Be all you can be

Lawmakers are anxious to beef up the overburdened, all-volunteer U.S. military. They might start with the 10,000 people who've been kicked out due to their sexual orientation.

Published April 4, 2005 8:14PM (EDT)

The specter of a reinstated military draft may still be over the horizon -- even if just over it -- but a growing bipartisan coalition of U.S. lawmakers sees the nation's increasingly strained military as a clear and present danger. The Army and Marines have redoubled their recruiting efforts to remedy shortfalls over the last year, and have widened their net to some degree -- the Army has begun accepting more recruits who haven't earned high school diplomas, while the Guard and Reserve have raised the maximum enlistment age from 34 to 39.

But some in Washington are renewing the call to beef up the all-volunteer forces even more. "Many in Congress and in wider policy-discussion circles aren't waiting to see the results of the Pentagon's stepped-up efforts," reports today's San Francisco Chronicle. "Sens. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb. and Jack Reed, D-R.I., have proposed adding 30,000 soldiers to the Army. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., has proposed a 30,000-person increase in the Army and 10,000 to the Marines, and Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Walnut Creek, wants to add some 20,000 to the Army, 12,000 to the Marine Corps and 29,000 to the Air Force."

The cost to taxpayers of adding 40,000 personnel, at least by Sen. Kerry's estimate, would be in the range of $7 billion to $8 billion annually.

With no end to the Iraq occupation is sight, how the military might attract those people is harder to estimate -- but both of the above numbers might be significantly smaller if the U.S. government permitted all qualified men and women interested in serving to do so, regardless of their sexual orientation. A study done by the Government Accountability Office shows that more than 10,000 service members have been discharged over the last 10 years under the "don't ask/don't tell" policy, and that it has cost taxpayers more than $200 million to recruit replacements for enlisted service members who were discharged because of it. As the Denver Post noted in an editorial last week: "The manpower shortages underscore the folly of turning away or discharging otherwise qualified personnel because of their sexual orientation."

But the Army isn't looking at it that way -- at least, not for now. During a March 23 press conference, Secretary of the Army Frances Harvey marched in lockstep with the status quo:

REPORTER: Given all the challenges this country is facing right now in the global war on terrorism, why isn't somebody reconsidering the "don't ask, don't tell" policy? You can take more people who don't have high school diplomas 

SEC. HARVEY: To my knowledge, it's certainly -- it's not within the purview of the Army to change that type of policy. To my knowledge, there's no consideration along those lines. I think that's how I answered it.

REPORTER: Do you think there should be?


REPORTER: Why not?

SEC. HARVEY: Because it's a long-standing policy and I don't see any need to change it.

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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