The US Army, and me

October 27, 2011

Me and the Army.  I suppose more than a few of my friends might snicker at the mere thought, but it’s something I’ve given a lot of thought to over the years.  Mainly because I was never able to join.

And something has always bugged me about that.  A few thoughts on my views about eligibility, then, and how I would change it.

The fact is, I’m 4-F.  I honestly don’t even know how they classify folks these days, but when I was growing up during the Vietnam War, 4-F is what I was told I rated, even though I never applied. I simply asked around, and everyone concurred: with a seizure disorder and a hearing problem, I’m not fit to be a soldier.

I get that, I truly do. And I don’t complain about that one bit. Our fighting forces must have a high degree of fitness and a minimum standard for combat troops is truly necessary to ensure that level. The MEP docs who drafted the standards know what they are talking about, and it’s dumb to consider challenging that.

I do believe, however, that there’s room for me, and folks like me, in the Army.

In uniform.

People will scratch their heads, sigh, roll their eyes, and mumble about “diluting the standards.”  And certainly, countless folks who might be disqualified on medical issues nonetheless manage to forge rewarding and excellent careers in non-military roles, very often in uniform as police, fire or EMS personnel, or outside of any uniform, in careers such as education, medicine, business or government.

That said, however, there are many, many jobs in the Army which are not considered combatant roles, but rather support roles. Sure, everyone who goes through Basic learns to fire an M4 rifle and M9 pistol, and goes through grueling hikes and tons of exercise, training, and education.  But a large number of those folks never even leave the country, and spend their entire Army careers stateside on a base. And they never even carry a gun. Think of Corporal Upham in Saving Private Ryan. He never fired a gun except in basic training. He translated maps. Of course, Captain Miller had no problem putting him in, but then again, if he knew how inept the guy was going to be, he might have picked someone else.

What do they, the non-combatants, do? They work on vehicles, prepare and ship uniforms, weapons, supplies, they run computer systems and repair them, they are involved in preparing food, going over paperwork, and so on, and so on, and so on…

It is also true the military hires civilian workers to assist in work on the bases and offices all over the country, and even frequently overseas. And I know a few who would never qualify for the US Army due to medical conditions, but still manage just fine in a civie role. Sure, I could apply for one of those jobs, but to me, that’s not quite the same thing.

So, I got to thinking.

What if there was a way to wear the uniform while still being considered disabled? I’m not talking about someone who was formerly a soldier, injured in the line of duty, and assigned jobs that were accommodating. I mean being inducted as a disabled person from the start.

It would take an Act of Congress, no doubt. Still, I think it could be done.  Here is how:

1. Consider creating a separate division within the Army consisting of those not meeting the current standards of physical fitness, though a few limitations would be necessary. These persons would be assigned base duty or other duties not involving dangerous exercises, tasks or combat roles.

2. Those who hold civilian jobs would be given the option of joining this new Corps (the best name I can think of is Adjunct Military Service Corps, just one idea). The Corps would be composed of a central command which sets the standards for job performance, assignation, criteria, etc. And it is a fully functional US Army division, with its own uniform and insignia, and meets all the functions–and demands–which is expected of US Army personnel, with the exception of combat duty.

3. Those wishing to join would be required to attend boot camp, with one distinction: it would not be boot camp in the same vein as combatants, but perhaps a six-month evening program that fully immerses those who want to join into the military life, code of conduct, rules, and so forth. In other words, Boot Camp Lite. On the other hand, this “camp” may not be heavy on learning weapons and hand-to-hand combat, but very much so on all other matters regarding his or her general specialty as well as the military in general. Completion would not be easy for anyone.

4. Yes, standards would still exist. Mental dysfunction that inhibits one from completion of basic tasks would still be a disqualifier. Profound physical impairments that require extraordinary lengths of accommodation would also. But a hearing aid, or even total deafness, would not fall under that category, neither would a wheelchair, blindness, loss of limbs, cardiac limitations, diabetes, etc., so long as the person can perform the assigned tasks without help. And honestly, a 400 lb. man or woman isn’t going to be able to fit in, literally. No ugliness intended towards those overweight, but I just cannot imagine someone morbidly obese wearing the uniform.

5. I also believe as physical fitness is an important component of military life, those in the Corps would be required to complete physical training just like everyone else. A member who is blind, for example, can run alongside someone who isn’t, and one who is deaf, like me, can partner with someone who can hear the DI’s commands. Those in a wheelchair can do PT in the ways they are able. (In college, I once dated a girl who was blind. She knew I ran on the cross country team and wanted a workout partner, so every afternoon we jogged around several blocks, with me calling out when we turned. She didn’t fall once.) In a word, it’s doable. The workouts need not be as strenuous as that for combat troops, but keeping in shape is a good way keep workplace production at a high level.

6. At present, one must be between the ages of 17 years, nine months and 42 years of age to join the Army, though waivers exist for certain positions for which there is a pressing need. This Corps could have a more relaxed age requirement, I believe, allowing enlistment or commissions up to say five years before mandatory retirement at 62. This, too, allows a way for folks who may be considering a second job to be able to consider a position with the U.S. Armed Forces. I for one, think this is a far better alternative than having to go on disability or welfare because of the inability to get a job; discrimination hits disabled and older folks much harder than the average citizen.

I have had rewarding careers outside the military. I was a minister, then I worked in business, and finally, an EMT. I actually got to wear a uniform as an EMT, and held the rank of Lieutenant at one point. Yes, I served the citizens of northern and eastern Wake County, until I was no longer able to do so due to my deafness. So yes, I’ve worn a uniform, stood at attention, and saluted. But I never got to do something that really would have given me a more profound sense of accomplishment and joy: serving my country.

I’m no idealist, I know the regular Army guys would laughingly call it “The Crip Corps” or “The Wheelchair Brigade.”  Hahaha, hey guys, go suck on a bottle of gun oil, why don’tcha?  All joking aside, I can think of several benefits to having a Corps or Division such as this.

1. Improved accountability and professionalism.  Let’s face it, a regimented lifestyle breeds discipline and professionalism. Those in uniform are always more likely to bring a greater sense of professionalism and dedication to the job. I know; I wore a uniform once. We weren’t as highly trained, nor even drilled in the fundamentals of how to give a proper salute, but just wearing a uniform in public immediately created a sense of pride, honor and integrity in our squad. It’s simply contagious. I do not imply there is any laxness on the part of our many civilian workers in the military at all. But wearing a uniform can do wonders for overall morale and productivity, I believe.

2. A Service Corps could provide a place for direct lateral transfer for wounded soldiers wounded who would otherwise face separation from the service due to injuries received either in combat or training. This Corps would not be held to as high a standard physically and these soldiers can continue their military careers in uniform, if they have the ability to perform assigned tasks. I believe this could save millions of taxpayer dollars in after-service psychiatric care, as many soldiers feel disenfranchised by forced medical separation from the service, and that separation is often the source of profound anger and alienation. This would provide a place for them to continue serving in spite of their injuries.

3. A Corps such as this might provide an alternative to those desiring uniformed service but not wishing to be involved in combat, i.e., conscientious objectors. I honestly am not sure about this, because objectors in many ways are not very popular folks within the military. Still, it might be one option, especially if the draft is ever reinstated. And of course, there are many roles in the standard military where those who don’t want combat roles can choose to go, anyway.

4. Having a central Corps command could possibly streamline non-combatant jobs by centralizing training and eliminating redundant positions. I would envision a transitional period where civilians currently working would have the option to join the new Corps or remain as they are, with no loss of pay or promotional opportunity. But in time, all new hires not designated as regular Army would then fall under the new Corps command, and become uniformed. In other words, once the transitional period is over, there won’t be “civilian” jobs except where permitted or designated, and all support positions will fall under the new Corps or Division.

5. I suspect any initial costs (studies, new uniforms, command structure, etc.) would be offset in the long run by a Corps bent on saving the greatest possible amount of tax dollars. Efficiency, efficiency, efficiency, in other words.  Many Army units are famous for specific actions or roles. I would envision this Corps to be a very tightly-ordered group that does its job with a high regard for efficiency, professionalism and dedication. Done, right, I believe this could very well be an example of how the government can do something right, instead of the usual wasteful approach. One good thing: the new Corps won’t have need of $1400.00 wrenches or $700.00 toilet seats. And there are plenty of old Army bases gathering dust all over the United States. One or two of them could be reopened as command and training center(s) for the new Corps, or an existing base could be expanded for such accommodation.

Honestly, workplace accommodation isn’t that difficult or expensive. I might require a phone with greater than normal amplification. The guy in a wheelchair needs wheelchair ramps and access. The blind need a workplace that isn’t constantly changing, and free of tripping hazards.

Another consideration: the disabled such as myself can often function much better than “normal” people in one regard. We have developed much higher-than-normal acuity in certain aspects of our mental function. As a deaf person, I am far more attuned to what I see, and I can often spot things the average person misses, the by-product of a lifetime of depending on my eyes to evaluate a situation. I can read lips in some ways too well; I watched my favorite basketball coach let loose a string of profanities in a timeout when he was berating his team not too long ago. I couldn’t hear him, but I sure know what he said! In similar guise, the blind person is highly attuned to sounds and can often make distinctions in tone, pitch and voice that is not always apparent to the average listener. Such persons might be invaluable in intelligence functions, among others.

Of course, I am not envisioning such a Corps to be primarily for those who are disabled in some way, not at all. “Normal” people would certainly make up the majority, just as they do in real life. But as we know, “disability” is often a fine line. What is disabling in one career is just fine in another. And that’s the gist. I am only proposing at least one segment of the uniformed military be open to those not of combat standards, but who could at least perform necessary and important tasks. So, while I can’t carry a gun, I could at least support those who do, while proudly wearing the uniform of my comrades.

We all know the military has a long history of protected discrimination. Part of that was and is justifiable, and held so by the courts. In other ways, such discrimination was found to be wrong, and they always stepped up, slowly perhaps, but stepped up nonetheless, to do the right thing.  Blacks, for example, were relegated often to be mess cooks and orderlies in the Navy, and we all know the story of Navy Mess Attendant First Class Doris “Dorie” Miller, a black man, who instead of cooking breakfast on the morning of December 7th, 1941, found himself manning a .50 caliber machine gun, possibly shooting down several Japanese war planes at Pearl Harbor. He was awarded the Navy Cross, and subsequently died in combat later in the war. Still, I have no doubt his heroic efforts that day probably did as much for improving race relations as any individual action before or since. And by Vietnam, blacks and whites were serving together with no real problems. Now the new trial is gays and lesbians in the military. Of course, there’s nothing new about that, except they don’t have to hide who they are. Most all of the past discriminations that occurred (race, sex and orientation) were found to be unsupportable in the long run. I am just of the opinion that while those destined for combat need to be in top physical form, those who perform those support roles perhaps don’t need to be so perfect. Just very good at their j0bs.

Yes, I believe this could be a very good idea. Think of it: leaner and more tightly-ordered support personnel now consisting of uniformed men and women, tightly regimented and focused on efficiency and professionalism, with a lower threshold for physical limitations but a very high one for doing things in a strongly professional and efficient manner.

So, is the Army ready for me?

Sure they are. Just shout if you need me, though

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