Enlistment Shortage Jars Congress

As Iraq insurgency grinds on, the ban on gay troops is more seriously questioned

On May 25, the House of Representatives approved an amendment to a defense authorization bill offered by Rep. John Hostettler, an Indiana Republican that would grant “special immigrant status” to 63 foreign-born Arabic and Farsi translators who have been working with the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The U.S. military has long acknowledged that a shortage of such translators has impacted detrimentally on national defense.

Last week, a similar measure, also introduced by Hostettler, passed the House’s judiciary committee.

Both measures would make these translators and their immediate families eligible for permanent residency within the United States. During Wednesday’s floor debate, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a Manhattan Democrat, called for the overturn of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT), the military’s ban on gays and lesbians serving openly. “The answer to our dire need for translators is not to give U.S. citizenship to Iraqis and Afghanis, but rather to stop discriminating against American citizens who are ready to serve their country,” Nadler said.

Fifty-four Arabic and Farsi linguists were discharged from the U.S. armed forces between 1998 and 2004 because they were gay.

In an interview, Nadler said he did not oppose the Hostettler legislation. “It’s not a bad idea to reward the people we need who have been helping us,” he said. “But at the same time, we have violated the human rights and wasted a lot of money discharging perfectly capable linguists.”

A recent Government Accountability Office report stated that more than ten thousand gay and lesbian soldiers, sailors, marines and air force personnel have been discharged since DADT’s inception in 1992. The GAO report also estimated that this policy has cost the U.S. government far in excess of $200 million in lost skills and retraining costs, as well as discharging personnel with critical skills such as linguistics, intelligence analysis, combat control and image interpretation.

The report had no way of estimating the costs for gay soldiers who quit the service because they felt their careers were threatened or they disagreed with the policy.

While Arabic and Farsi translators would be at a premium in any case, the shortage still calls attention to the diminishing manpower faced by certain branches of the American military, which some say could be alleviated if DADT were repealed.

According to the Army Recruiting Command, the Regular Army has lagged in recruitment by six percent since January. The Army Reserve is behind by 21 percent.

The Marine Corps has revealed that it is just making its recruiting quotas, when in previous years it easily exceeded them.

To encourage people to sign up, the Army announced last month that it will offer shortened enlistment periods to new recruits.

Major General Michael Rochelle, head of the Army Recruiting Command, recently told USA Today that this is “the toughest recruiting climate ever faced by the all-volunteer Army.” He added that he thinks the Army will have only half the number of recruits ready in 2006 compared to this year, and that he doesn’t expect to make recruiting quotas for the next two years.

The military faces a personnel shortage in spite of an additional 1,500 recruiters recently put into the field, the raising of the maximum enlistment age from 34 to 39, record-high enlistment bonuses and a new advertising campaign that assures parents that the military is a safe career choice.

Last Friday, the Army ordered a one-day break in recruiting to reassess and refocus its recruitment goals. Recently, several Army recruiters have been accused of offering potential recruits help with passing drug tests or obtaining fake high school diplomas. The stand-down was partly in response to these allegations.

“People feel very pressured to make their mission goals. But these can’t be at the expense of Army values. The time off was so we could rededicate ourselves to these values,” said Douglas Smith, spokesman for the Army Recruiting Command based at Fort Knox.

Smith confirmed that in the past year eight recruiters were removed from duty and another 98 were disciplined in some form for mishandling the recruitment process.

The suspicion that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and operations in other parts of the world have strained the U.S. military’s resources was confirmed recently by a report to Congress by the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General John Myers. He said the U.S. military was stretched so thin at the moment that any additional conflicts would be won at a higher cost of life and at a slower pace.

Soon compounding this might be the way Congress redefines how women in the military are allowed to operate in combat zones. Separate House and Senate bills would alter the way women are currently deployed in support of forward ground forces. Many lawmakers have become alarmed at the number of women that have been killed in Iraq, and say that new rules are necessary.

Some Army officials have said that if either bill is passed, the U.S. infantry will lose about 20,000 active-duty soldiers serving overseas, all of which has led for an increasing call to overturn the gay ban and open up a pool of sorely needed candidates.

A bill introduced this year by Rep. Marty Meehan, a Massachusetts Democrat, the Military Readiness Enhancement Act (MREA), would overturn DADT. It has more than 80 co-sponsors, including Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican and a well-known House conservative.

Meehan specifically cited the GAO’s report on the cost of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell to bolster support for his bill. “It is more apparent than ever before that, as we conduct a global war on terror and face tremendous personnel shortages, that the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell law is undermining our military readiness.”

As further evidence that the armed forces need personnel, opponents of DADT point to the steadily dropping number of discharges under the policy since the war on terror began.

The number of service members separated from the military last year is only half the number discharged in 2001 before the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Meehan has lobbied for DADT’s overturn since he arrived in Congress in 1993. Up until now, his efforts made little progress, but the continued level of American soldiers in Iraq has changed some minds and is slowly transforming the debate over gays in the military from an ideological issue into a readiness issue.

“In the past it may have been dead on arrival, but even now Republicans are acknowledging that there is a military readiness issue at stake,” said Rep. Steve Israel, a New York Democrat, when Meehan introduced MREA in March. Israel serves with Meehan on the House’s armed services committee.

“Arabic and Farsi speakers are the most critical linguist shortages right now in the military. One of the primary ways to fill that need is to overturn Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and allow those gay soldiers and the many other soldiers like them to contribute the skills they have,” said Steve Ralls, spokesman for the Service Members Legal Defense Network, an advocacy group fighting the military’s gay ban.

“This amendment wouldn’t even be necessary if Meehan’s bill was passed,” Ralls added.

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