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Soldiers Fill the Gap

THE post-cold-war peace dividend lost some of its allure when it became clear that large volumes of money would not immediately be transferred from the Pentagon budget to domestic areas. The cutting and shifting process is long and politically complex, and deficit reduction - reduced spending, not transferred spending - is an unavoidable priority.

But money is not the only component of the "dividend." The talents and resources amassed by the armed services are of great value, and are applicable to domestic needs. Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia proposes a way to use these resources to address community problems - deficient education, lack of job training, inadequate recreational facilities, poor health care - all across the United States. He calls his plan the Civil-Military Cooperative Action Program.

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The idea of armed-service involvement in domestic policy has some strong precedents. The New Deal's Civilian Conservation Corps was run by the military, and the Army Corps of Engineers is intimately concerned with infrastructure needs and, more recently, environmental protection.

Senator Nunn would bring greater coordination and scope to the many community-building efforts already undertaken by the military. A prime example is the Youth Empowerment Support Program at the Selfridge Air National Guard base in Michigan. This program brings youngsters from nearby cities to the base for instruction in science and math. Kids learn about flying, weather forecasting, and other subjects likely to capture their interest. Some of them live at the base for a week during the summer.

In this program, like the others that would be set up around the country, many participants are from poor urban households; many are prospective dropouts.

Nunn outlines projects that could be pursued by the National Guard or other units: rebuilding schools, housing, parks, roads; extension of emergency medical capabilities; distribution of surplus food. As the senator points out, however, the most good would come from the interaction between kids who need guidance and adults who have gained skills, self-discipline, and a sense of direction from military service.

Some may wonder if the Nunn proposal is a poor substitute for better domestic programs aimed at at-risk youth and dilapidated communities. Some in the military may wonder if this plan will detract from their "real" mission.

The Georgia senator, known for his support of a strong military, affirms there is no conflict. In fact, an expanded mission may be just what's needed to ease the transition to a smaller force for thousands of career service people. As for the former concern, he says the people in uniform would step in only where gaps exist in private and public programs and where cooperation with local leaders is assured.

That makes sense. Displacing civilian workers is counterproductive. Nunn's plan is in line with a changing defense agenda and current national needs.

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