A Backward Measure

THE $265 billion military spending bill that President Clinton signed over the weekend includes funding for troops in Bosnia, military pay raises, housing, and other worthy programs. It also includes a provision, introduced by Rep. Robert Dornan (R) of California, that is unenlightened and discriminatory.

Under the new law, the Pentagon will be required to fire all military personnel who test positive for the HIV virus. That means the 1,049 service members with the virus will lose their jobs within six months, even if they exhibit no signs of illness. They'll also lose their right to disability and retirement benefits, and, unlike dependents of military personnel dismissed for other illnesses, their families will lose their health care coverage.

Clinton vetoed the first defense bill Congress sent him because he was opposed to the HIV provision, among other things. Most of the other objections were rectified, prompting him to sign this new bill. But he should be held accountable for keeping the promises he's made to see the HIV policy reversed before it takes effect.

The Pentagon insists the present system works well. Under current law, servicemen and women with HIV can remain in the military as long as they can perform their jobs, just like the 4,000 troops with other longstanding but not debilitating illnesses.

For practical reasons, they can't be deployed overseas and are restricted from combat duty. Mr. Dornan and supporters of the provision say nondeployable personnel hinder military readiness - and yet they single out those with HIV. But can such a tiny minority of the military really hinder readiness? The new policy is arbitrary and punitive, and, as Defense Secretary William Perry and Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted, it's unnecessary as a matter of sound military policy.

The Justice Department may challenge the constitutionality of this section of the defense bill, and AIDS advocacy groups say they will pursue class-action suits. A repeal bill in the House has 74 co-sponsors; a Senate version is expected this week.

Before casting their votes, members of Congress ought to look closely at the example of Magic Johnson, whose return to professional basketball is proof that HIV doesn't have to end a career. Each time Magic steps out on the court, he's helping to break down barriers for people with HIV. In the military as in professional sports, it's time to go forward, not back.

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