The U.S. military, struggling to fill its voluntary ranks, is offering to allow recruits to meet part of their military obligations by serving in the Peace Corps, which has resisted any ties to the Defense Department or U.S. intelligence agencies since its founding in 1961.

The recruitment program has sparked debate and rising opposition among current and former Peace Corps officials. Some welcome it as a way to expand the cadre of idealistic volunteers created by President John F. Kennedy. But many say it could lead to suspicions abroad that the Peace Corps, which has 7,733 workers in 73 countries, is working together with the U.S. armed forces.

"Does this raise red flags for the Peace Corps community? I'd say yes -- emphatically so," said Kevin Quigley, president of the National Peace Corps Association, an organization of returned volunteers, staff and supporters. "We think a real or perceived linkage between the Peace Corps and military service could damage the Peace Corps and potentially put the safety of Peace Corps volunteers at risk."

Congress authorized the recruitment program three years ago in legislation that drew little attention at the time but is stirring controversy now, for two reasons: The military has begun to promote it, and the day is drawing closer when the first batch of about 4,300 recruits will be eligible to apply to the Peace Corps, after having spent 31/2 years in the armed forces. That could happen as early as 2007.

Two longtime proponents of national service programs, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), devised the legislation "to provide Americans with more opportunities to serve their country," said Bayh's spokeswoman, Meghan Keck. When it stalled as a separate bill, aides to the senators said, they folded it into a 306-page defense budget bill, where it did not attract opposition.

Peace Corps Director Gaddi H. Vasquez, who was appointed in 2002 by President Bush, said in a recent interview that the Peace Corps was unaware of the provision until after it became law. Vasquez declined to say whether he would have opposed the legislation, had he known about it in time.

"There might have been a discussion, there could have been some dialogue on this, but obviously that didn't happen," he said.

Several former Peace Corps leaders said they hope that Congress and the Bush administration will reverse course and scuttle the program. They include former senator Harris Wofford (D-Pa.), who helped found the Peace Corps as a young aide in the Kennedy White House; Carol Bellamy, the former New York City Council president who headed the Peace Corps from 1993 to 1995; and Mark L. Schneider, who was a volunteer in El Salvador in the late 1960s and headed the Peace Corps during the last two years of the Clinton administration.

"Democratic and Republican administrations alike have kept a bright line separating the Peace Corps from short-term foreign and security policies," Schneider said. "Blurring that sharp line is a bad idea, particularly now, given the unfortunate rise in anti-American sentiment following the Iraq war."

After the law went into effect in 2003, the Defense Department was slow to promote the option of combining military and Peace Corps service, but it is now energetically flogging the "National Call to Service" program, recruiters said. The Army, which began a pilot project in 10 of its 41 recruiting districts in October 2003, expanded it into a nationwide effort this year. The Air Force, Navy and Marines offer identical programs, said Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke, a Pentagon spokeswoman.

In all of the services, recruits are eligible for a $5,000 cash bonus or repayment of $18,000 in student loans if they agree to spend three months in boot camp, 15 months on active duty and two years in the Reserves or National Guard.

After that, they can fulfill the remainder of their eight-year military obligation in the Individual Ready Reserves -- available for call-up, but without regular drilling duties -- or by serving in the Peace Corps or Americorps, the domestic national service program created in 1993.

Vasquez emphasized that recruits have no guarantee that they will be accepted into the Peace Corps. Once they complete their active duty and Reserve or National Guard service, they can apply to the Corps. But they will not receive any preferential treatment, and the Peace Corps is not changing its admission standards, he said.

"Ultimately, the impact to Peace Corps in terms of how we recruit, who we accept into service, remains very much intact and consistent with what we've done for 40-plus years," the Peace Corps director said. "I am an individual who embraces a very important facet of Peace Corps, and that is the Peace Corps' independence as an agency within the executive branch."

Wofford, who worked in the White House with Sargent Shriver, the Kennedy brother-in-law who became the Peace Corps' first director, said the Corps historically has shown "passionate determination" to maintain that independence. At the outset in 1961, Shriver appealed to Kennedy to keep the Peace Corps from being placed under the Agency for International Development. Later, the Corps fought to uphold rules barring intelligence officers from joining the Peace Corps and prohibiting former Peace Corps volunteers from working for U.S. intelligence agencies.

Several current Peace Corps volunteers said they opposed the military recruitment option but were reluctant to speak out publicly, because the Peace Corps forbids volunteers from talking to the media without permission.

"We are already accused on a daily basis of being CIA agents so I don't see how this [link to the U.S. military] could help," a volunteer in Burkina Faso said by e-mail.

"It is hard enough trying to integrate yourself into a completely different culture, convincing people that . . . Americans are not these gun-toting sex maniacs . . . without having a connection to the U.S. military," another volunteer in Africa wrote.

Former volunteers expressed a variety of reservations. Pat Reilly, a former chairwoman of the National Peace Corps Association who served in Liberia from 1972 to 1975 and spent several years as a full-time Peace Corps recruiter, said she worries about the motivation of people who enter the Peace Corps to fulfill a military service obligation.

"The magic that makes the Peace Corps work is motivation, and when you tinker with that, then it won't work for the applicant and it won't work for the people it serves," she said.

John Coyne, who served in Ethiopia during the 1960s and was a regional director in the Corps' New York office from 1996 to 2001, said numerous military veterans have joined the Peace Corps and been superb volunteers. But he said there has always been a "clear separation" between the two kinds of service. The new recruitment program "eats away at the purity of the Peace Corps as designed by Kennedy, which is that it was not going to be military," he said.

So far, the number of enlistees is tiny compared with the 1.4 million men and women serving in the military, but large compared with the Peace Corps, which receives about 12,000 applications to fill about 4,000 openings each year.

In 2004 and the first five months of this year, 4,301 people entered the armed services under the National Call to Service program. Of those, 2,935 enlisted in the Navy, 614 in the Air Force, 444 in the Army and 308 in the Marines. Pentagon and Peace Corps officials said they have no way of knowing how many will apply to the Peace Corps when they become eligible to do so in 2007 or 2008.

In his 2002 State of the Union address, Bush called for doubling the size of the Peace Corps, from 7,000 to 14,000 volunteers, within five years. That same year, the administration named a career Navy officer with 12 years of experience in military recruiting to head the Peace Corps' recruitment and selection office.

Since then, however, the Corps has grown by little more than 10 percent. Barbara Daly, a spokeswoman for the Corps, said that tight budgets -- rather than a shortage of qualified candidates -- were the reason.

"The president has been very supportive of the Peace Corps and has requested budget increases each fiscal year that would allow for this" gradual doubling, she said. "Congress has not approved our budget at the levels requested by the president."

Peace Corps Director Gaddi Vasquez, above with President Bush, said recruits are not guaranteed slots in the Corps.