SALT LAKE CITY — George W. Bush has astonished some of his critics and doubters by taking an eminently sensible, Harvard MBA's look at the nation's military machine.
He wants a clear definition of its strategic objectives. He wants to motivate with higher pay the military men and women who will have to achieve those objectives. He wants to take a very hard look at the cost and effectiveness of the weapons they need to carry out their mission.
Good managers maintain morale by a variety of means. The welfare of our troops would be improved if the Pentagon also took a good hard look at the vice of gambling that it permits and perpetuates on military bases.
About a decade ago, the US Army's Community and Family Support Center toyed with the idea of running an officially approved lottery on US military bases overseas. They gave a $49,000 contract to Market Opinion Research of Detroit to conduct a worldwide sampling of military opinion.
I thought it was a terrible idea, and wrote accordingly in this column. Many of the servicemen being polled were teenagers who may not have had much experience with gambling. There were about 518,000 US servicemen stationed overseas at the time, and if the demographic makeup had been about that of the armed services overall, some 20 percent of them would have been under 21, and another 35 percent would have been between 21 and 25. Why encourage them to participate in a Pentagon-sanctioned lottery when every known news organization from The New York Times to Time magazine was raising questions about the addiction of Americans to gambling?
In the face of inquiries from the press, the Pentagon skittered around in embarrassment and dropped the project.
But today, when the incomes of some young military families are so low that they qualify for food stamps, the armed services are operating thousands of video poker and slot machines on overseas military bases.
The problems this can cause were illustrated in an Associated Press dispatch recently on the travails of Senior Airman Lenyatta Tinnelle. She was based at naval station Keflavik, Iceland, and in the darkness and cold of an Icelandic winter dumped coin after coin into slot machines on the US military base. Some nights she won. But over a year she lost $28,000. "It was like I was in a trance," she told the AP. "I couldn't stop."
Court-martialed for writing dozens of bad checks, she was sentenced to a month of hard labor, two months of restricted activities, and a reduction in rank. She's appealing for leniency to the Defense Department, which runs the slot machines, including video poker machines, at overseas bases and she says she feels the military let her down. She says the Air Force is eager to punish her but slow to help people who become addicted to the gambling it promotes.
According to the Pentagon, the armed forces operate about 8,000 slot machines at 94 bases and other posts overseas. Some 90 percent of the money wagered is returned to players as winnings. But the remainder, about $127 million in 1999, is kept by the military.
According to a Defense Department survey quoted by the AP, 2.2 percent of military personnel have experienced at least three gambling-related problems in their lifetimes, classifying them as "probable pathological gamblers." This is higher that the national average of 1.5 percent for US adults, according to a survey by the National Gambling Impact Study Commission.
John Kindt, a University of Illinois professor and expert on the problem, is quoted as saying the slot and video poker machines that are among those offered at military bases "are known as the crack cocaine of gambling, creating new, addicted gamblers."
Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R) of Maryland has launched a campaign against the machines. He's requiring the Defense Department to come up with a report by March 31 on who uses the machines, how much they gamble, and how many of them have bounced checks or sought counseling because of their losses. "We have no right to put this type of temptation in front of our young people," says Mr. Bartlett.
The pro-Bush magazine Weekly Standard says: "It will be both conservative and compassionate for our new president to wipe out this vice on military bases for good."
It would also be part of the good management approach Mr. Bush is bringing to the military.
John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor, and currently editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society