Last week the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative unit of Congress, released a report indicating that the Pentagon has been calling up reserve soldiers who are ill or medically unfit to serve. The reservists are serving primarily in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness is responsible for managing medical and physical fitness policy and procedures, the report determined that this office has no way to determine if reserve soldiers are fit to serve or have pre-existing medical conditions prior to deployment.

Consequently, the GAO found that the Pentagon couldn’t confirm to the Secretary of Defense or Congress that reserve forces are medically and physically fit when they are called to active duty. Yet under federal law reserve forces are required to have a medical exam every five years and an annual review of their medical status.

The report also found that the Defense Department has not even determined what type of pre-existing medical conditions would preclude a reservist from being called to duty. Consequently, it doesn’t track the pre-existing conditions of reserve soldiers being deployed. According to the surgeon’s office of the commander of the U.S. Central Command “there were many instances of individuals who deployed into Iraq and Afghanistan with conditions for which they should have been considered non-deployable.”

Given the recruitment shortages that the armed services currently face, it shouldn’t be surprising that reservists in poor health are being called up. When the 2005 fiscal year ended in September the Army was 7,000 recruits short of its annual goal. This was the largest gap in recruitment since 1979 when the draft was abolished. And it was the first recruitment shortage for the Army since 1999. The Army National Guard and the Army Reserve had even greater recruitment shortages this year.

The Army has taken various approaches to its lackluster recruitment efforts. It increased it advertising budget by $130 million for 2006. Over the course of fiscal year 2005 the Army handed out $207 million in bonuses to recruits and those who re-enlisted. This was a sizable increase over 2004, when $125 million was distributed as bonuses. The Army gave a bonus of a least $1,000 to 53 percent of new recruits between October 2004 and June 2005; the average bonus was $5,589.

The Army’s maximum bonus of $20,000 was distributed to six percent of new recruits. And the Pentagon has already made a request to Congress to double the maximum bonus for 2006 to $40,000. The Army is also handing out bonuses of $400 per month for three years for soldiers with much-needed skills, such as infantry.

Last Month, Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey announced that due to the recruitment shortages the Army will now double the number of recruits it accepts who score the lowest on the intelligence test administered to all potential recruits. Secretary Harvey also announced that the Army was decreasing its requirement that the recruiting class each year be comprised of at least 67 percent of applicants who scored in the top half of the intelligence test. The portion has now been lowered to 60 percent.

What has not been known until now is that recruitment shortages have resulted in the Pentagon calling up reservists who are ill or medically unfit. According to the GAO report, this includes reservists who have suffered from heart attacks, those with severe asthma (weather conditions in the desert exacerbates this condition), hernias, severe hypertension, and a woman who was four months into chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer. It also includes reservists suffering from sleep apnea who need medical equipment to help them breath, yet large portions of Iraq and Afghanistan lack the electricity necessary to run the equipment.

Reserve forces that are diabetic and require insulin pumps have been called to active duty. A soldier was called up only two weeks after receiving a kidney transplant. Other reservists have required kidney dialysis. The GAO report also found that reserve soldiers have been called to active duty that suffer from psychiatric problems, including bipolar disorder. By one estimate as much as ten percent of the reservists who have been medically evacuated out of the Middle East was attributable to pre-existing medical conditions that could not be treated properly.

The GAO report ominously concluded, “The impact of those who are not medically and physically fit for duty could be significant for future deployments as the pool of reserve members from which to fill requirements is dwindling and those who have deployed are not in as good health as they were before deployment.” The findings of this report are particularly ironic, considering that one year ago President Bush won re-election in large part because he convinced military families that he would protect the armed forces better than Senator Kerry. Consequently, veterans voted for President Bush by a 16-point margin. Many of them are likely having second thoughts today.