Avoiding the draft

Older Americans should
be allowed to serve their
country in the armed forces

With American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq for the long haul, the United States now finds itself wondering how to tackle the shortage of human assets to execute a global war on terror most experts expect will last for many years.


John Caulfield: Physician was recalled to Army service at age 70, now in Afghanistan

The National Guard and Army Reserve are falling far short of their recruiting goals. This is significant because the Guard and the Army Reserve compose about 40 percent of the troop strength in Iraq and more than half of the Army's total manpower is in the Guard and Reserves. The heavy demands on reserve forces are also prompting an exodus of lieutenants, captains and sergeants. Thousands more reservists are going AWOL.

The recruiting shortfalls are prompting talk about reinstituting the draft. While a return to national conscription would certainly fill the ranks, the military services would find themselves with a lot of reluctant and inexperienced recruits. There are alternatives.

Take, for instance, the many tens of thousands of "older" Americans (and here we are talking about men and women over the ripe age of 40) -- with or without prior military service -- who desire to serve their country.

For some the call to duty is satisfied by joining the Air Force's Civil Air Patrol or the Coast Guard's Auxiliary. Or they work as volunteers with police and fire departments. These efforts by civilians are commendable. But some of the citizen volunteers have a strong desire to pursue a more ambitious and challenging level of service. But many thousands who have contacted military recruiters are told they need not apply -- they are "too old."

Congress has given the secretaries of the military branches the authority to retain in active status reserve officers in several fields, such as medical, legal and chaplain services, well beyond the mandatory retirement age.

The Navy, in its recruiting for certain commissions, makes no bones about it, noting that "age waivers may be granted on a case basis to meet the needs of the Navy" -- an exception to the rule that one must complete 20 years of active commissioned service as a Naval officer before their 60th birthday.

That apparently applies to a few select enlisted reservists as well.

Master Chief Aviation Electronics Technician Joe Beam, of Marrowstone Island, Wash., is 77. During World War II, Beam was a sailor on a destroyer minelayer. He and his shipmates kept USS Adams afloat, after a kamikaze attack blew a hole in the fantail during the invasion of Okinawa. During the Korean War Beam was aboard USS Carmick and later returned to the enlisted reservist ranks.

Chief Aviation Ordnanceman John Crawford, of Tacoma, Wash., who flew World War II bomber missions with the Royal Air Force, is 82. Crawford joined the U.S. Naval Reserves in 1949. He was recalled to active duty during the Korean War, flying reconnaissance missions with Patrol Squadron 892 in Japan.

Both Beam and Crawford serve on "authorized special permissive orders" through the Naval Reserve Center in Tacoma and receive no pay for drill time or most expenses.

Then there is the remarkable case of John Caulfield, who has just been recalled to duty by the Army. The oral surgeon is 70 and packs a gun as he treats wounded soldiers at the Army's 325th Field Hospital in Bagram, Afghanistan.

Col. Caulfield is one of about 100 uniformed service personnel over the age of 60 known to be serving, according to the Department of Defense.

There is one Marine between 60 and 65 currently in the field. The Air Force has 12 chaplains over 60 and 32 medical personnel between 60 and 65. The Navy has 36 medical personnel and 16 chaplains who are over 60.

As the armed services see a shortage of critical skill sets in other areas, perhaps it is time to consider turning to the 40-plus crowd.

Money might be the motivator for some, but as we have seen, even unpaid billets can manage to get filled.

For many, patriotism, not a pension, is the driving force. We can assume that many (including this writer at the advanced age of 45) would waive their right to a pension if that were a criterion.

In fact, veterans waive their rights to military retirement pay all the time. For example, to prevent double dipping, a military retiree may receive disability benefits only to the extent he waives a corresponding amount of his military retirement pay.

Retirement ages were mandated at a time when Americans did not live as long as they do now. Barrel-chested Jack LaLane works out for two hours every day, his mind is sharp and he can easily carry his wife. LaLane was born in 1914, when the average male American was expected to live to about 52. He likely could pass the physical fitness requirement for recruits in their 20s.

During the 20th century the number of people age 65 and older increased eleven-fold, from 3.1 million to 34.1 million, while the total population tripled. By 2050, projections show that the elderly population will account for one-fifth of the total U.S. population.

Average life expectancy in the United States is about 79 years for women and 72 for men. However, people who reach the age of 65 have a life expectancy of more than 82 years.

No soldier, airman, Marine, National Guard or Coast Guard personnel would likely favor exceptions made to physical fitness and age criteria that would jeopardize security or safety. They would just want the standards to be fair, reflecting the realities of present-day missions.

The Civil Aeromedical Institute has determined that it "saw no hint of an increase in accident rate for pilots of scheduled air carriers as they neared their 60th birthday. This suggests that one could cautiously increase the retirement age."

One would expect that objective analyses of many critical military jobs would show that other mandated retirement ages no longer make sense.

Even for the most stressful assignments -- say, combat against insurgents in the streets of Fallujah -- who would most soldiers choose to have in their company, a panicky 18-year-old high school dropout fresh out of basic training or a fit veteran in his 50s who saw action in Vietnam or the Gulf War?

If the Pentagon intensifies its global War on Terror, it should take a second look at retaining those who previously would have been forced out for reasons other than age.

Army Capt. David Rozelle is deploying to Iraq as the commander of a cavalry regiment. On the surface there is nothing remarkable about this 31-year-old who has passed all the physical fitness tests given by an Army medical board and declared fit for duty. What makes Rozelle unique is that he spent time in Walter Reed Army Medical Center after an anti-tank mine in Iraq blew off his right foot. Rozelle returns to Iraq with a new, $7,000 bionic leg.

Army Sgt. Andrew McCaffrey, 31, a Green Beret whose right hand was blown off by a grenade in Afghanistan, has returned to active duty at Fort Bragg, also with a state-of-the-art prosthesis.

Hawaii's Eric Shinseki lost his right foot in Vietnam and Frederick Franks parted with his left leg in Cambodia. Shinseki went on to become a general and Army chief of staff. Franks also made general and led the 7th Corps in the Gulf War.

The Army has formed the Disabled Soldier Support System, known as DS3, for soldiers who are 30 percent or more disabled: paralysis or the loss of a limb or an eye. DS3 helps these soldiers to choose between retirement or remaining on active duty.

President Bush told wounded soldiers at Walter Reed in 2003 that times had changed and "today, if wounded service members want to remain in uniform and can do the job, the military tries to help them stay."

Although the current commander in chief might not have realized it, he was actually speaking about an old Army tradition.

During the Civil War the Invalid Corps (later renamed the more politically correct Veteran Reserve Corps) was composed of those who had been rendered unfit for duty due to wounds or disease. Those who could still carry a musket and march were eligible to join the Union Army's First Battalion. Those who had lost limbs were sent to the Second Battalion.

If the military is once again acknowledging that those with disabilities can serve on the battlefield, perhaps it is also time to consider whether others with civilian qualifications, who have long lived with physical limitations, could apply for waivers.

Robert Dittman is an auxiliarist in the Coast Guard who successfully completed Reserve Enlisted Basic Indoctrination. Dittman is blind.

No slack was cut for Dittman, who completed all of the REBI requirements to graduate with Recruit Company 1003. His classmates were in awe of his accomplishments.

The U.S. military, since its inception, has helped to break down discrimination in American society against minorities and women, allowing them to demonstrate they were just as competent as anyone else. Perhaps the last barriers that need breaking are those regarding age and so-called physical handicaps.

Steven L Herman is a broadcast correspondent based in Tokyo and volunteers with District 14 of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, headquartered in Honolulu.

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