by 517 its goal of 80,000 recruits. That's the good news.
The bad news is that it failed yet again to meet its goal of 90 percent high school graduates. That's what waivers are for. You have a weight problem? No problem. The Army has been granting waivers for that -- and for serious felony convictions, for failure to meet physical and mental standards, for age (it's now 42 for new recruits) -- thousands of waivers every year -- as well as offering such enticements as whopping sign-up bonuses, as much as $40,000 for a few. Don't let me forget the free video games to simulate the "army experience."
You think I'm joking? No joke. Last August the Army opened the "Army Experience Center," a 14,500 square foot arcade in a Pennsylvania mall with what the New York Times describes as "mostly shoot-em-up video games," three full scale flight and battle simulators, and -- oh, yes -- 22 recruiters. Still it's not enough, though at a cost of $13 million it probably helped stimulate the local economy. From its opening until January it enlisted 35 visitors. Do the math. That's 1.6 recruits per recruiter, at a cost of about $590,000 for each one, not counting any bonuses or the salaries of the recruiters. And this wasn't even part of President Obama's economic stimulus plan!
Fighting two wars with all their necessary support at home and abroad takes a lot of young recruits. The Pentagon is going all out to get them. Military readiness does not come cheap. Now they've come up with another idea. Pauline Jelenik of the Associated Press reported last December on a new program to recruit legal residents here on temporary visas with skills "vital to the national interest." The Times off-lead Sunday fills in some of the details and plays it big.
The bait that's being dangled is a fast track to full citizenship -- six months for some. There are certain requirements -- language skills (interestingly, Spanish is not one of them) or medical training, for example. Julia Preston writes in the Times: "Recruiters expect that the temporary immigrants will have more education, foreign language skills and professional expertise than many Americans who enlist, helping the military to fill shortages in medical care, language interpretation and field intelligence analysis." The Army's top recruitment officer, Lt. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakley, is quoted as saying, "There will be some very talented folks in this group."
I don't care to mull over -- it's too depressing -- what that says about our natural-born citizens who've made it at least part way through the American public educational system. It does suggest, though, that the money President Obama marked for education might be well spent.
There are certain limitations on the new recruiting program. It will start small -- one thousand recruits to begin with -- and most of them from the New York area. But if the program works, as it no doubt will, it will expand to include all branches of the military. "For the Army," the Times reports, "it could eventually provide as many as 14,000 volunteers a year, or about one in six recruits."
Sadly I can't say that I'm incredulous but I can say that I marvel at the contortions our government goes through to avoid welcoming gays and lesbians openly into the armed services, whether they be skilled, highly skilled, or not skilled at all. Are we more dangerous than a Pashto-speaking kid who arrived a couple of years ago from Afghanistan? Is our loyalty more suspect than that of a native speaker of Arabic, or Chinese, or Tamil, or Russian, or Kurdish, or Igbo? Is our sexual orientation contagious? Was someone going to catch it from one of the 66 Arabic linguists -- a mission critical skill -- discharged because of their sexual orientation?
Immigration is what made this country grow to greatness. Except for Native Americans, the origins of every one of us lie elsewhere. Country of origin is not the issue. If it were, Barack Hussein Obama would not be president. So this is not an anti-immigrant rant. Far from it. It is, however, a strong argument against the law passed by Congress in 1993 that explicitly excludes gays and lesbians from serving openly in the armed forces of the United States. One might say that the Don't Ask, Don't Tell law is the only legacy of Jim Crow still on the books.
Every year the Pentagon discharges several hundred lesbian and gay service members because of it, and every year hundreds leave voluntarily because they are no longer willing to serve under the conditions the law imposes. And then there are the many young men and women, gay and straight, who rule out a military career because of this law that insults and penalizes those for being who they are. This does not make for a stronger military -- quite the reverse, in fact.
It is interesting that the State Department doesn't care about sexual orientation. Even more interesting, the civilian side of the Defense Department doesn't care. Private contractors don't care. In fact, they all want them and in many cases are aggressively recruiting the talented men and women who got the axe because of Don't Ask, Don't Tell and made the military weaker as a result. The State Department has even contacted the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network for help in signing them up. Kicked out one month, they are recruited the next by the Defense Department. The Pentagon wants them to go back to Iraq -- to their same units in Iraq -- to deactivate IEDs, the improvised explosive devices that are killing their comrades. Of course they are going back for two or three times what they were paid when in uniform. Another stimulus to the economy, no doubt.
It is time for Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen to draw the final curtain on this theater of the absurd and go up to the Hill and tell Congress exactly what's what: that nobody cares about the sexual orientation of the soldier next to them in the line of fire. As the late Senator Barry Goldwater, who sat on the Senate Armed Services Committee and was an Air Force general himself, put it, what they care about is this: "Can he shoot straight?"
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