"There sure as hell is a draft going on,"
the passenger sitting next to me said grudgingly as the flight attendant handed
him a ginger ale on our way into Los Angeles last week. "I signed up to
be in the Navy, not the damn Army."
It will be his third deployment to Iraq in four years but his first to be
served on shore. Thousands of Navy and Air Force personnel are now serving
nontraditional roles in Iraq – posts they never signed up for. Steven, who
asked that I not use his last name in print, said he's to receive six weeks
of weapons training at a California Army base before being flown over to Iraq
for a year-long deployment.
"We've all heard of the stop-loss policy, there's even a new movie about
it, but few know about what else is happening in our armed forces right now,"
Steven explained. "The backdoor draft is real, for sure, but here we are
being shipped off to Iraq to basically serve in the infantry. It's ridiculous."
The Department of Defense reports that sailors and Air Force members are
carrying out many different missions in Iraq, from traditional duties in the
air and sea to construction jobs, medical operations, civil affairs, customs
inspection, security, and detention operations. Most are promised non-combat
roles in Iraq, but many have found themselves to be in harm's way once they
In 2007 the Navy sent roughly 2,200 "individual augmentees," as
the service calls them, to handle combat-related duties with Marine and Army
units stationed in Iraq. As of early April 2008, 92 Navy and 46 Air Force personnel
had been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, with those numbers sure to rise as
the U.S. troop surge continues into its second year.
On March 31, 400 Navy reservists who had received training at military bases
in Virginia were shipped back to Iraq. "The good news and bad news
about this is that we are out doing things that our people weren't originally
trained for," said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley in
a speech last year.
Such a trend has increased over the past several years. In 2006, for example,
there were 4,000 Air Force members in Iraq, but that number has jumped significantly.
Now the Pentagon reports that over 6,000 are to serve in the country by year's
"Technically, these combat-related assignments do not violate service
members' contracts," said Lawrence Korb, who handled manpower as assistant
secretary of defense during the Reagan administration. "But many … are
not volunteering for these jobs – they're being told to do them."
Military recruitment numbers across the board are dwindling, and as a result
all branches of the service are being overextended to maintain current troop
levels in Iraq. Aside from combat-related roles, however, sailors and Air Force
members have been deployed in order to protect U.S. economic interests in the
region – from oil pipelines to Halliburton's numerous reconstruction projects.
And that's what seems to have sailors like Steven irked at the troop surge
and his new job in Iraq.
"It's a draft, plain and simple. I don't care what they call it," Steven
told me as our plane landed at LAX. "I didn't sign up for the Navy to
be in the Army. But I'm going because I don't feel I have a choice. I have
children to feed and a mortgage to pay."