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The Army Builds Character Argument (I have to say, the opportunity to join the army saved my life. And I was a good soldier. But there is a l lot wrong here)

As for character building, the military model is in vogue today, invoked for everything from rehabilitating youthful offenders in boot camps to graduating wayward high school students. In some cities applicants for the police force are allowed to substitute two years of military service for a required 60 college credits. The military also makes a point of grandstanding on morality issues, like the argument that allowing gay soldiers to enlist would be bad for morale, recently defeated legislation that would discharge all soldiers who tested HIV-positive, new legislation intended to ban the sale of pornography anywhere on U.S. military property and disallowing abortions at military hospitals.

But in actuality, the military is an institution beset by a variety of destructive behavior in the enlisted ranks. In interviews with scores of soldiers the predominant theme that emerges is that they feel neglected and betrayed by an institution that hasn't met their expectations and isn't concerned with their welfare. And they've responded in kind. Soldier after soldier tell stories of assaults, sexual violence, gang activity, serious alcohol and drug abuse, suicide, psychiatric problems and racial hostility.

The statistics bear these anecdotes out. The military has a rate of heavy drinking for soldiers 18 to 25 years old twice as high as the civilian rate. A recent survey revealed that 5% of active duty personnel answered "yes" to the question of whether they've been the victim of actual or attempted rape or sexual assault in the last twelve months. In the last year there were 83 reported homicides and reports of gang activity at over 50 stateside bases.

And there have been a steady stream of incidents: soldiers with white supremacist ties are arrested for killing a black couple in North Carolina; a soldier is sentenced to death for opening fire on a formation, killing one and injuring 18, explaining, "I wanted to send a message to the chain of command that had forgotten the welfare of the common soldier"; 10 black soldiers at Fort Bragg beat a white GI into a coma off post near an IHOP; a soldier at Fort Campbell rams his vehicle into a crowd of fighting soldiers and civilians killing two people; two soldiers are shot dead, one injured at Fort Riley Kansas, the second double homicide at the base in less than a year; 14 service members are arrested for smuggling cocaine and heroin; 23 women working at Fort Bliss military post file a class-action complaint charging that they have been harassed to pose nude or perform sexual acts; in Japan a service member is accused of exposing himself to a sixth grade girl; four others are sentenced for raping a 14-year-old girl; another service member is arrested for slashing the throat of a Japanese woman and stealing her purse; two marines are arrested for assaulting and robbing a 56-year-old another Japanese woman; and a 12-year- old girl in Okinawa is raped by three servicemen inciting a protest of more than 50,000 people.

It is overseas, where nearly a quarter-million American troops are stationed - - primarily in Asia - - where some of the most problematic elements of the military manifest themselves. A 1995 study by the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services surveyed male and female soldiers stationed in 18 different installations overseas and found substantial alcohol problems, high levels of physical assaults (men on men), sexual assaults, racial hostility, depression, discipline problems, low morale and on some bases a high number of suicide attempts and soldiers on anti-depressant drugs.

These are young men and women who are shipped to countries they know little about and have little interest in, who are disconnected from their culture and their families and arrive overseas with a misguided sense of superiority because of their role as a protecting force. Yet they find themselves ghettoized in GI camp-towns, on the bottom rung of society economically, denied entrance to clubs, bypassed by taxis, protested against, regarded on the street with wariness or utterly ignored - - second-class citizens in their own country, they're sent overseas to be treated like second-class citizens in other people's countries.

The soldiers - - who feel let down by an institution that hasn't met their expectations and isn't concerned with their welfare, who typically consider the host nation as a GI-want-good-time camp-town writ large that is only interested in milking them for money - - reciprocate. And often behave like the ugly Americans they are perceived as.

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