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Deep into a four-hour congressional hearing on why the active Army and its reserve components are missing recruiting goals, Rep. Vic Snyder, D-Ark., turned a spotlight on the elephant in the room.

The war in Iraq, Snyder said, is unpopular with many Americans, a fact that needs airing, given the all-volunteer nature of the U.S. military.

Until that moment in the July 19 House armed services subcommittee hearing, blame for recruiting shortfalls had focused on negative news coverage of the war, an improving economy, the pace of military operations and an unexplained drop in propensity of parents and other “influencers” of American youth to recommend military service.

Nothing was said of a nation that, polls show, is souring on a war that was launched to destroy Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and shifted, after none was found, into an open-ended occupation and a Herculean effort to turn a fractionalized Muslim nation into a democracy.

Snyder, senior Democrat on the panel, finally raised what other lawmakers, two senior defense officials and 10 star-rank officers had ignored in their own remarks, perhaps in deference to the president or to protect troop morale.

“I don’t think I agree with the view that somehow all we have to do is change the news reporting that comes from Iraq and Afghanistan and that’s going to take care of our problems,” Snyder said. “First of all, there ain’t no one in this room going to change the news reporting. These folks are professional journalists. They’re reporting what they think is the news.

“But there’s a deeper issue,” Snyder continued.

An advantage of civilian control of the military, he said, is that the commander in chief and the Congress, not the military, is responsible if force is used in ways not supported by a large segment of society. That division in the nation doesn’t make military service any less noble or honorable, Snyder said, but it shouldn’t be ignored. He hears about it from parents who have children serving in Iraq but who opposed the original decision to invade.

“We need to step forward and recognize that even in this time of disagreement over where our foreign policy is going, it helps all of us to have the military be as strong as it can be,” Snyder said.

Earlier in the hearing, panel chairman Rep. John McHugh, R-N.Y., asked the service personnel chiefs to explain why, through June of this year, the active Army brought in only 86 percent of the recruits it needed, the Army National Guard only 77 percent and the Army Reserve 79 percent.

David Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, cited a growing reluctance among “older advisers” to American youth to encourage military service. He also pointed to a strong economy; the strain of current operations, and a slow response by his department and the Army to a worsening recruiting climate, with recruit bonuses and more recruiters.

The Army’s personnel chief, Lt. Gen. Franklin L. Hagenbeck, pointed to a strong job market and noted that Iraq and Afghanistan had negatively affected youth and influencers. He, too, hit “skewed” news coverage that doesn’t match the perspective of returning soldiers who say “it’s not the same war, in the same place, that I just spent the last 12 months in.”

Vice Adm. Gerald Hoewing, the Navy’s top personnel officer, pressed for a “national communications strategy” to emphasize the “positive things that are taking place around the world.”

If the situation in Iraq is as bad as portrayed in the news media, suggested Lt. Gen. H.P. Osman, Marine Corps deputy commandant for manpower and reserve affairs, his service wouldn’t be meeting its retention goals, especially among returning Marines.

The Air Force personnel chief, Lt. Gen. Roger A. Brady, said “a barrage of negative press” combined with “a reduced ability to have access to young people to tell our story in schools” hurts recruiting, although Brady said the Air Force is hitting its numbers and quality goals.

Chu later corrected the record to say recruiter access to high school students actually has improved significantly over the past four to five years. But the news reporting, Chu agreed, hasn’t been balanced.

McHugh chided the Bush administration for failing to support growing an Army large enough to fight a global war on terrorism. He wielded a long list of pay and bonus increases, and other recruiting initiatives, approved by Congress over the last several years. More are on the way, he said.

The Army, for example, wants authority to create an Army Home Ownership Fund to pay qualified soldiers’ monthly mortgage payments for the length of their first enlistment or up to a set dollar value. It also is testing a “referral bonus” payable to servicemembers who are not recruiters if they persuade a volunteer to enlist in the active Army, Guard or Reserve. The bonus would be payable if the recruit completes skill training.

“I just have to begin to wonder, however,” said McHugh, “at what point can we continue to buy a force.”

To comment, write Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA 20120-1111, e-mail milupdate@aol.com or visitwww.militaryupdate.com

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