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Military Too Fat, Female, Married, Old

Thursday, 03 January 2002 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON – As the drums beat louder for a war against Iraq, a look at our military personnel policies is in order, including a review of problems that cropped up when we fought Saddam Hussein in 1991 with a much larger force.

It's a bad sign when it's necessary to belabor the obvious: Wars are best fought by young, childless males. Societies deviate from this pattern at their peril.

During a midnight layover at a European airport about 18 months ago, something about the appearance of soldiers from a U.S. Army infantry unit made me uneasy. They were older, heavier, and (apparently) slower than their underappreciated Army and Marine Corps counterparts of the Vietnam era.

A recent study confirms those impressions. At a November meeting of the American Obesity Association, Richard Atkinson, a professor of internal medicine at the University of Wisconsin, reported that more than half of all service personnel are overweight according to the National Institute of Health standard, and the trend is increasing. The extra pounds increase the risk of becoming a heat casualty, the physician said, as well as injuring bones, joints and muscles. And, of course, heavier soldiers generally have less speed and endurance.

What does this have to do with public policy?

Atkinson tied the trend to the steadily increasing average age of the All Volunteer Force. Armies don't just "happen" but rather emerge from conscious and unconscious political decisions for which the citizens in free republics are ultimately responsible. When I took the enlistment oath in 1965, most of the enlisted force and almost all of the junior officers were young, single and childless.

The biggest demographic change in the All Volunteer Force is the rise of the "enlisted marrieds," said Charles Moskos, the eminent sociologist of the military, who teaches at Northwestern University. "The average age of marriage for a male in America is 27, and for a female it's 24 and a half," Moskos told United Press International in a phone interview. "In the military it's approximately 24 for a male and 22 for a female. So while the country is getting married older and older, the military is getting married younger and younger."

The sociologist recalled the adage he learned as a draftee in the 1950s: If the Army wanted you to have a wife, it would have issued you one. "Now, in a sense, it is," he remarked. A mass deployment would result in "more family separation than you might have had during World War II by far."

Sometimes we hear that in this high-tech age the retention of stable, long-service volunteers outweighs the disadvantages of an older, stouter, child-heavy military. But Moskos produced a shocking statistic that undercuts this assumption.

Fully one-third of the members of the All Volunteer Force fail to complete their initial enlistments, he said, while 90 percent of draftees served their entire tours of duty. Although the enlistments of today's volunteers are longer than the draftees' two-year obligation, Moskos said that most volunteers who drop out do so during their first two years of service.

In an interview in his Capitol Hill office on Nov. 1, 2000, Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, foresaw the possibility of a war precipitated by a terrorist attack. The Medal of Honor winner, who lost his right arm fighting the Germans in Italy during World War II, expressed his concern about how the military had changed since his service days and said some members of Congress have at times "had difficulty in making judgments" about the armed forces "based on their backgrounds."

"Ninety-six percent of my regiment had no dependents," he said. "Only 4 percent had wives." Now 60 percent of active-duty military personnel are married, but single parenthood pushes the number with dependents higher.

Inouye recalled a "difficult personal assignment," that of censoring his men's letters, which revealed the special difficulties soldiers with families faced. The senator characterized the typical letter of a new father: "'Oh, I was so pleased to learn that our baby arrived healthy. And you pleased me so much by naming him after me. I can't wait to see him.'

"You are in no condition to go out on a tough assignment when blood might be the result," Inouye said. "You're going to be too careful for that moment."

Carl E. Mundy Jr., commandant of the Marine Corps from 1991 to 1995, followed his conscience in this matter but his commander in chief did not back him up. On Aug. 11, 1993, the Marine Corps announced that it no longer would permit married persons to enlist.

A few hours later, it renounced the planned policy. The Washington Post reported that Bill Clinton was "astonished" and that the general apologized for "blind-siding" the White House. Contrary to initial reports, the Sept. 11 attacks have not resulted in increased military recruitment. If President Bush's leadership can be faulted, it's in failing to call for personal sacrifice on the part of individual Americans. In the absence of conscription, the president must exhort young men to enlist. Every great leader is also an effective teacher.

To a large extent, women in uniform have filled in for the male no-shows, a development that presents special problems in combat strength and deployability. In 1970 women made up only 1.4 percent of the armed forces. Now they comprise 14.7 percent, serving in more than 9 out of 10 military occupational specialties, said Army Maj. P. James Cassella, a Department of Defense press officer. (As of April, 1999, 18 percent of the Air Force was women, with its enlisted ranks approaching 20 percent.)

Some 11.6 percent of the more than 200,000 women on active duty are single mothers, Cassella said.

All active-duty single parents and dual-career couples are required to maintain a "family care plan" as a condition for continued service, Cassella added. They must designate a trusted friend or family member to care for their children in case of deployment.

After the Persian Gulf War, the Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces looked into the effects on children of separation from parents during Desert Shield-Desert Storm. Brenda Hunter, a clinical psychologist who specializes in infant attachment, testified that prolonged separation produces anguish for mothers and children. She quoted a female soldier who had to leave her 7-week-old daughter as having "built an ice wall around my heart to try to cool the pain."

Hunter cited a study of English children sent away to residential nurseries to keep them safe from World War II bombing. "The children initially went through a period of mourning, and when their mothers returned after weeks or months, some children acted as if they did not recognize them. This was not the case with fathers."

Human bonds are fragile, Hunter warned, and children often see separation from their mothers as rejection. "We are tampering with something profoundly elemental in human development when we think about separating mothers from their young children for any reason, and the cost of separation may be high not only for individuals but for society as well."

Bill Mattox of Family Research Council told the commission: "There is general agreement among psychologists that mother absence provides more serious emotional problems for children, particularly young children, than does father absence."

He noted that the children in Britain "who remained in their families in the bomb-riddled areas actually fared better emotionally than those who were shipped off to safer environments away from their parents."

Mattox called for policies to promote "the re-bachelorization of the active duty armed forces."

This was good advice in 1992. If we have to fight Iraq again, or engage in any large-scale overseas campaign, we will have cause to regret that we did not act on it then.

Copyright 2002 by United Press International.

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WASHINGTON - As the drums beat louder for a war against Iraq, a look at our military personnel policies is in order, including a review of problems that cropped up when we fought Saddam Hussein in 1991 with a much larger force. It's a bad sign when it's necessary to...
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Thursday, 03 January 2002 12:00 AM
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