DEFENDING AMERICA
David H. Hackworth
Feb.27, 1996

THE PURPOSE OF OUR MILITARY IS TO ACCOMPLISH THE MISSION

Earvin "Magic" Johnson can dribble and shoot with the best of them. But recently he made the mistake of stepping off the basketball court he knows so well and jumped on a soap box from which he lectured Congress about something he doesn't know much about - the U.S. military.

Johnson asked Congress to toss out a provision in the defense bill requiring members of the armed forces to be discharged if they have tested HIV-positive.

In a letter to Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich, Magic, who has never worn a soldier suit, wrote, I hope you will do right by those 1,049 service members (who are HIV-positive) and stop ignorance, fear and prejudice from forcing them to 'retire' from the jobs they love and their important service to our country.'

A soldiers who has the AIDS virus is not deployable. Meaning that when his ship, aircraft, tank, rifle squad or support unit ships out to a hot spot, he has to stay behind. This leaves a hole in the unit. Since holes don't squeeze triggers, repair generators, drive trucks or get the fighting job done, they mean failure on the battlefield, and they cost lives.

Except for dying, fighting units are like basketball teams - they need all their players to win. Even a great player like AIDS-infected Magic couldn't get the ball in the hoop without a little help from some of his teammates, as I'm sure he would be the first to admit.

The post-Cold War drawdown has cut almost 700,000 soldiers from our armed forces. There's no buffer left to carry members who can't function on a battlefield because of a disease most didn't contract in the line of duty.

Can you imagine a fire engine zooming to a fire without a full crew? Can you imagine local citizens laying out tax dollars to pay for firefighters who have been confined to the station because of HIV?

Yet Magic and others who don't have a clue about the nature of military operations and war fighting units want America's international fire brigade to do just that.

But the armed forces can no longer afford the luxury of maintaining players on our combat teams who can't leave the bench because of disease or disability in order to play in the lethal game of war.

And war is bloody. When I earned my eight Purple Hearts, I was often patched together by a "doc" drenched in his own blood as well as those of other guys he had fixed up before he got to me.

Dentists and surgeons now dress like spacemen to prevent a speck of HIV-infected blood from hitting them, but combat warriors don't have that kind of protection. And contrary to most current television combat footage, fighting is still not antiseptically clean. Ask any experienced combat medic!

Serving soldiers are checked for HIV, on average, every two years. Units about to deploy overseas are examined shy of their shoving off, if time permits. But sometimes they don't, as when the 82d Airborne was rushed to Saudi Arabia to stop Saddam Hussein.

Fighting alongside a soldier with HIV would be a morale buster. A warrior would have to be thinking, "What if I make it home from this hellhole only to die of AIDS because I got splashed with some bad blood?"

Of all the aspects of war, morale and its spin-off, spirit, are the most crucial. Show me a force without them and I'll show you an army that will be defeated.

The U.S .military represents a dirty, dangerous, 24-hour job opportunity that is not politically correct - it's about readiness and fighting, not delivering mail or collecting taxes.

Discharging the 1,049 HIV-infected soldiers has nothing to do with "ignorance, fear or prejudice," but it does have a lot to do with military necessity.

In fact, besides giving the AIDS carriers their walking papers, the 4,000 serving members who can't fight because of cancer, bad tickers or asthma should also be discharged.

Magic should stick to basketball, and all the bleeding hearts should butt out of the military's business and let it defend America.