Why Won't We Let Them Fill the Ranks?

By Brigid Schulte
Sunday, June 3, 2007

All this past year, Navy and Marine Corps recruiters kept calling Jonathan. The 17-year-old liked what they said to him. And they liked him. He was young and healthy, a star soccer player on his school team. He was fluent in English and Spanish, interested in computers and engineering and about to graduate from T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria. He wasn't afraid to die for his country, he told them.

A Navy recruiter came to Jonathan's apartment one evening last fall and won his family over with promises that the Navy could help him continue his studies in college -- something financially out of reach for his mother, who works as a babysitter, and father, an electrician and sometime pizza deliveryman.

Out came the recruiter's laptop for the standard military aptitude test. The program first required Jonathan to type in his Social Security number. But there was the catch -- he doesn't have one.

He explained that his parents had brought him to the United States from Ecuador when he was 11, then overstayed their five-year tourist visa. The recruiter closed the laptop and left. Thus ended Jonathan's hopes of a military career. The family, fearing deportation, promptly moved.

This is a snapshot of a modern dilemma: a military in the middle of a vicious war, stretched to the breaking point for want of fresh recruits, and a potential recruit rejected for want of legal immigration papers. The solution is easy. Open the ranks to the bountiful pool of willing recruits like Jonathan, many of whom have lived here for most of their young lives, have graduated from U.S. high schools and are American in all but legal status. It's the bitter politics of immigration that's getting in the way.

"The only problem was my status," a rueful Jonathan told me the other day. If not for that, "I would have been in." He thinks about his parents, both college-educated, who brought him and his younger sister to the United States figuring they'd have a better life here. "My parents sacrificed to get the whole family here, so why wouldn't I sacrifice for them? Even though America is not really my country, representing it, fighting for it, would be like saying thank you."

And the prospect of service in Iraq doesn't bother him. "Eventually everyone dies," he said. "I'm not afraid to go over there."

The irony is, the majority of young Americans are afraid to go over there. Or at least they're unwilling to go. For the past two years, as the war in Iraq has raged and public sentiment has solidified against it, military recruiters, particularly in the Army, have faced increasing difficulty finding quality recruits.

They've lowered standards, accepting more soldiers with poorer scores on military aptitude tests and no high school diploma. They've raised the age of enlistment to as high as 42. They've offered millions of dollars in signing, promotion and retention bonuses. They're taking more people with medical problems. And they're using thousands of "moral waivers" to enlist recruits with records of petty crime or drug offenses. Steven Green, who was charged last year with raping and murdering a 14-year-old girl and killing her family in Mahmudiyah, Iraq, was one of those.

With tours of duty being extended and re-extended and the pressure on to find the 30,000 additional troops to carry out the Bush administration's "surge," and with no clear end to the "war on terror" in sight, the military dilemma is fast becoming a crisis.

Curiously, most Pentagon officials and military analysts are looking everywhere but to people like Jonathan for the solution. Some are even calling for the United States to recruit overseas and create a French-style foreign legion, promising eventual citizenship to those who sign up. "I would set up some recruiting offices in Manila and maybe some areas of Sub-Saharan Africa where English is spoken and al-Qaeda is not present," said Michael O'Hanlon, a military scholar at the Brookings Institution. "Like Ghana, Namibia, Zimbabwe. Congo, even, but with intensive language training."

Others argue that a forceful, patriotic call to arms, rather than a mercenary force or a draft, is the way to go. "Any society such as ours, a democracy, that says our boys and girls won't fight to defend us, we'll get foreigners to do our dirty work, will disappear into the ashbin of history," retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey warned in an interview

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