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FiveThirtyEight

Politics

Don’t have health care? Or a steady job that provides health care? Then you may view the health care reform’s public option as a very, very attractive idea. But that public option may not come to pass, so to speak.

Of course, some folks can find insurance via another public option: They can join the U.S. armed forces, which people are doing in record numbers lately. Yes, after years of lowering standards in order to reach (and sometimes still miss) recruitment targets, the U.S. government has finally figured out a way to get people to join the military despite two ongoing wars and thus the prospect of possibly serving in harm’s way: Create a national economic crisis unlike anything seen since the Great Depression and at a moment when health care premiums have doubled in the past decade!

Some people are doing the Bill Murray/Ivan Reitman thing under extreme duress, it seems. A 39-year-old Wisconsin husband and father of three recently enlisted not despite the fact that his wife just learned she has cancer, but precisely because she has cancer. He has no other way to insure her.

The quota-making trend has been happening for some time now, with signals of an upsurge evident last year and earlier this year:

Recruiters report that they are seeing older walk-ins as a result of a battered economy. Changes in recruitment rules — the Army, for example, in 2006 raised its enlistment age limit from 35 to 42 — are also behind interest from older candidates.

With conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Army brought in more than 80,000 new recruits in 2008, while the Marines filled 38,000 positions.

It is a “seller’s market,” according to anecdotal reports from Marine recruiters.

Military service is noble. But let’s be clear: It comes with housing, health care and a very generous pension earned after just 20 years of service. And that’s true whether you are on the front line dodging sniper fire and tip-toeing around land mines in Afghanistan every day, or driving a desk at a recruitment center in Albany. Wherever the Wisconsin father ends up, there is something seriously wrong with our system of government when a guy pushing 40 with three kids has to sign up for a four-year enlistment in order to save his wife’s life. At that point ours ceases to be a fully volunteer army.

The military has already lowered or relaxed the grade scores, moral conduct requirements, health standards and drug/alcohol usage rules in order to make quotas. It’s raised the enlistment age and, until recently, used stop-loss policies to keep personnel in service beyond their enlistment commitments. And now, if unwittingly, we have found yet another enticement: The most public of public health options for a citizenry either without a job, health insurance or both.

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