By Bryan Bender, Globe Staff
WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon announced late this afternoon that it will seek to recruit up to 1,000 foreigners living in the United States on work or student visas in an unprecedented effort to fill critical shortfalls in the military ranks, including medical personnel and foreign language specialists.
The year-long experiment, approved by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, was determined "vital to the national interest" at a time when the military is need of additional doctors and nurses to treat wounded troops and is operating in a variety of countries where it has little cultural understanding.
The US military has long accepted noncitizens who are permanent residents of the United States and hold green cards. The new effort, which has been under consideration for several years, allows the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force to tap into the thousands of foreigners studying in the United States or working here temporarily as legal aliens.
"The bottom line is that the Department of Defense has a critical need for qualified health care professionals and people with language and associated culture capabilities," said Eileen Lainez, a Pentagon spokeswoman. "Legal aliens have enriched our forces by supporting our nation in previous wars, and their unique backgrounds are especially valuable in today's global war on terror."
There are about 29,000 non-citizens serving in the military now. Some national security leaders have been cautious to open up the ranks to more foreigners in recent years fearing what Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, calls a "nativist backlash."
But Boot, who has long advocated recruiting more qualified noncitizens into the military in return for expedited citizenship said yesterday's announcement is "a good start."
"It is a recognition of there are a lot of people who want to serve who could make a significant contribution," Boot said. "We need soldiers who can interact and understand local populations without a translator. I wish the program were larger, but I am glad they are at least opening the door a crack and hope it will open more in the future."
Gates, who President-elect Barack Obama announced this week will stay on as defense secretary indefinitely, is using for the first time a law passed three years ago that outside groups have criticized, saying the Pentagon would essentially be using mercenaries to defend the country, could jeopardize national security, or at the very least reflect badly on Americans' willingness to serve in uniform.
The move, first reported by the Associated Press, also comes at a time when service members are re-enlisting in droves because of the bleak job market and when the military is finally meeting its overall recruiting goals after years of struggling to do so during two wars.
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Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.