Hire a Vet

Civilian control of the military is one of the shining safeguards of American democracy. But prior military service should not be a disqualification for civilians hired by the commander in chief. So it may just be coincidence that President Clinton's picks for secretary of defense (William Cohen), national security adviser (Samuel Berger), and CIA director (Anthony Lake) are all, like Mr. Clinton, nonveterans.

We hadn't known that practically all the men on the White House staff (96 percent) are also nonveterans. And more than 80 percent of the men among the more than 800 Senate-confirmed positions in the Clinton administration.

We know now, thanks to feisty political columnist and TV talker Mark Shields. He often finds something good to say about Democrats, so he could hardly be called partisan when he raised a question about White House hiring: "Have veterans been deliberately not selected because, as some veterans' advocates maintain, they would be 'walking reminders' to so many men in this administration that they themselves had avoided or evaded military service?"

Mr. Shields doesn't answer the question but cites a lawyer who keeps count and who says that, unlike ethnic groups or women, veterans are the one group "consistently underrepresented" in this administration.

Nothing against groups that are represented - but is there something wrong with this veteran-short picture composed by a president who said he wanted his team to reflect the face of America? In the civilian work force 37 percent of men over 35 are veterans.

Veterans get lumped with special-interest groups these days. They have to do bureaucratic battle just to be told the facts of battlefield poisoning. A few wars ago veterans' fellow Americans couldn't do enough for them. As recently as 1970, the Pentagon enlisted businesses "to locate a job for every veteran."

As in the past, many veterans have located jobs in the new Senate and House of Representatives. "It is in the Clinton administration that they are apparently not welcome," says Shields.

Clinton has gone out of his way to show respect for the military he shunned as a young man. It's hard to believe he'd say "no veterans need apply," though there may be a shortage of veterans in his old-boys network.

Still, imagine if Bob Dole, veteran, had won the presidency and were hiring. He'd recall that the "veteran's preference" line on many job applications recognized that lives interrupted by service to one's country could stand help in being put back together.

Many veterans qualify for government health or other benefits. But employment of vets goes beyond any preference to qualifications including what they learned and what qualities they developed through military service.

Maybe, if Clinton looked again, he would find more than a few good men who fill the bill, so to speak, and are veterans too.

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