"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 arrive.
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 end.
"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.”