Stepford soldiers?

Call it "Stepford Soldiers" or "Nip and Tuck: Stories of Vanity on the Home Front." In a bizarre attempt to attract recruits, the Pentagon now offers soldiers free cosmetic surgery, from face-lifts and nose jobs to breast enlargements and liposuctions.

This special offer doesn't extend only to those in service. As reported in The New Yorker this week, this deal also applies to immediate family members and retirees. Individuals covered by military healthcare can have as many procedures as they wish, and taxpayers foot the whole deal - from consultation through recuperation. There are some rules for this perk, though. Soldiers need their commanding officer's approval because recovery averages 10 days.

Between 2000 and 2003, Army surgeons performed nearly 500 breast enlargements and more than 1,000 liposuctions on both soldiers and their families, according to Pentagon statistics cited by The New Yorker. So far this year, 60 soldiers or family members opted for breast enlargements while 231 people received liposuctions.

The producers of Fox Network's "The Swan" need not look over their shoulders ... yet. The Department of Defense told the magazine it isn't in the business of extreme makeovers, a comforting notion since they are in the business of - oh right, defense!

True, many recruits sign up for service to receive free education, a steady paycheck, and three squares a day. Many of these volunteers never imagine the day they could be called on to drive a truck across a desert or guard a checkpoint in a lawless city. While the military has long drawn recruits from the lower and middle classes, this new method appalls. To lure recruits with promises of slimmer thighs seems so "Sex in the City" meets "Robocop." Suddenly the slogan "Be all you can be" takes on a whole new meaning.

If all this weren't ridiculous enough, the Army suggests the real reason this program exists isn't for the soldiers and their families, but to train the military's surgeons and healthcare workers.

As any serious cosmetic surgeon will explain, liposuction has nothing to do with the reconstructive surgery necessary to prepare a limb for a prosthetic. Knowing how to enlarge or reduce a breast isn't really going to come in handy when it comes time to heal faces that have been seared by roadside bombs. To date, nearly 5,500 troops have been wounded in Iraq; a tummy tuck won't help one of them.

It would be interesting to hear the Defense Department explain this nifty bonus to those raising money to send used Kevlar vests to loved ones in Iraq, as police officers in Marin County, Calif., did for National Guard troops.

Taxpayer money would better serve reservists who have returned not only missing a limb but also lacking the health benefits their regularly enlisted colleagues get. Taxpayer money would better serve families of National Guard troops who have lost their main source of income because of extended stays in service in Iraq. Taxpayer money would better serve veterans who have seen a decrease in benefits and an increase in homelessness during this administration.

We do no honor to our soldiers with this frivolous benefit - but we do dishonor those who struggle to survive both overseas and long after they have come home.

Cathryn J. Prince covered Switzerland and the UN for the Monitor in the 1990s.

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