NEW YORK – Uncle Sam is looking for a few good men and women to serve their country for about 18 months.
The Defense Department is developing a short-term enlistment category in the hopes of luring young men and women who want to serve their country for a limited time — but wind up choosing a desk job instead because they don't want to make a long-term commitment.
But critics say it's just another sales tool aimed at deceiving would-be enlistees to thinking they're getting a deal.
The Pentagon has until March 31 to craft a plan as instructed under the Call to Service Act, which was enacted as part of the fiscal 2003 Defense spending bill.
Enlistees would serve 15 months active duty plus however long it takes to train. After that, they would be required to serve two years in the active reserves, where they can be called to duty. They can then choose six years in a reserve unit for national emergencies, or can enter a one-to-two-year program in a civilian service program such as the AmeriCorps or Peace Corps.
In return for their service, volunteers would be eligible for up to $18,000 in student loan repayments, 12 months of the full Montgomery GI Bill benefits, two-thirds of the MGIB benefits for 36 months — totaling $7,800 to $15,600 annually for three years, or a $5,000 severance bonus.
The traditional military service obligation is eight years. The Army National Guard offers three, four, six or eight years active Guard enlistment options with the balance of the time spent in the Individual Ready Reserves under non-drill status, or Inactive National Guard. The Air National Guard offers two options; six years active Guard and two years in the Individual Ready Reserves, or four and four.
The act also makes sure military service recruiters have the access they need to college campuses to sign up volunteers.
This alternative may appease some who want to bring back the draft, which the Defense Department says will not make a comeback.
The all-volunteer force is "efficient, it's effective; it's given the United States of America, the citizens of this great country, a military that is second to none," Joint Chiefs Chairman Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers said in January.
"The people that are in the armed services today," added Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, "are there because they want to be there and are ready and willing and, without any question, capable of doing whatever the president may ask."
The Center for Civic Enterprise, part of the Democratic Leadership Council's Progressive Policy Institute, released a report this month outlining what the 18-month plan should look like.
"We think we can accomplish the goals that people who support the draft say they want ... in the existing volunteer system," center Director Marc Magee told Foxnews.com. "So, if you can get that done without creating this whole large system of mandatory service, we just see this is as a much smarter way of going forward."
This program is key since political support for the draft appears to be low, said Magee and Steven Nider, PPI's director of foreign and security studies.
The report says the program should target college students to promote short-term military service before they enter into their civilian careers; give enlistees real jobs, training and advancement opportunity; and set ambitious recruiting targets with a first-year goal of 25,000 short-term enlistees and a subsequent expansion to 90,000 short-term recruits per year afterward.
College students are a key pool.
"Eighteen months is much more manageable and they're going to be a lot more receptive to it," said Nider.
"We think that a lot of the sentiment already exists" of people who want to volunteer, Magee said, especially after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but the problem "is that we have a military recruitment policy that's not set up to take in those recruits."
Magee and Nider said President Bush needs to include military service in his call for Americans to serve in community and social service programs like the USA Freedom Corps.
"Overall, I think it's a good option for students and it does provide an opportunity to serve without a multi-year commitment but still have that education benefit," said Pam Boylan, spokeswoman for the Campus Compact, based at Brown University. "I think having the military option as another option makes a lot of sense," she said.
But even Charles Moskos, a Northwestern University military sociologist who has advocated 18-month service for years, isn't completely sold on the idea.
"I think it's going to be very hard to sell because of that open-endedness" of the 15-month plus active duty time, he said.
"The biggest turnoff for the college student to join the military — pre- and post-Sept. 11 — is danger. The second one, though, is the length of enlistment," Moskos said. "A short term of 18 months could appeal to many college students ... coupled with educational benefits."
He noted that volunteers who sign up for a shorter enlistment period have a much lower attrition rate. About 50 percent of those who sign up for three to six years of service drop out.
But critics say people need to read the fine print and realize they're getting the wool pulled over their eyes.
"I would caution anybody from thinking this is actually a shortened enlistment," said Rick Jahnkow, an organizer of the California-based Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft. "It's a ruse — it's an attempt to give recruiters a tool to fool people into thinking their commitment is going to be a shorter time period … it's a fool who's going to fall into that trap."
What's more — although enlistees may only have to take part in 18 to 19 months of active duty, they still have to spend time in the reserves. And at the rate in which the reserves are being drained now, chances are good they will eventually be called up to serve.
"The fact is, reservists are being called up all over the place," Jahnkow said. As of March 5, there were 176,553 Reserve and National Guardsmen on active duty in preparation for a war against Iraq.
"It's more along the lines of a variable rate mortgage — really low at the beginning and then written contractually so that the rate can go higher than the average fixed rate," Jahnkow said.