Published on
the Citizen-Times (Asheville, N.C.)

Our Kids as Mercenaries

William A. Collins

The Pentagon doesn't talk much about it, but over half of America's presence in Iraq today is made up of mercenaries. That's how we keep down the number of actual troops. We now hire civilians to do for the soldiers many of the things they used to do for themselves. Everyone knows about Halliburton and Blackwater, and many have heard tell of scores of other companies that, at exorbitant rates, feed, house and supply our fighting men and women. There is even occasional note of the regiments of Bangladeshis slipped in to do the army's scut work.

But what about our heroic troops themselves? Surely, THEY'RE not in it for the money. Surely, they're not abandoned at the end of their tours like so many paid contractors. Surely, we nurture them for the rest of their lives like the heroes that they are. Sure.

I recently found a National Guard recruiting flier taped to a utility pole. It touted, "100% Tuition Free College," "Up to $20,000 Enlistment Bonus," and "$200/month of school G.I. Bill Kicker." Along the bottom were the usual tear-off strips with the recruiting sergeant's phone number, reiterating the $20,000 bonus. Forget "Uncle Sam Needs You!" At our annual local Oyster Festival, the Guard augments these enticements with T-shirts, caps, push-up contests, vehicle displays and a party atmosphere. No amputees on hand.

For 18-year-olds with no career focus, all this hype can convey much allure. Smartly paid ex-generals flood the airways intoning about duty, service, foreign evils, and victory. Meanwhile war skeptics and recorders of suffering, such as Iraq Veterans Against the War, are systematically excluded from mainstream programming. Thus despite the well-known harsh realities of warfare and occupation, other realities like money, recession and propaganda help to keep filling our relentless recruiting quotas.

They also help to fill our Veterans Administration hospitals. Though even at that, painfully large squadrons of vets have yet to find solace with the VA. Especially those with emotional distress. Suicides among soldiers and returnees have now exceeded battle deaths in Iraq, and stress disorders plague combatants and veterans alike in disturbing numbers. The Defense Department also admits, though it does not advertise, that an astonishing 25,000 of its members have deserted, many heading for Canada and the rest playing hide-and-seek here at home.

But the largest body of troops just do their job and do eventually come home. Then they enter on a prolonged struggle to find a job, to reintegrate with their family, to increase their education, and to plead for government help with their mental and physical wounds. Unfortunately, there are still no good numbers for casualties from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or on its destructive effect on home or work. Mostly it simply goes untreated. As does the recently recognized Gulf War Syndrome from our battles in Kuwait.

So too do other veterans' afflictions. Housing shortages and homelessness weigh heavily on former soldiers. Likewise the lack of rape treatment and counseling, or even any government admission that rape is a common military occurrence. And despite congressional inquiries and diligent investigative reporting, care for veterans remains spotty and unreliable. The White House and Pentagon hush it up, fearful that the truth might sour recruitment enthusiasm.

This unfortunately makes the whole war enterprise sound more and more like a mercenary world, which it is. Spend plenty of money on the front end with bonuses and improved salaries; scrimp on the back end when our warriors, patriots and heroes finally come home. That's when they learn how expendable they are.

And as a finishing touch of "fight for pay," Congress has now voted to speed up citizenship applications for those aliens who enlist. Offering such a lure to foreigners makes plain just where the United States plans to find the cannon fodder for its military adventures of the future.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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Columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut. This column was distributed by

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