October 6, 2005: Headlines: Military: Safety and Security of Volunteers: Minneapolis Star Tribune: Military's Peace Corps option is reconsidered

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Military's Peace Corps option is reconsidered

Military's Peace Corps option is reconsidered

Before recruits get a chance to apply for community service, Congress might remove the Peace Corps option. The reason: lingering worries that in an age of terrorism and anti-Americanism abroad, the military and the Peace Corps are a dangerous mix.

Military's Peace Corps option is reconsidered

Military's civic-service option is reconsidered

Kevin Diaz, Star Tribune Washington Bureau Correspondent
October 6, 2005 CORPS1006


WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Under a post-Sept. 11 initiative touted by the military in the past year, recruits can shorten their active-duty terms by volunteering for civilian organizations such as AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps.

"For people on a certain career path, it's not a bad deal," said Army Capt. John Herrman, a St. Paul-area military recruitment commander.

But before recruits get a chance to apply for community service, Congress might remove the Peace Corps option. The reason: lingering worries that in an age of terrorism and anti-Americanism abroad, the military and the Peace Corps are a dangerous mix.

U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., a retired Marine colonel, is spearheading the effort to separate the two forms of national service, with the support of a host of former Peace Corps volunteers.

For its part, the Pentagon has shown signs of ambivalence about the 2003 National Call to Service program, even as recruiters have had to work harder to fill their ranks.

"I'll be frank," said Kline. "My own preference is not to equate this other national service with military service. ... Military service is different from all other forms of volunteerism. In the military, you're not only asked to do something hard, you're ordered to do something hard. And not only are you putting your life and limb in danger, but you might be ordered to kill other people. It's not the same."

Given the choice over the past year, more than 4,300 recruits nationwide have signed up under the National Call to Service program, which was quietly slipped into a 2003 military spending bill that year by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Evan Bayh, D-Ind.

"The tragic events of September 11 have united Americans in their desire to help our nation at war," McCain said of the bipartisan initiative.

Most military recruits sign up for active-duty enlistments of four or more years, depending on the branch of service they pick. That is usually followed by four more years of Reserves or Guard duty, for a total commitment of eight years.

Those who enlist under the National Call to Service program also make an eight-year commitment. But they can serve as little as 15 months in active duty -- on top of basic training -- plus two years in the National Guard or Reserves.

After that, they have a choice of serving their remaining time either in the reserves or in a civilian program such as the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps. Kline's bill would end the Peace Corps option for future military recruits. Those who have already enlisted under the National Call to Service could still apply to the Peace Corps, even if Kline's bill passes.

According to Herrman, the program has served as a recruiting tool to attract idealistic young people who want to serve their country, but don't necessarily see the military as a lifelong career.

Normally, the last four years of a recruit's military commitment are served in the inactive reserves, an on-call status that doesn't require weekend drills or annual training.

For most, that means military life is essentially over -- except for the possibility of being called back to supplement reserve forces being deployed overseas, which affected about 5,000 inactive reservists last year.

New focus on program

Controversy over the past year's call-ups has drawn new attention to the National Call to Service program, which the Pentagon only recently began to expand nationwide.

University of Maryland sociology professor David Segal, an author on the postmodern military, sees two problems with Kline's idea:

"It's an attempt both to make the service component of citizenship less international, and, frankly, to take the position that the military has taken, that they don't want to be part of a system in which military service competes with civilian service."

Rod Powers, a retired Air Force first sergeant and a military author, says that the Pentagon's posture toward the Call to Service program has evolved from indifference to grudging acceptance.

With the Army now at 90 percent of this year's recruiting goals, Powers said, the Army is currently reaching for "anything that makes it sound good to join the Army."

Kline says he has no problem with the Peace Corps, and is happy to see college students -- even ex-military people -- serve their country by doing community service abroad.

"What I don't like is making it the completion of military service," he said.

An organization of former Peace Corps volunteers agrees with him.

"The blurring of the line between the military and the Peace Corps is disturbing," said Kevin Quigley, president of the National Peace Corps Association, which represents Peace Corps alumni.

Increasingly, he said, U.S. officials have begun to worry about Americans abroad as targets of political violence, and any association with the armed forces doesn't help.

"Perceptions can morph into reality, and we all know that there are more risks to Americans [abroad] than there were a few years ago," Quigley said.

About 1,500 Peace Corps volunteers currently serve in predominantly Muslim countries, where the U.S. war in Iraq is most controversial. Peace Corps spokeswoman Barbara Daly.

But whatever changes might come to the National Call to Service, it is unlikely to have much effect on the Peace Corps.

"We're still an independent agency, and our recruitment process is the same," said Peace Corps spokeswoman Barbara Daly, noting that opting for National Call to Service does not guarantee a soldier a place in the Peace Corps. "They still have to go through our rigorous recruitment process. Quite frankly, [the military] is a longer way of getting into the Peace Corps."

Kevin Diaz is at kdiaz@startribune.com.

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Story Source: Minneapolis Star Tribune

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