Struggling to find enough doctors, nurses and linguists for the war effort, the Pentagon will temporarily recruit foreigners who have been living in the United States on student and work visas, or with refugee or political asylum status.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has authorized the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps to recruit certain legal residents whose critical medical and language skills are "vital to the national interest," officials said, using for the first time a law passed three years ago.
Though the military previously has taken recruits with green cards seeking permanent residency, Gates' action enables the services to start a one-year pilot program to find up to 1,000 foreigners who have lived in the states legally for at least two years on certain types of temporary visas.
The new recruits into the armed forces would get accelerated treatment in the process toward becoming U.S. citizens in return for serving in the wartime military in the United States or abroad.
"The services are doing a tremendous job of recruiting quality personnel to meet our various missions," sometimes with bonus pay and tuition for medical school, said Bill Carr, deputy undersecretary of defense for military personnel policy. But they haven't been able to fill their need for 24,000 doctors, dentists and nurses in the Defense Department.
The Pentagon's doctor and nurse corps remain 1,000 short of the numbers needed to treat patients, and Carr said he hoped the program would fill the gaps.
The military's most pressing need is for neurosurgeons and dermatologists to treat troops coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan with brain and burn injuries caused by insurgents' wide use of roadside bombs and suicide bombs.
The force also lacks nurses with a broad range of specialties, Carr said.
It also needs people with special language and cultural skills for a war on terrorism that has taken the armed forces across the globe.
Though the military has been looking for more Arabic speakers and others to help with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the new program looks to recruit speakers of some three dozen languages, including Albanian, Korean, Punjabi, Somali and Turkish.
The effort to find the recruits begins early next year. If there is a need for more recruits in the future, it would take a new authorization, Carr said.
Of the 1,000 new people, at least a third must be medical professionals, Carr said.
"It is exceptional, limited, vital," he said of the effort.
The linguists are to be used in a broad range of military jobs — as infantrymen, seamen and military police. Those with the best language skills would be used in intelligence fields.
The armed forces have used foreigners since the War of 1812 — over the years some 700,000 have served.
Eligible for citizenship
But because of the counterterrorism war begun after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America, President George W. Bush signed an executive order in 2002 making foreigners who join the military eligible to apply immediately for citizenship.
They essentially go to the head of the line among citizenship applicants, having their cases processed in about three years as opposed to the five years it takes others, Carr said.
There are now 29,000 non-citizens in uniform today, Carr said, with about 8,000 more enlisting every year.
He expects that among those who will be interested in the new effort are doctors with work visas who are working at hospitals around the country, a program aimed at tackling shortages among U.S. medical professionals.
The military has never recruited non-green card holders, but a law passed three years ago lets them do so when it is determined to be vital to the national interest.
On Nov. 25, Gates declared that to be the case for the purpose of getting more doctors, nurses and linguists.
Carr stressed that recruits will have to pass the same physical, mental and aptitude tests required of all who join the armed forces.
Health care workers also will have to meet all medical professional criteria to practice, be proficient in English, and agree to enlist either for three years on active duty or six years as reservists.
The linguists/culture experts will have to enlist for four years of active duty service.