A battle is shaping up in the House of Representatives over a provision that would immediately discharge from the military anyone infected with the AIDS virus or whose duties are restricted by other medical ailments such as heart disease, cancer, asthma or diabetes.
The requirement, included as an amendment to the annual defense appropriations bill, was introduced by Orange County Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) and approved by the House Armed Services Committee this month in what was described as a hurried vote preceded by little discussion.
If passed by the House and Senate, the provision could lead to the immediate discharge of more than 3,500 members of the military--a small fraction of the nation's 1.7-million force--who are classified as "non-worldwide assignable," meaning their medical conditions restrict where and how they can be deployed.
"How can we afford to retain those who cannot perform all military duties?" said Dornan, a member of the House Armed Services Committee and a staunch conservative. He contended that in these times of military downsizing, every soldier and sailor must be fully useful.
The amendment is a long way from becoming law, and formidable opposition to it is already taking shape.
The Pentagon itself is against it, contending that the number of chronically ill service members with restricted assignments is so small that it poses no threat to military readiness.
Others on record opposing Dornan's plan are the AIDS Action Council, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Heart Assn. and the American Cancer Society.
Rep. Jane Harman (D-Marina del Rey) is prepared to introduce after the Memorial Day recess language that would undercut the Dornan amendment, although it would stop short of killing it outright.
"They may have served ably and may still be fit to serve, and putting them in a desk job where they can use their training seems more appropriate than forcing them out," said Harman, also an Armed Services Committee member.
The current practice of finding appropriate jobs for the military's chronically ill was instituted under President Ronald Reagan, when the advent of acquired immune deficiency syndrome forced the military to forge a policy on what to do with infected service members. It evolved to include other chronically ill members as well, officials said.
Dornan's amendment would require discharge of those service members, unless the condition was sustained in the line of duty or the service member possesses a skill considered of value to the military.
Dornan contends that restricted assignments are unwise in an era of dwindling defense resources in which every member of the ranks should be militarily ready.
Dornan estimates that immediate discharge would save the military about $3.5 million a year in hospital costs. He also said it would relieve healthy service members of the burden of taking assignments that cannot be filled by those with medical ailments.
"By sticking a dirty needle in his arm, he has broken the law," Dornan said, arguing that most service members who have tested positive for the AIDS virus are drug users. "It's unfair to keep a person in who can't go into a combat unit."
Critics said the amendment is an attempt to discriminate against the chronically ill, particularly those infected with the AIDS virus, and note that it was brought by a congressman who for years has been harshly critical of gays. About 40% of service members restricted by medical conditions are HIV-positive.
"It's certainly pure Dornan, someone so obsessed with hatred of gay people he will run roughshod over every principle of fairness . . . even when it means attacking people who are serving their country and who the military itself regards as perfectly fit to serve," said Evan Wolfson, senior staff lawyer at Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a New York-based gay-rights group.
"The general policy set forth in the Americans With Disabilities Act is that people who can do the job should not be penalized. . . . That's a better policy."
Harman expressed surprise that the idea progressed this far, saying the House Armed Services Committee passed it on a harried May 5 vote. Committee members were being summoned to the House floor for roll call votes that day and were distracted when they approved Dornan's plan by a voice vote that Harman, also a committee member, said she believes to have been ill-considered.
"There was very little conversation," Harman said. "I think they did not know what they were voting on."
Harman is preparing to introduce a counter amendment that would undercut Dornan's; the Harman language would give the Pentagon leeway to do what it does now--avoid discharge entirely by concluding that restricted service members pose no threat to the military's ability to carry out its mission.
Some civil rights groups expressed worry that Harman's amendment does not go far enough and say that they would like to see any reference to discharge stricken. But House observers said the odds of killing the language outright are slim.