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Rumsfeld draftees no value { January 22 2003 }

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Rumsfeld Apologizes for Remarks on Draftees

By Vernon Loeb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 22, 2003; Page A01

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, responding to growing criticism for recent remarks about draftees adding "no value" to the U.S. military, offered a "full apology" yesterday to veterans groups and their supporters in Congress.

"Hundreds of thousands of military draftees served over the years with great distinction and valor -- many being wounded and still others killed," Rumsfeld said in a letter sent last night to the American Legion, Vietnam Veterans of America and other veterans organizations. "The last thing I would want to do would be to disparage the service of those draftees."

Rumsfeld's letter came in response to demands from those groups and lawmakers from both parties angered by the defense secretary's comment two weeks ago in response to a question about legislation calling for reinstituting the draft. In his remarks, Rumsfeld said he opposed the proposal, adding that draftees added "no value, no advantage, really, to the United States armed services over any sustained period of time."

Three leading Democrats who served in Vietnam, Sens. Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.) and John F. Kerry (Mass.) and Rep. Lane Evans (Ill.) said in a letter to Rumsfeld yesterday that "we are shocked, frankly, that you were apparently willing to dismiss the value of the service of millions of Americans." The letter asked that he apologize to them and their families.

The Vietnam Veterans of America, the principal organization representing veterans from the war, also demanded an apology for what it called Rumsfeld's "insulting" remarks. It distributed audio responses from veterans and the mother of one serviceman killed in action to several hundred radio stations across the United States.

The American Legion, in a letter to Rumsfeld posted on its Web site, asked the defense secretary for "a retraction and an apology to the families of those 'draftees' who served America with honor and gave their very lives for their country." And the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, an offshoot group that works to advance peace initiatives, said it found Rumsfeld's "egregious slur a grave insult to the memory, sacrifice and valor of those who lost their lives, and, further, dismissive of the hundreds and thousands of lives, both in the U.S. and in Vietnam, who were devastatingly shattered by the Vietnam War."

The veterans' charges thrust Rumsfeld into a public controversy at a sensitive time, with the U.S. military preparing for a possible invasion of Iraq. Rumsfeld, who has garnered considerable public support for his blunt talk since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, risked alienating a key constituency on the eve of a possible war.

Rumsfeld's remarks came at a Jan. 7 Pentagon news conference at which he was asked about a bill introduced by Reps. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) and John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) that would reinstitute a draft for military or alternative national service for men and women ages 18 to 26.

Rumsfeld dismissed the legislation and said the Bush administration had no intention of reinstituting a draft.

"If you think back to when we had the draft, people were brought in . . . without choices," Rumsfeld said. "Big categories were exempted: people who were in college, people who were teaching, people who were married. . . . And what was left was sucked into the intake, trained for a period of months, and then went out, adding no value, no advantage, really, to the United States armed services over any sustained period of time because the churning that took place, it took an enormous amount of effort in terms of training, and then they were gone."

Rumsfeld's remarks were reported by news organizations without fanfare and initially generated little controversy. The Washington Post carried a five-paragraph report on the comments Jan. 8.

Rangel criticized the remarks three days later, saying they were "offensive and an affront" to draftees. In the days that followed, a few members of Congress and some newspaper columnists also singled out Rumsfeld for criticism as consternation grew among veterans groups.

Victoria Clarke, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, complained in a letter to The Post published Monday that Rumsfeld's remarks had been misconstrued. But her explanation failed to mollify veterans groups.

Rick Weidman, director of government relations for the Vietnam Veterans of America, said he read Clarke's letter and then read the entire transcript of Rumsfeld's remarks. "Doggone it, he did say it," Weidman said. "What it did was rip the scab off wounds that had been there for years -- he's the secretary of defense saying, 'You didn't count, your service had no value whatsoever.' It was just terribly, terribly insensitive."

In their letter to Rumsfeld yesterday, Kerry, a Democratic presidential candidate; Daschle, the Senate minority leader; and Evans, ranking Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said Rumsfeld's claim that draftees were of no value to the military "is not only inaccurate, but also deeply offensive."

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said in an interview that he was "very surprised" by Rumsfeld's comments.

In his letter, Rumsfeld said, "I always have had the highest respect for [draftees'] service and I offer my full apology to any veteran who misinterpreted my remarks when I said them."

He acknowledged that his statement on the draft "was not eloquent." What he meant, Rumsfeld explained, was not that draftees "added no value while they were serving. They added great value. I was commenting on the loss of that value when they left the service."

Rumsfeld said his comments were meant "to reflect a view that I have held for some time: that we should lengthen tours of duty and careers for our all-volunteer forces."

2003 The Washington Post Company

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