In a move that some analysts are calling the most important change in military recruitment since the end of the draft, the Defense Department is developing a short-term enlistment category of 18 months.
The idea is to encourage college graduates who normally would not consider a military career to enlist as a patriotic act of national service.
“This would make enlisting in the military a decision upper middle-class youth could identify with,” said Charles Moskos, a Northwestern University military sociologist who developed the idea. “Today, they don’t even know anyone in the military.”
Few college graduates now see enlisting in the military as an option, Moskos said, because most enlistments are for four years.
They may want to serve their country. They may be intrigued by going overseas. But they don’t want to commit for four years. Offer an option of 18 months of active service, he said, and interest jumps.
Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Evan Bayh, D-Ind., embraced Moskos’ proposal and pushed it through Congress last year. McCain, the son and grandson of admirals who graduated from the Naval Academy and was a
prisoner of war in Vietnam for six years, said he was appalled by how few “sons of privilege” enlisted.
“No national endeavor requires as much unshakable resolve as war,” McCain says. “Before we enter one, we should know that most Americans share the commitment and are prepared to make the personal sacrifices it entails.”
The Defense Department has until March 31 to devise a plan to fulfill what the senators dubbed the “Call to Service Act.” By Oct. 1, the first recruits will head for boot camp.
The average enlistee now is a high school graduate who signs up for a four-year hitch with an expectation of spending 20 years in the military and retiring with a comfortable pension and lifetime benefits. Only 6 percent of 18 to 24-year-old enlistees have some college experience, concluded a report by the Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank for centrist Democrats
“Disparities in military service can undermine the civic ethic of equal sacrifice, undercut public support for military campaigns, and … weaken the effectiveness of civilian oversight,” the report said.
It called the new plan “the most important change in America’s military recruitment policy since the end of the draft.”
But the Defense Department didn’t seek it.
“We just came off our best recruiting year in quite a while,” said Robert Clark, assistant director for accession policy. “To meet our numbers, we did not need this new program.”
Some military manpower experts question whether the armed forces will be well served by the new program.
“One of the reasons the military now is the most professional we have ever had is that people serve for longer periods of time,” said Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense for manpower. “This concept is liable to diminish that professionalism.”
While they favor encouraging more college graduates to enlist, the services fear that short-term enlistments could cause “turbulence” within what has become a well-oiled military machine, Clark said.
“In modest numbers, we don’t think the turbulence will affect readiness,” Clark said. “And I emphasize modest numbers.”
The legislation did not give a floor or a ceiling for how many should be recruited, he said. At first, a few thousand will be brought into an active military of 1.4 million troops.
“We are going to track and monitor the performance of the new recruits and constantly be balancing it to see what their impact is,” Clark said. “But these will be real service members, not second class.”
Call-To-Service enlistees will go through the same three or four months of basic training as other recruits. They may be barred from some specialized training because the Pentagon wants them to serve a full year with a unit.
At the end of 18 months, they are required to serve two years in the active reserves and can be called to duty. Then they have the option of six years in a non-drilling reserve unit for national emergencies or one or two years in a civilian service program such as the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps.
As an incentive, they have a choice of one of four options: A $5,000 cash bonus, $18,000 forgiveness of student loans, $900 a month for a year of graduate work or $366 a month for three years of graduate or undergraduate work. Like any short-term veteran, they will be able to get subsidized VA home loans and medical care for service-related injuries.
“This is perfect for the college graduate who wants to go to graduate school, but wants a break of two years,” Clark said. “It is specifically designed so that you would not have to miss more than two academic years.”
Gil Klein is a national correspondent for Media General News Service.