WASHINGTON — Wounded Iraq war vet Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a new member of the Armed Services Committee, on Wednesday warned that the military may find itself short of recruits.
But the pool of potential recruits, she said, could be expanded if more youths were physically fit; non-citizen immigrants were welcomed; and discrimination against transgender troops ended.
“If you are willing to put your life on the line for this country and you can do the job, you should be able to serve no matter how you identify or whether you were born on U.S. soil,” she said.
Duckworth made her remarks during a speech at the National Press Club at a time when President Donald Trump believes bolstering military funding alone strengthens the Armed Services; banned transgender military; and has taken moves against non-citizens in the ranks.
Trump’s proposed budget unveiled this week calls for more than $700 billion in spending, about half of all discretionary dollars Congress controls.
“I myself spent 23 years in the military,” said Duckworth, who served in the Illinois Army National Guard. She lost her legs and shattered an arm when her Black Hawk helicopter was shot down over Iraq in 2004. “I will always, always make sure that our troops have every dollar, every weapon that they need to bring down the bad guys.
“But despite what the president proposed this week, we can’t just keep drawing together huge defense budgets every year,” Duckworth said.
What is needed, she said, is “rejecting the false choice between looking out for our troops overseas and caring for our families here at home.
“…Our power abroad stems from our strength here on U.S. soil. So it’s past time that we recognize that funding of domestic priorities actually bolsters our national security.”
While the number of veterans in the current Congress is not at a high — Duckworth did note that the freshman class has the most veterans in years — and most of them are Democrats. With the Democrats controlling the House and Republicans holding power in the Senate, there are big battles ahead over budget priorities, especially in the run-up to the 2020 campaigns.
“Refusing to invest in our schools or our health-care system in the name of national strength isn’t just cruel, it’s shortsighted,” Duckworth said.
“Recently, for example, the Pentagon announced that only 29 percent of Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 are considered fit to serve. Just 29 percent. The other 71 percent either failed the basic math or English tests or could not pass a physical or were barred from enlisting because they made a mistake years ago that still lies on their record. Like getting caught with marijuana in a state where it’s now legal or once struggling with an opioid addiction.
“Meanwhile, The Army fell short of its recruiting goal last year for the first time since the height of the Iraq war.” The draft ended in the 1970s, replaced with an all-volunteer force.
“With fewer people enlisting as the years go on, we should be celebrating every person who serves,” Duckworth said.
Some 27 percent of potential recruits are cut because they are overweight.
The much-debated matter of providing health care should also be looked at through the lens of creating a bigger pool of recruits.
Said Duckworth, “Every time our government makes it harder for an American to get health care, they are sapping the military’s potential strength, robbing it of potential privates or second lieutenants even while claiming we need to spend more money making our armed forces more powerful.”